Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

THE AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER DUANE MICHALS HAD A LINE that my friend Chris and I used to quote at each other all the time: "There is no such thing as a bad celebrity portrait." In the same introduction for the book of portraits where he wrote this, he explained further:
When someone says, "What a beautiful photograph!" upon viewing a portrait of a handsome man, what they are really saying is "What a handsome man!" Most often, it is an ordinary photograph of a beautiful person. If the same photograph were of an ugly person, would it then be an ugly photograph?
This came to mind when I started scanning these portraits of British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, shot at the film festival when she was promoting The English Patient, and the role that would be her breakthrough. Perhaps they're good portraits; I like to think they are, but to be honest their quality as portraits is hard to judge when the subject is so obviously beautiful.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I remember wearing a suit when I did this portrait; it was when I had my own tailor and shirtmaker, and took to dressing formally as a kind of personal armour, and as a way of making portrait shoots a bit more formal, with myself as a kind of consultant, providing expert professional services. I still think it was a sensible way of going about this sort of work; I'd do it today if I could afford to again.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Kristin Scott Thomas was lovely and elegant and took my minimal direction with only the slightest hint of discomfort. I remember her complaining mildly to her publicist about the limousine the festival was sending around to drive her from her hotel to the theatre, which was only a block or two away. "I live in Paris - I'm used to walking everywhere!" she said. I said that I was sure that the festival was only being solicitous, and in any case it was part of the whole ritual of a film premiere.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I shot this without extra lighting - just my Rolleis on a tripod, the way I worked at what I know now was the pinnacle of my career. I could judge a hotel room for the sweet spot of light, I could print around any problems, and I had just enough time for a couple of set-ups back when fifteen minutes really meant fifteen minutes. I have always been pleased with the results but, once again, I can't take as much credit as I'd like since my subject clearly did so much of the work for me.

I suppose this was also the pinnacle of Kristin Scott Thomas' career as well; after an unpromising start as the love interest in Prince's worst film, she became a star with The English Patient, then discovered she didn't like working in the Hollywood system. She began splitting her time between theatre and film, turning up for what she described as small parts in big English films and bigger parts in smaller French films. Three years ago she told the Guardian:
"So they give me a little role in something where they know I'm going to be able to turn up, know what to do, cry in the right place. I shouldn't bite the hand that feeds, but I keep doing these things for other people, and last year I just decided life's too short. I don't want to do it any more."
The interview was for The Invisible Woman, where she played the mother of the love interest to Ralph Fiennes - her love interest nearly twenty years earlier in The English Patient. Such is the career trajectory of even a great beauty in the movie business. It's no wonder she's said she's "a recovering actress." (Though she has made four films since then.) Still, I remain eternally grateful for her gracious assistance in making my portraits so much better simply by being her very lovely self.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

WAS I EXCITED TO SHOOT JACKIE CHAN? You bet I was. I don't believe in guilty pleasures, but Hong Kong action films - a movie subgenre in which Chan is the undisputed superstar - were once my favorite way to spend a mentally undemanding hour or two, letting the truck-sized plot holes and sheer physical improbabilities bounce off my mind like Jackie Chan deflecting a hundred blows.

I can't be sure today if Chan was in town promoting Rumble in the Bronx (shot in Vancouver, with its very un-Bronxlike mountains in the background) or Police Story 4: First Strike. I'm as certain as my dismal memory allows that I shot him at the Park Plaza (now Park Hyatt) Hotel. One thing I do know is that, as excited as I might have been to take Jackie Chan's portrait, he was very nearly as excited to have his picture taken, or at least that's how it seemed that day.

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

I let the interviewer go first while I found my spot and my light - an intriguingly formal tableaux with a love seat just beneath some 18th century gentleman's portrait, framed with wood paneling and drapery. I wanted to place Chan in the space, imagining him playing against his persona, draped languidly across the cushions and over the arm of the love seat.

I was halfway through describing what I wanted when Chan launched himself into the space, standing on the cushions, then planking himself between the upholstered arms, changing position every time I snapped the shutter. My idea, I realized, would have to wait for a more supine subject, and I did my best to keep up with him, cocking the shutter and re-composing in an effort to keep up with this explosion of utter fucking Jackie Chan-ness that was happening in front of me.

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

He ended the shoot with a flourish, standing astride the cushions and pumping his fists. It was all over in perhaps two minutes, and even his publicists looked amazed at his energy. This was, after all, a man who had famously damaged himself countless times doing his own stunts, so much so that wince-making blooper reels of outtakes ritually ran during the credit sequence at the end of his films.

