PhotoPlus Seminar: Chris Buck on Launching, and Sustaining, Your Career

"Tiffany Claus Isn't Angelina Jolie," from Buck's series on celebrity lookalikes. © Chris Buck

There’s a consistent vision to Chris Buck’s photos, from his earliest portraits of musicians to his recent commercial and editorial work, including his cover photo of Michelle Bachmann for Newsweek. That’s because throughout his career, he’s taken photos for himself, Buck explained in his PhotoPlus Expo seminar, “Buck Naked: The Secrets Behind the Master Portrait Photographer Chris Buck.” The importance of staying true to your vision was a theme that ran throughout the seminar, as Buck offered practical advice for both photographers beginning their careers and established photographers who are interested in landing new clients.

As a pop-culture obsessed teen in Toronto, Buck began taking portraits of local musicians and building his portfolio before he graduated from university.  On a trip to New York to visit magazines he admired, he recalled, “I was kind of floored that people were warm and friendly.” After graduation, while his friends moved into downtown apartments, he lived with his parents to save money, took a job as a photo editor, and developed his photography skills before moving to New York in 1990. His early jobs shooting for the Village Voice, Guitar World and other publications were “just front of the book, very unglamorous assignments but what was important to me was that I could shoot the way I had wanted.” Having saved money for his move to New York, he says, “At the beginning I wasn’t thinking about having to make a profit. I was thinking about my vision.”

Never having assisted, Buck admits it took him years to learn lighting; “It was very trial and error.” At the advice of his former photo teacher, he kept a diary in which he would take notes about every shoot so he could learn from his mistakes. Over the years he moved from shooting 35mm, to a Hasselblad, to a Mamiya RZ 67.

After he signed with his first rep, Julian Richards, he sent out a color Xerox promo in 1992 made from his images of actors Marisa Tomei, Stephen Rea and others nominated for Academy Awards that year. Based on the Xeroxes, Fortune assigned him to shoot business executives. “I went from being in the red to being in the black,” Buck says and, thanks to Fortune’s expense account, “I got a taste for eating steak.”

Turning 30 marked an artistic and personal milestone for Buck. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, went home to Canada for treatment and, he says, “I realized I was never going to be Irving Penn. I realized I’d never be a master.” It was “a difficult realization I had to deal with in order to move forward.” Ironically, that realization inspired him to stop looking at the work of his heroes and contemplate what was distinctive in his own work.

In photographing celebrities, Buck would first shoot what the client wanted and then, whenever possible, take a few minutes to shoot “for me.”  He said, “I needed to keep some connection to why I was shooting in the first place.” He said he didn’t want to become like a band that makes one crossover hit, or a respected photographer who goes commercial, “and then ten years later…their work has become totally boring.”

Buck showed his photo of comedian Chris Farley clowning on white seamless –an image his client had asked for. Then he showed his series of window lit shots of Farley brooding in a dark hallway, a tiny figure within the frame. Buck said he had sometimes questioned how much he pushed his subjects to get what he wanted. After Farley’s death, when the torments of the comedian’s final years were revealed, Buck went back to the contact sheets from this session and realized, “Everyone has their dark side, and I shouldn’t be afraid to bring that out in portraits.”

In the late 90s, Buck decided that to get commercial assignments, he would need to show clients he could shoot real people. He began shooting personal work of family members and taking editorial assignments that allowed him to photograph unknowns. That led to work for HP and other ad jobs.  He launched a similar self-promotion effort in the “mid aughts,” he said. He did a series of people –including his father and his photo assistant—kneeling on all fours. He also photographed celebrity look-alikes and people named Chris Buck. His series called “Presence,” in which famous people like Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman and Robert De Niro are present within the frame but hidden from view, became a long-term project and will be published as a book next year. “Even with an established career I think it’s important to think about what is going on in the marketplace and be open to new ideas and new technologies,” said Buck, who is now repped by Marge Casey and Associates.

Buck’s most famous photo may be his recent Newsweek cover of Michelle Bachmann. In the media storm that the image inspired, Buck said, he “let Newsweek carry the narrative,” which lead to the “odd experience” of seeing Newsweek editor Tina Brown on television “explaining what my intentions were,” then hearing the interviewer say, “I wouldn’t let Chris Buck take my photo.”

Buck remains reticent about the photo. However, during the Q&A, an audience member asked if Bachmann’s handlers had asked for image approval before the shoot. Buck said he didn’t know, but he has rarely photographed anyone who insisted on approving the image selection, and Bachmann’s camp were told that if they went on the record asking for it, it could make them look like they were manipulating the media.

When asked how many photos he delivers to a magazine, Buck says he began doing tighter edits after he heard a rumor that photographer Dan Winters only turns in one photo from his shoots. (He found out the rumor is largely true after he invited Winters to lunch.) Now when he edits a shoot, Buck strives as always to remain true to his vision and the inspiration behind his picture taking. Once he’s pared his edit down to about 12 photos, he said, he always asks himself: “If they run the most boring of these photos, can I live with that?”

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