Chris and I have been discussing the unique way he sees the world. We’ve talked about actor Mickey Rourke, the Los Angeles Chief of Police and why he would love to photograph actress Jessica Alba, but now I focus on Chris’s creative imagination and the source of his ideas. I wonder why advertising and editorial clients the world over consistently book him.
Advertising work is driven by what the ad agency wants. Their vision sets the direction very clearly. Take his Diesel images, for example. The agency had the ideas and Chris put his own spin on them. He was doing five or six shots a day for the fashion giant, shooting in available light and it was a mad scramble to achieve the right atmosphere. The elephant shot, for example, was taken just before sunset. The team took a lot of time to plan it but only 15 minutes to shoot it. Time was not a luxury they could afford. They took the shots, hoped they had what they wanted and moved on. This might sound risky, but it comes back to the right man for the job.
“The best of my advertising work is what I call good casting. Agencies cast me to shoot their ideas and when it turns out really well it’s because they have chosen the right photographer to match the ideas they had. In this case they wanted things that were kind of weird, playful and awkward. That’s what I do naturally, so the execution ends up looking both comfortable and natural. It doesn’t look like a mismatch of photographer and idea. The Diesel shoot was interesting in that it was very controlled from the agency side, but once we were actually on set it was much more crazy and spontaneous.”
In the case of the mailbox shot Chris had more influence than usual. The reference image and idea had already been done, so he came up with the idea of using a mailbox. He had people holding the model up with apple boxes supporting his weight. He locked the camera in position, shot with him in the picture and then pulled everyone out to shoot the scene again. Then it was just a question of sandwiching the images together.
In all his work Chris strives to make pictures that look a little odd but are also grounded inreality. He doesn’t advocate over-the-top post production. “I have no ethical problem with detailed retouching, it’s just an aesthetic choice. In terms of practicalities it really varies based on the client’s budget for post production. If they have a budget then I’ll use a retouching house, if they don’t then I’ll do the work myself.”
When it comes to shooting editorial work, Chris has more freedom to draw on the ideas he has accumulated over a number of years. “I come up with a bunch of ideas, some of them elaborate, some of them very simple, ranging from using a setting or a prop or costume to certain kinds of facial expressions orgestures. I do have things in mind and I will plan, but I have a lot of stuff that is justthe result of happy accidents on set. The idealis that I am able to choose the environment and the lighting, and then something magical happens in that space. I think the best of my work has that feel of a sense of a moment and not just some pre-constructed thing that the person is slotted into.”
Chris keeps detailed lists of ideas, which is something he learned to do on his first photo series, on rock stars’ footwear. He was meeting famous bands and didn’t know what to do with them so he photographed their feet. “That was the beginning of me writing things down because I realised I am obviously a bit starstruck and I get distracted once I am on set.” At first the list was pretty basic with lots of foreign locations and gestures he could try. Then after a while it became more elaborate.
“Often my best ideas come when I am thinking of ideas for a shoot. The ones I’m unable to use I keep for later and try to use on someone else.”The idea of Billy Bob Thornton urinating on a backdrop originated some years earlier on a shoot with a businessman in Texas. Chris and his subject were outside on a cattle ranch and he thought it would be funny if the businessman did this.
He quickly realised this would not go down well, but made a note of it for the future and used it for his portrait of the Hollywood actor. “I go in prepared for the best and the worst. I bring a real range of ideas knowing that the person in question will be open to crazy ideas, like Billy Bob Thornton peeing on the backdrop. I mean, who actually thought he’d say yes to that?” Usually Chris has someone in mind when he has an idea but it can and often does switch around. A few years ago, he shot US rock band the Strokes in Britain for Q magazine. The band wanted to be shot in a studio, but the magazine were after a New York feel to the shoot. Chris wanted to show them being arrested by New York policemen, against a white backdrop. That vision never materialised so he saved it and shot the idea later on with Star Trek actor William Shatner.
Research is key to Chris’s work. He collects information so he can make spontaneous choices. Armed with prior knowledge, Chris knows whether to pitch his suggestions or hold back because they might cause offence. “If I don’t know a lot about the person I find myself second-guessing my decisions and choices. Say, for example, it’s not a celebrity I am photographing but a regular person. Maybe I don’t even have a manuscript for the shoot yet. I’ve just been told roughly what the story is. In those situations I actually have a harder time knowing what to present and where to push the boundaries because I don’t know what’s going to push their buttons, whereas when it’s a celebrity and everyone can read about them I have a pretty good sense of where they are likely to be game and where they are likely to be conservative.”
Many of the pitches Chris makes are a combination of new ideas conjured up during research and old ones from his trusty list. When Chris shot actor Jim Carrey, his influence for the portrait was Yousuf Karsh, the Armenian-born Canadian photographer, who had done a studio portrait of Soviet leader Khrushchev in 1963 wearing a big fur coat. Chris wanted to do the same, only this time with the coat on fire.
“I gave the magazine six ideas and they sent their favourite three to the publicist. They said no to all of them. Then they sent the second set of three, which were probably the weirder ideas that I liked more and they said yes to them, so it was dumb luck that my favourite ideas were the ones that got approved. One new idea was having Jim sitting and reaching for a dummy. My wife was pregnant at the time and this was on my mind.
