Friday, March 17, 2017

Chris Buck: Uneasy

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2016

MY FRIEND CHRIS HAS PUBLISHED A COLLECTION OF HIS PORTRAITS. Uneasy: Portraits 1986-2016 is, as the title states, thirty years of his best portrait work. It came out last month, is huge and very expensive to ship, and might be one of my favorite photo books ever.

Twenty-seven years ago, when he was about to move to New York City from Toronto, I sat down with Chris in the basement of his parents' house in Etobicoke and interviewed him about his career so far, and what he wanted to accomplish with this very big, risky move. Part of that interview has been excerpted on the dust jacket of Uneasy.

A year and a half ago, when he was still working on the book, I sat down with him again for another interview and photo session. Here are the best bits from over an hour of talking about portraits, careers, family, digital photography, money and strippers.

Chris Buck, Etobicoke, 1990

ME: So, looking back, was moving to New York a good decision?

CHRIS: It was probably the most important one I ever made. The most important thing is that it took me out of the environment where I grew up. Being here in Toronto now is very pleasant and very livable but for whatever reason, whatever childhood trauma, leaving was very liberating. Getting away from my peers, my family, as much as I love them, was good for me psychologically. 

It's not that I remade myself in New York. It's that in Toronto, people perceived me the way I was when I was 12 or 14. In New York I could be me at 26, a grownup, having my wits about me and some sense of confidence, a man and not a boy. All these things I didn't feel when I was in Toronto, whether it was the local music scene or my peers from high school or middle school. I would recommend it.

For work opportunities it was the big pond - still is the big pond in most ways. That afforded me opportunities and access that I wouldn't have had here. For one, access to top cultural and entertainment figures for subjects. The magazines - I wanted to work for magazines at the time - that was where all the magazines were. But most importantly in New York I was among the best of the best. It put me in that environment where I had to rise to compete. That was challenging but was really good for me.

George W. Bush by Chris Buck, 1999

ME: You've shot three presidents. (Four, by the time Uneasy finally came out.) Did that help make your reputation as a portrait photographer?

CHRIS: I photographed W first, then his father ten years later, then I did my shot with Obama three years after that, and the shoot with Obama was the turning point in the way you're talking about. W was not president when I shot him, and he was so hated by everyone who mattered in my business that putting him in my portfolio was actually a negative. George HW Bush has become more respected in recent years, and certainly sitting with a sitting president who was as iconic as Obama...Getting him in a way made the other two significant. 

Now I've shot three presidents. With Obama it wasn't just doing a sitting with him as doing a portrait that looked like my work. I was kind of walking on air for six months. The shoot itself was pretty amazing and I'm proud of myself for the way I handled it in, like, four minutes. In many ways it felt like, in the 25 years I was working up till that point, everything I learned was used in that shoot.

Newsweek, portrait of Michele Bachmann by Chris Buck, 2011

ME: I think your portrait of Michele Bachmann was a real game changer for you. It was identifiably your portrait and it became a news story and a social media phenomenon. How much did it affect your career?

CHRIS: Only in retrospect, years later, did that became an iconic cover, and because of that I got seen as a great cover photographer. Six months later I started getting covers. The person on that cover was an A-list person. What had happened to me in the past was I'd be shooting the inside story people, not the A-list people. So what's ended up happening in the last five years ago is that half of the celebrities I shoot are household names - my last shoot was Trump. I did Yo-Yo Ma, Kendrick Lamar. 

I was either shooting people on their way up or their way down. Now I'm shooting people at their peak. One of my wishes was - I said this in an interview I did six or seven years ago - that I wanted to make Chris Buck portraits with A-list people. I don't always achieve it, but I do often enough to make it worthwhile.

The funny thing about that picture that you'll appreciate - a lot of people were criticizing and commenting on the picture, because some people were criticizing me, and others were defending me by saying that I didn't choose the picture, the magazine did. But of course you look at it and say "That's a Chris Buck picture." And the funny thing is that I've handed in a lot of pictures like that over the years - they just don't run!

