Deb Henderson of Moodboard and the Factory blog was inspired by a 2008 interview on Rob Haggarts photoeditor Blog and caught up with Chris Buck. A 20 year veteran he was the first recipient of the Arnold Newman portrait price in 2007. He is now based in New York and Los Angeles.
You are hugely successful at getting famous people to try something different and humorous for their portraits. Have you got a favourite story of somebody you thought would be difficult to work with but turned out to be great fun?
It’s far more typical for a subject to be less keen that you expect (or hope) but occasionally a sitter will surprise me and be super open and excited. My favorite story along these lines was when I shot Casey Affleck. Although he was an ambitious young actor, he also genuinely wanted to do creative work, and that extended to his portrait sessions. Luckily I took the shoot seriously enough to do a number of different and odd set-ups but I wasn’t prepared for how far he wanted to go.
By the end of the shoot he was sitting on my bed, with his shirt off, telling me that he wanted us to do some avant-garde shots of him making out with a girl. And he was pretty much open to any girl I could provide on the spot. Boy, was my office manager disappointed that she didn’t come in that day.
I know you’re a big music fan – have you had the chance to meet a lot of your heros/idols? Is there anyone you are still waiting to work with?
Having the chance to do a full sitting with Leonard Cohen was a big treat for me. He’s a national treasure in my homeland of Canada and I listened to him obsessively from my university years onward. I had always been inspired by his life as well as his music so when he invited my assistant and I to stay for a Jewish deli lunch after our shoot it was really a dream come true. He made me a pastrami on rye sandwich, with a side of chopped chicken liver (now a staple for me).
I continue to be a fan of new music, and I’ve had the blessing of having done sessions with many of my favorite artists. But my favorite contemporary artists that I’d like to shoot with would be M.I.A., Tegan & Sara, Art Brut, LCD Soundsystem, Ben Folds and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Of the older, legendary artists I’d love to do proper sittings with Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Burt Bacharach, Chuck Berry, Peter Gabriel, Tom Jones and Madonna.
Your work is full of humour which is very British I think. Do you ever come over this side of the pond for work? What do you think of London?
I’m flattered that you see British humor in photography, as I am a fan of much of your comedy. I grew up watching Monty Python and enjoy recent shows like The Office (sorry, I can’t watch the American version after seeing the English series). What I like most about it is the dryness of the best of it. Growing up in Canada one gets a healthy splash of Britishness and it makes me stand out a little working in the US market. I do shoot for some UK based publications but usually only in the US. I’m a regular contributor to The Guardian’s Weekend Magazine and The Wire. I do enjoy visiting London and touring around (the Freud Museum is fascinating) but what mostly brings it alive for me is visiting with friends there.
You have photographed George W Bush in the past. If you were able to capture him any way you wanted what would be the scenario?
I think that President Bush is a more complicated man than most people take him as. Having met him shortly before he took office I found it frustrating throughout his term that most people misjudged him so far off base. I’m not saying that one has to like him, or his policy decisions, but to dismiss him as a simpleton or a puppet is just not accurate to reality, to my thinking. I got the sense that the President was more emotionally affected by the turmoil of his years in office, and his connections to the events of the time, than he let on publicly.
I am curious as to how it felt to be him as some of the darker times of his presidency. I made a portrait with a President Bush look-alike in 2006 and it showed something of my take on him at the time. It’s part of a series that I shot of celebrity look-alikes called ISN’T, it will be fully released to the public this spring.
What is your most memorable experience from starting out good or bad?
What stands out from my early days is how badly many subjects treated me when I was trying to take their photo – insults and disdain. It may have been because I was young and anxious, or it might have been the large amount of drugs that my sitters were taking.
Can you tell us about your latest assignment?
I recently had the chance to photograph Nigella Lawson for the Guardian Weekend. She’s not as well known here as she is in Britain but my wife works for a restaurant guide so she told me all about her. Having spent a little time with her I can see why people are so fascinated with her – aside from being stunning looking she’s quite thoughtful in her viewpoints .
Having achieved so much in your career – what else would you like to accomplish? What’s next for Chris Buck?
I would like to continue shooting my style but with bigger names. I often find the more obscure people more interesting, but I won’t really be able to get my point of view out there unless I can make portraits of more household names.