Although Jim Carrey’s people turned down the burning fur coat idea, Steve Coogan’s did not and nine years later Chris brought it to life shooting the British comedian for Maxim magazine. “I shoot a lot of comedians because I think my work is perceived as being a little humorous,but I find it odd because I’d rather shoot serious people being odd or being funny rather than funny people being funny which I think is a little obvious. I think any artist is looking to fill the void. When taking portraits, you think about how someone is perceived. You want to do something that is appropriate to them but is a different take.”
At this point it may seem as if more of Chris’s ideas are turned down than accepted, but this is something he believes up-and-coming photographers should know.
“People see articles like this and they see my best work but the fact is a lot of shoots I do are not as successful as I would like them to be or the shots I hope will be totally dynamic don’t really work and I fall back on something tried and true. I think for emerging photographers it’s important to know the people who succeed also fail. The difference between a professional and an amateur is that even when you fail, you find a way to salvage something that is very workable. You may not use your first idea but your second comes through. If the daring shots don’t work then you have the safe back-ups.”
For a shoot with Mickey Rourke, Chris had three hours to get the images he wanted,a long time to have with a celebrity subject. It was taken a number of years ago when the actor was trying to come back and get work. It was one of the first big pieces done on him at the time and he was very cooperative.
“Again I tried to go against the first instinct I had and one of them was not to shoot him with his dog. At the time he was often photographed with his dog Loki, but we were there and the dog was with him all the time. I was setting up to shoot and the dog was in his shirt just poking out and, well, how could I resist, you know?
“If it’s good you go with it. I think there’s aninstinct in young or developing photographers that when they do an edit they choose the picture that was closest to their original vision and I think that’s very dangerous because the photo shoot itself is the next step, but you plan to do it diligently. You shoot with openness and then when you edit it is the final third step that’s separate from the shooting and planning. You must go to the edit with freshness.”
There are some photographers who speak about seeing the moment they want as they are shooting; they just know when they have the shot. This almost never happens to Chris.“I really try to remain open to the editing process because I find things in there that I don’t even remember happening. Things happen very quickly and as a photographer you go on instinct so much that often I get pictures that I don’t even remember choosing to take at that moment, but it’s all mine and I take credit for it.”
Chris will do a broad edit, usually the same day as the shoot, and then maybe a day later he will return to do a tighter edit. He likes to have a little time in between and with editorial work he likes to supply a very tight edit choice. “I have to think that the worst picture I give them is the one they’ll choose. That might sound harsh but it’s so common that it happens that way. It may be because the image I think is the weakest is the one that’s the most common looking and the one I want them to use is the most surprising.”
By common Chris means ordinary. “Flick through any magazine and there will be images of men looking cool, an older person looking interesting or women looking beautiful or sexy. These portrayals are well trodden. In a good magazine you might find two or three pictures that are intriguing or mysterious but 90% of the magazine will be what you expect.
“Obviously I am a man, a straight man andI view women in a way that is sexual to a certain extent because it’s a part of who I am, but the fact is that if you look at my images of women I am not the kind of photographer to do the sexy shot. It’s just not my take. I feelI am of the thinking of Irving Penn. He wasa great fashion photographer but when he photographed women he shot them as people with personalities and character – not as a beauty shot. As much as I like women, that’s in my personal life and not in my work and I want to shoot them as people and characters, but the fact is most magazines don’t want that.”
The majority of Chris’s portraits are of men, but he doesn’t feel he has anymore empathy with men than with women. “If you are seeing fewer women on my website it’s because I don’t have the opportunity to shoot them that much because if a magazine has a photo shoot of say Jessica Alba, they’re not going tocall Chris Buck. I really do think they are wrong because I think she deserves a serious portrait but they don’t want one.”
Turning the obvious on its head was Chris’s approach to photographing actor Johnny Depp.Knowing what a big star he is, Chris didn’t want to go with his first instinct, which was todo a ‘great face’ portrait of him. “He’s so handsome and wonderful and that’s his commodity, but I thought doing something really pulled back would be great as long as it was interesting and innovative in itself.”
This was a very quick shoot and is an interesting example of what to do when you only have a very brief amount of time in a challenging environment. The backdrop to the image is an emergency exit of a big TV sound stage in New York. For Chris it just had this very cool old New York industrial feel to it and, frankly, was the only interesting thing there. “I knew I only had three to five minutes and I couldn’t expect to develop much of a relationship or get much of a reaction from him in that time. So by having a great visual environment hedoesn’t really have to do anything; he can just lie there. He looks great and is very relaxed,but other than that he is just lying there.”
Finding the right environment is key to getting the images Chris wants. However, he doesn’t always choose the location. Often he’ll be told to go to a person’s home or a soundstage, but once he gets there he will find the perfect spot and look everywhere for inspiration.
“The places people think aren’t worth looking at are the ones I want to see. If I go to a set of offices, I want to see the broom closet, the roof, the boiler room. If they’ll show it to me I’ll look at it because it’s the thing they don’t end up showing me that must be the awesome location.” Dreaming the dream is the hardest step, learning how to make it reality is a close second, but who better to bring it all together than Chris Buck?
© Sean Samuels 2016