Nick Offerman by Chris Buck, 2013

ME: Back when we were starting out we used to make fun of the high concept shoots that were done by people like Annie Liebovitz, but I noticed that after you moved to New York your own work started to take on a conceptual edge that I guess it didn't have when we were both poor and inexperienced and just trying to get a good shot. How did that happen?

CHRIS: You're right. There are certain pictures of mine that make me think 'this looks like Annie Liebovitz.' And I think it goes back to our criticism of Liebovitz, which was a kind of literalism. My conceptual pictures, when they were effective, do not have that. They're hinting at something, or they're creating a mood, or there's a prop that's suggesting something contextually. It's not this thing where Bette Midler is lying in a bed of roses, or the Blues Brothers with blue paint on their faces. I think her stuff got better later on, but there is an aspect of a literal narrative, and the complete story is there. I try not to do that. I try to have it more open ended or suggestive. Ideally I like to have some aspect of ambiguity or mystery to it. 

But part of that is the marketplace. I remember doing a meeting at Esquire, and the art director saying to me "We want our own David LaChappelle and maybe you're it. Do you think you can be that guy?" And I don't know what I said, maybe I tried to change the subject, but I didn't say no. I wanted an opportunity, but I wasn't going to embrace something I didn't want to be. LaChappelle to me was the wrong direction for portraiture, all about the show, very garish, bright colours. 

I think that having photo editors wanting to go in that direction - there was something we discussed at the time, but in terms of how I would shoot and edit, and how my editors would choose different images than me, had to do with, we were thinking about what would look good in a photo book, what would look good on your wall. Versus their "what will look good after you turn the page in your magazine." And I think that the LaChappelle images jump off the page. They're dynamic, and people get them. There's a lot of people who are obsessed with platforms like Instagram eroding the value of our profession as photographers, but people like LaChappelle show that that really can't happen

Yes, some Instagram photographers will become more serious photographers because that will be their entryway, but most won't, because they won't set up scenarios, they won't learn lighting. Lighting takes time even if you have a knack for it. I prefer the more simple portraits, even the kind of portraits that I don't do particularly well, like Wolfgang Tillmans' portraits, or Catherine Opie's portraits, that are often just a simple shot of a person in a space by a wall where there's nothing happening, but you know as a photographer that they shot a ton to get to that photo; it feels psychological but there's nothing you can pinpoint that's actually happening. I've done those pictures, but they're very difficult to do.

Robert De Niro, from the Presence series, by Chris Buck

ME: Your Presence series, which you collected in a book, was really important to me because it seemed like a reaction to the way we once used to obsess about getting access to celebrity subjects, and how frustrating it was to deal with managers and handlers and publicists. You were getting that access and then taking pictures where the celebrity was in the shot, but not visible.

CHRIS: It's saying, right, you know what? Fuck you! You're not going to be visible. But it's also, and that's where the title comes from, you've got Robert DeNiro. All you need is the name. You don't need to show him. That picture is instilled with Robert DeNironess, because his name is next to it and there's proof he's there. Their essence makes the picture cool, and that is celebrity portraiture, right? This is a picture of David Lynch. Cool. A lot of my friends who knew my work were like, "this is the ultimate Chris Buck portrait." It's dry, it's witty, it's a celebrity, but you've filtered out the noise; their face is not necessary. Their name and your name is enough.

I'm not a conceptual fine artist. I find work like that, when it's funny and it's inviting, I like conceptual work that is high concept like that. In the way that John Cage's work is - there's a playfulness to what he does.

ME: It's sort of like that book was your 4'33".

CHRIS: Exactly. But I needed to put them in the picture to ground it, which I know is strange. Putting them in there and then showing proof was a way of saying this isn't just a concept, this is actually a thing. This is real.

Billy Joel by Chris Buck, 2001

ME: What's the default you go to when you get a portrait assignment? What would you do, knowing that you'd deliver something, no matter what? What's the common thread linking all your photos?

CHRIS: Usually there's some kind of prop, there's some vague sense of awkwardness and an off moment. I wouldn't say it's an in-between moment. It's a real moment, but it's a kind of awkward moment - that's where I go. And it usually involves interacting with a physical space or an object. I use that to get people to come along on this ride with me, to get into the role. It gives them something to bounce off. It helps them move from "Oh, I'm having my picture taken."