Some part of me would still love to get another shot at Chan and take that languid portrait of him, as boneless and lazy as a sleeping cat, but I'm still grateful that I once barely shoehorned him into my camera frame, back when I was starting to take it for granted that I'd be shooting celebrities like Jackie Chan for a living.



Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

AS I'VE WRITTEN BEFORE, THE NINETIES WERE A TIME WHEN MOVIES became a lot more exciting than music, at least for me. Part of the excitement was discovering new directors who, though they might have had careers going back at least a decade or more, were reaching their stride - directors like Mike Leigh, who made his first film in 1971, but who really made his breakthrough with High Hopes in 1988 and especially Life Is Sweet in 1990.

I adored Life Is Sweet when I saw it; it had the downbeat characters and grim charm I had loved in the films Paul Cox had made earlier in the '80s, with an added intensity that came from the actors and the long process of improvisation that Leigh led them through to create the script. By the time I was assigned to photograph Leigh at the film festival by NOW I was a huge fan, thanks to Naked, with its performances by David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge, stock players in the "company" Leigh was building around him.

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Leigh was at the festival with Secrets & Lies, and would release Career Girls a year later - my all-time favorite Mike Leigh movie. I was desperate to get a good shot of him, and with no pressure to produce a colour cover shot, I could focus entirely on working with my Rolleiflex cameras, tripod and the available light in the hotel room to get the sort of simple portraits I loved the most.

I'm pretty sure the shot at the bottom was the one the paper ended up running - a picture that sums up the hangdog tone of Leigh's films and his sometimes desperate, often melancholy characters. The middle shot was more formal and minimalist - my fallback composition - but going through the contacts today, it's the shot at the top that I like the most, a portrait not much different in feel from the one below, but which has just a hint of a performance in it.

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Leigh was actually very cooperative with me, taking my admittedly basic direction happily and wryly indulging in the morose image his films had acquired. It probably helped that the writer on this story was Ingrid Randoja, whose enthusiasm and obvious familiarity with his work had made for a very good interview just before I took my allotted five minutes for shooting. I clearly recall that, after she'd turned off her tape recorder and thanked Leigh before leaving the hotel room, he turned to his publicist and said, "She was very good, wasn't she?"

I always looked forward to working with Ingrid at NOW; her enthusiasm and professionalism put my subjects in a decent mood and she always left me ample time at the end of each interview slot. (Slots that seemed to get shorter with every passing year.) I liked to think of us as a team, doing our best to help each other produce our best work with the chance, unpredictable factors of subject, handler, film and venue. Ingrid was not only a great colleague, but one of my favorite people.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Ulster

Brown Street, Belfast, April 2017

MY FIRST TRAVEL GIG AFTER A WINTER AT HOME took me back to Ireland - to the north, this time, and the two Ulster counties straddled by the city of Belfast. It felt like a suitable way to start a new year's worth of travel, in a place that I had imagined vividly for so many years, but which bore little to no resemblance to the city I had in my mind.

It's been almost twenty years since the Good Friday Peace Agreement, and you'd have to look hard - or know where to go - to find evidence of the Belfast I saw on the news from the time I was a child and all through my youth and early adult years. I was, to be honest, grateful that it seemed to have disappeared, though that didn't stop me from trying to sniff out its remnants, or discover what sort of mood was left behind.

Ballintoy, County Antrim, March 2017
The Dark Hedges, County Antrim, March 2017
Giant's Causeway, County Antrim, March 2017
Portstewart Strand, County Antrim, March 2017

The actual purpose of the trip was a tour through the filming locations for Game of Thrones, many of which are scattered on either side of Belfast, up the Causeway Coast Route from Belfast to Londonderry, or south through County Down. It's was a picturesque journey, along dramatic seaside roads, through ancient woods and past castles and ruins. Pure honey for a photographer.

When I went to Ireland a year ago, I fought hard to avoid being seduced by the picturesque. This time around I knew it was pointless, and let myself embrace all the views and the references the sights I was seeing evoked, from Constable and other English landscape paintings to Victorian travel book engravings. I'll probably never lack for cityscapes and rough abstraction, but manicured views and storybook forests will likely be much scarcer.

