Celebrity photographer Chris Buck, who is known for getting subjects to do unexpected things on set, will host a workshop called “The Surprising Portrait” in New York City on November 10-12. “Nothing charms like a surprise, yet in portraiture there seems to be so little of it,” Buck says, explaining that most photographers only “flatter and soothe their sitters.”
His goal for the workshop is to help attendees make more compelling portraits in ordinary shooting situations. One of his lessons will be to “put the things that you hide from others into your portraits, and your pictures will get interesting real fast,” he says. In a phone interview, we asked him to elaborate.
PDN: What do you mean by putting the things that you hide from others in your photographs?
Chris Buck: Much of what has made my work successful is that my portraits are more about me than they are about the subject. I research their basic stories, but what’s driving the narrative is my interests and proclivities. People feel strapped, especially if they’re photographing someone famous: What do I do with this person? What would they be comfortable with? What’s appropriate? Where are they going in their lives? I don’t know that stuff! I can guess and I can read about them, but I know myself, and I know my instincts. So if I make something that feels right to me, then there will be something that will feel bang on and authentic in the photograph. Where that inevitably led, without my even trying, was my putting the weirder, sort of sub-conscious instincts into the photographs: The things that troubled me, the things that were my conflicts, and the things that I hide from others—quite appropriately, like things that are kind of anti-social, or embarrassing. I found myself putting them in as a subconscious part of the narrative.
PDN: How did you discover this approach to portraiture?
C.B.: I think it found it retroactively. I’d do pictures, and they’d be interesting, and I’d be: Whoa, that’s tapping into something I don’t really share with people. A lot of it early on was from my insecurities with my own body. From the mid 90s I was already making pictures of people that were subtly, but definitively, awkward body poses. I don’t consciously sit around thinking: Where are my perversions that I can put into my work? It’s more that when I think about things, I don’t edit myself. When I’m writing my ideas for a shoot, I gleefully let myself go to dark places to see what’s there, because that’s where the good stuff is.
PDN: What are some examples of hidden things you’ve brought into your images?
C.B.: My Donald Trump portrait, where he’s standing next to that multi-paned mirror. When he was elected President, people had interpretations of what that picture meant. But I know when I made it, that picture was about my being conflicted: my aim to be a good father, to be a good, ethical person, at the same time being conflicted by my job [manipulating] celebrities, and doing so quite gleefully. I saw the mirror and it just spoke to me and I didn’t know why. I was letting myself go there and not over-thinking it [by asking]: How does this connect to this photo subject? That Trump picture is a good example of my connecting to something visually that was meaningful to me, and ultimately it make the portrait work as well.
PDN: For your workshop, how will you teach students to recognize the things they’re hiding, and bring those things into their portraits?
C.B.: Part of it is about giving yourself permission to go there. I’m going to invite [participants] to write down some of those things that come to mind for them that they hide from other people. I’m not going to ask them what are their character flaws or predilections because there’s a reason they hide them. But I will ask them to come to me with three specific shot ideas that are inspired by the things they hide from others, that they feel within themselves. It’s about bringing stuff forward consciously, so that when they look around at potential ideas for shots, even if it’s just a pose—it doesn’t necessarily even have to be a prop—that they let themselves make that connection. The reason I’m having them come to me with three ideas is so I can help them vet the idea in a practical way as well: if you need to go to Amazon to buy that prop, we don’t have time for that, so can you find a simpler way of telling that story.
PDN: What hurdles do you expect students to come up against? How do you coax out the stuff they want to hide?
C.B.: The main persuasion is: You want your work to be more interesting to people? Then you need to dig deep and you need to go there, and you need to be open to this. If you’re too afraid to do that, then you probably shouldn’t be in this workshop. I’ve always framed this workshop as about being bold and making great work for yourself. This is not like a lighting workshop.
PDN: Have you done this exercise in previous workshops?
C.B.: I’ve done exercises like it.
PDN: What are examples of things students have done with similar exercises?
C.B.: In the past I’ve asked students to think about where they find challenges in their life. One student expressed a concern that she was being overshadowed by her romantic partner, who was also a photographer. I encouraged her to do an assignment to tap into that. She got very upset and said she could not do that. She ended up sleeping on it, and designing a series of self-portraits—very exploratory, discrete nudes—kind of mapping out [her] going from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. It became this whole transformation for her: the turning point of her art and her work. The workshop gave her the prompting and permission [and] made her realize there were things in her life that were holding her back.
More information about “The Surprising Portrait” workshop is available on Buck’s website.
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