A lot of getting that unusual picture is kind of believing in it and wanting it, and being ready, suspending disbelief for yourself first. Of course, more than half the time they'll say no, but if you try all the time you'll get those pictures.

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2016

ME: What's next for you? After the book, what are you really excited about doing next?

CHRIS: You always feel like, as much as you're proud of things you've done as you get older - and you forget how you failed - you have to feel like what you could do next is going to be the best thing that you do. What makes me excited about the Gentlemen's Club series (a series of portraits of the husbands and boyfriends of strippers) is that it's such a good idea. When I was first talking about it, people were really confused by it: Stripper's boyfriends? Why stripper's boyfriends. But then I asked them if they wanted to see some of them, and they said yeah - who are these guys? I wanna see! 

There's so many things about them that are interesting, but the more I'm doing it the more I'm seeing the self-portrait aspect, seeing how much I'm connecting to them that I didn't really know initially. And how much I'm liking them. And how much they're self-portraits again. I was thinking the other day - "Fuck! Self portraits again!"

ME: Why is that a problem?

CHRIS: I was curious about someone I don't know that's two steps removed from a world I might be in. I might go to a strip club and watch a girl dance, but I'm not going to be friends or be social with this dancer. I'll have a professional interaction but I'm not going to go past that. Secondly, their romantic partner, I'm not going to have a connection with them. I'm getting close to what I want (with the series) but I'm not there yet. If I can make my best portraits ever with this series, then this could be the most important work I do. They're not celebrities. I realized when I was doing the (Hewlett Packard ad) series, if you can do a strong image that's not a celebrity, it has more power than a great picture of a celebrity.

If you can make a picture that has universal appeal that doesn't rely on that, you're moving into the area of a W. Eugene Smith. Something iconic. This is a photograph for the ages. This is a photograph that will be powerful. And if I can make a picture of this guy and not tell you what the context is, and you say "This is a weird picture. This is cool. Who is this guy?" If I can do that, I've hit the mark.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Tori Amos

Tori Amos, Toronto, January 1995

BY THE MID-NINETIES I OCCASIONALLY HAD THE NEED OF AN ASSISTANT. It felt a bit decadent, after years of being a one man band, to hire someone to lug my gear, load my film backs and drive me to shoots, but it was necessary, and actually something you could invoice for in expenses. I went through a few assistants before I ended up meeting Rod Orchard.

It wasn't the first time I'd encountered Rod, though. You'll glimpse him in one of my shots of the crowd at a Corrosion of Conformity show in 1986, looking over his camera while he shoots the band. My friend Chris gave me his name when I was looking for someone to help me, and Rod ended up being my regular assistant for most of the '90s - at jobs like this one, shooting Tori Amos for the cover of NOW magazine.

Tori Amos, Toronto, January 1995

It looks like a studio shot, but it isn't. I can't remember the precise location, but it was a big enough space for Rod and I to set up almost the whole of my studio lighting gear, right down to my posing stool, in front of a big rented muslin backdrop. Amos was between her second and third record at the time, and a big enough artist that her record company handlers had a list of rules for me ahead of the shoot, most of which I've forgotten.

Tori Amos, Toronto, January 1995

Shooting Tori Amos in 1995 meant walking a fine line between what a photographer might have wanted to get and the limits of what she was prepared to do in front of a camera. I do remember that loading in and setting up took far longer than the shoot itself. I know that I'd been warned against trying to get anything that resembled cheesecake; thankfully that's never been much like anything I've ever done. I shot two rolls of cross-processed colour and two of black and white, and at the time I remember liking the shot at the bottom for the way it referred to Amos' sidesaddle straddle of her piano bench in concert.

I ended up staying friends with Rod long after I no longer had the need - or the budget - for an assistant, and he even ended up shooting my wedding. He's working on a book collecting his hardcore and metal concert and portrait photography - you might want to check it out and throw a few bucks at him.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Jewel Kilcher

Jewel Kilcher, Parkdale, March 1995

BY THE MID-'90S I WAS OBSESSED WITH STUDIO PHOTOGRAPHY. It might have been a combination of aesthetic preference and raging misanthropy, but I much preferred my subjects came to me instead of dealing with the compromises of a location shoot. My studio was in Parkdale, relatively close to the downtown, and my editor at NOW was far more enthusiastic about seeing studio work than she'd been when I'd started there six years previous, so I ended up doing a lot of my shooting at home. I miss it.

One day I got a call from Tim Perlich, one of the editors of the music section at the paper, telling me he was sending a singer over to my studio for a possible cover shoot. She was a young woman from Alaska, he said, who'd lived in her car while doing the coffee house circuit on the west coast. She was pretty, and the record company was pretty solidly behind her, having quietly done artist development for her for a couple of years. She'd just released her first record, he said, which she'd recorded at Neil Young's ranch with the Stray Gators, his backup band.

Jewel Kilcher, Parkdale, March 1995

Oh, and another thing. "She's really flaky," he warned me, and hinted that this apparently spacey demeanor might be a bit of an act. "Just so you know, " Tim said.

Jewel Kilcher showed up at my studio with a record company PR handler, but I don't remember if they had a makeup person in tow. Shooting on short notice, I'd decided on a very simple set-up - my biggest soft box positioned on a boom stand just above her, like a big skylight. I put her in front of a rented backdrop - a big roll of painted canvas - that I happened to have in the studio that day.

Jewel Kilcher, Parkdale, March 1995

She was pretty much as Tim had described her - sweet and at pains to seem like she was a bit amazed at all the fuss being made over her, but hardly out of control of the situation and obviously very aware of how she was presenting herself. I did two rolls of cross-processed slide film for the cover, and then moved the soft box over slightly to the side.

I looked around the studio and saw my guitar - an old, no-name archtop that I'd bought from a pawn shop as a teenager and had recently had repaired. It wasn't the best sounding instrument in the world, but it looked fantastic in photos, so I picked it up, strummed it once to make sure it was roughly in tune, and handed it to Jewel.

I won't pretend that I was ever a Jewel fan, but she's had a career of remarkable longevity, moving from the pop to the country charts not long after her first album, and appearing as a judge on TV singing competitions. She's also been in a few movies, playing June Carter Cash in a Lifetime biopic and starring alongside Tobey Maguire in one of my favorite Ang Lee films.

Jewel Kilcher has certainly upgraded her look since my shoot with her over twenty years ago, cultivating a far more glamourous image. These shots are a good example of what I'd do in the studio with a little preparation and not a lot of planning - a bit of Penn, a bit more colour experimentation, and no big concept or goal except a simple portrait. Not stellar work; more like shooting on cruise control.


 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Marcel Ophuls

Marcel Ophuls, Toronto, Nov. 1995

I WAS NEVER A VERY GOOD STUDENT. It wasn't that I didn't want to be one, but by the time I dropped out of college in the mid-'80s it was obvious to me that I lacked the patience and discipline for classroom instruction. A decade later, though, I was painfully aware of the shortcomings in my education, and in the absence of a thriving social life, I spent most of my nights and spare hours at home reading, trying to make up for what felt like glaring gaps in my understanding of history, politics, economics, science and philosophy.

What there was of my social life was usually spent in movie theatres - mostly rep cinemas and places like the Cinematheque, where the film festival's programmers ran screenings and retrospectives out of the Jackman Theatre at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I remember weeks of screenings devoted to Eric Rohmer and Powell and Pressburger movies, and one day I was called by my editor at NOW and assigned to shoot the subject of a future retrospective - director Marcel Ophuls.

Marcel Ophuls, Toronto, Nov. 1995

I knew Ophuls for The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, two major documentaries about the Holocaust, war crimes and collaboration. Both films were in the retrospective, along with other films such as his latest project, a still-in-progress documentary about war reporters and the ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia, into which Ophuls had provocatively cut in scenes from old Hollywood comedies and musicals. He'd particularly outraged and baffled some of his audience and critics with a scene shot in Venice, on a break from filming in Sarajevo, where a very attractive and naked call girl lolled around on a bed behind Ophuls, looking very pasha-like in a dressing gown and fedora while he speculated on the morality of war reporters.

Early on in the film, he frames the story by recalling his father, director Max Ophuls, working on his film From Mayerling to Sarajevo. Shot in France at the beginning of World War Two, it recalled the events that started the First World War in Yugoslavia in a historical love story about the romance between the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Ophuls' father, who had already fled from the Nazis in Germany, was forced to go into exile again when France was invaded shortly after filming finished, this time taking his family with him to Hollywood, where the young Ophuls would attend Hollywood High School and Berkeley.

Marcel Ophuls, Toronto, Nov. 1995

I found Ophuls fascinating, and shot him to look as sagely as possible as he reclined heavily into his chair. I found my clean white wall in the room where we were shooting, and managed to make the shots look like high key studio portraits, and Ophuls like the smartest man in the room, appraising the camera - and his audience, by implication - skeptically. I'd end up attending every night of his retrospective afterwards; I had a lot more patience for long, slow-moving documentaries back then, and was particularly impressed by Ophuls' insistence on avoiding clear cut moral judgments, and spreading the guilt and culpability around. It felt very wise and sophisticated.

As I've gotten older, however, I've come to realize that there are still moral absolutes, and that a refusal to take sides is often less than sophisticated detachment and more like a game meant to cover dignify sophistry or even mere cowardice. A new film, which Ophuls began crowd-funding in 2014, is apparently sympathetic to the Palestinian leadership and entertains the idea that Muslims are, post-9/11, the new Jews, and sounds less like one of Ophuls' provocations than an embrace of a liberal piety. I'm glad he's still trying to work at a time when documentaries like his are even harder to make than they were when he began, but can't help but contemplate his latest film with dismay.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Paul Bartel

Paul Bartel, Toronto, Feb. 1995

THE FIRST THING I DID WHEN SETTING UP FOR A SHOOT WAS LOOK FOR A WHITE WALL. What I'm really saying is that, wherever I was, I probably wished I was in my studio, but since that wasn't going to happen, I looked for the next best thing. It took a few years, but I was eventually able to find exactly the right spot where a Metz flash bounced into an umbrella would light the subject and the wall behind them without any shadows, making it seem - with the aid of some careful dodging and contrast filters in the darkroom - like I had a backlight, a roll of white seamless, and a softbox.

I remember the mid-'90s as a pretty great time to be shooting. I was working pretty regularly and even though the jobs weren't paying top dollar I had a studio with cheap rent and Scottish budgeting that kept my overhead low. My main concern was refining what I did toward something like a style and building a reputation for my portraiture. And thanks to NOW magazine I had a regular supply of subjects - people like Paul Bartel, for instance.

Paul Bartel, Toronto, Feb. 1995

Bartel was probably the major link between Andy Warhol, John Waters and Roger Corman, and his career as a director was almost overshadowed by his repertory of cameos and small parts in a wild array of movies, from Piranha, Frankenweenie and Amazon Women on the Moon to Heart Like A Wheel, European Vacation, Basquiat and Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird. The man was the roving ambassador for knowingly trashy cinema, and probably had as many friends in Hollywood as Jack Nicholson.

I'd seen Death Race 2000 on late night TV long before I paid attention to directors, so my real introduction to Bartel was in college, when I went to see Eating Raoul with my friend (and prom date) Carolyn Hart. Like everything I experienced in college, I mulled it over for weeks trying to divine just what about this comedy about lust, food, murder and cannibalism was supposed to prepare me for life as an adult.

Paul Bartel, Toronto, Feb. 1995

I'm not precisely sure what brought Paul Bartel to Toronto in the winter of 1995. His last movie as a director, Shelf Life, came out two years earlier, and his IMDB page lists just three screen credits for that year - a typically unlikely trio of small roles in The Usual Suspects, The Jerky Boys and (wow) Naomi & Winona: Love Can Build A Bridge. I don't remember if he was in town for a retrospective of his work, and I know that he never directed another film again.

Bartel mugged ferociously for my camera for all of the two rolls of black and white film I shot with my Rolleflex. He seemed like a man who didn't take himself very seriously - or at least he was at pains to make sure he presented himself as such.

Paul Bartel died of a heart attack in New York City on May 13, 2000.