Castle Ward manor house, County Down, April 2017
Inch Abbey, County Down, April 2017
Tollymore Forest, County Down, April 2017

We were based in Belfast, though, so I had almost two days of urban exploration to enjoy, in a city with tidy, finite borders and walkable distances. I was impressed by Belfast's revival in areas like the Titanic Quarter, built around the old Harland & Wolff shipyards, but I made sure I set aside a long Sunday afternoon to wander around West Belfast, up the Falls Road and over the A12 into the Shankill, two neighbourhoods that were once at war with each other.

I liked Belfast. I like any place with history, but I especially like a place that's proud of its history, troubling and unpleasant as it might be, and is willing to tell you about it. (The Falls and the Shankill are, like the Titanic Quarter and Queen's University, stops on the hop-on/hop-off bus tour.) Some people enjoy beaches or cathedrals; I like terraces, bookshops and political posters.

Falls Road, Belfast, April 2017
The Shankill, Belfast, April 2017
Belfast, April 2017
Titanic Quarter, Belfast, March 2017

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Grounded

Ash Wednesday self-portrait, Toronto, 2017

I'VE BEEN STICKING CLOSE TO HOME SINCE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, but a new round of travel assignments have started and I'm off to Belfast this afternoon. That doesn't mean my cameras have stayed in their cases, and in any case everybody needs to exercise if they're going to stay in shape.

My main venue has been the Art Gallery of Ontario, where I've spent many more Saturdays wandering around to keep out of the winter chill while my youngest daughter was at her weekly art class. As usual, the big attraction isn't so much the art on the walls as the people looking at the art - my favorite subjects, caught surreptitiously with my little Fuji camera set to waist level viewfinder mode.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Winter 2017

I don't find winter streets terribly evocative, but one morning after the snow had melted a warm front moved in and brought a thick fog with it. I grabbed my camera and headed down to the park at the end of the street.

Earlscourt Park, February 2017

I'd be lying if I said I was housebound all winter - I was invited to appear as a guest on a TV show to talk about movies, which meant an unexpected overnight trip to the suburbs of Burlington, Vermont. I woke up early on the morning we taped and headed out for a wander around the streets near the hotel.

Williston, VT, January 2017

Finally, Motorama came around again this year, and with it a chance to shoot rat rods, muscle cars and hot rods, lovingly restored and put on display by their owners in a big hall in the convention centre out by the airport. More than the big auto show, this is probably my favorite car event of the year here.

Motorama, March 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Kinky Friedman

Kinky Friedman, Toronto, Oct. 2015

TEXAS WRITER AND COUNTRY SINGER KINKY  FRIEDMAN PUT OUT HIS FIRST NEW RECORD in 32 years over a year and a half ago. I interviewed Kinky over the phone for a friend's online magazine, mostly as a way of getting a portrait session with Kinky when he came through Toronto not long after that. The interview never ran since my friend stopped publishing, but I still got my portrait - a big deal for me, since I've had Kinky on my "must have" portrait list for years, and because this session was effectively my return to serious portrait work after many years away.

I've been sitting on these photos - and the interview - for too long, so here's some selections from my chat with Kinky before he set out on tour behind The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, which is a really fine record, and a sad one at that.

__________

ME: This is a really very melancholy record, and not just because of the inclusion of songs like (the late Warren Zevon's) "My Shit's Fucked Up."

KINKY: It's a Miley Cyrus world. It's very difficult to break through all the white noise. It's a more serious record, yeah, for a more serious world.

"My Shit's Fucked Up" is interesting because you can't really promote it in most magazines, newspapers, TV or radio. You have to say "My Bleep's Bleeped Up," which gets a little tedious after a while. It's not just a song about Warren Zevon, who was a friend of mine. It's not just about Warren dying of cancer - it pretty aptly describes the country and the world. Our shit's fucked up and it may not be fixable this time.

Tell you the truth, Rick, the audience was not in mind when I recorded this record. I was not concerned with what the critics would think or what the people would think. It's not an educational tool for millenials. It's none of those things. It really was performed for a silent witness, for people who aren't here any more.

Kinky Friedman, Toronto, Oct. 2015

ME: The opening track, your duet with Willie Nelson on his "Bloody Mary Morning," is kind of an off-kilter way to open a record. The meter is, to put it mildly, a little challenging.

KINKY: I've had a couple of musicians, one of them very close to Willie - we'll keep him anonymous - and he says it's out of sync and out of rhythm. Which is fairly obvious - it's something Willie's been doing for 65 years, and it might be part of the secret of Willie's success. You're right that the spirit that's kindled there, that jazz cowboy feel, is what makes the song very infectious, very catchy, and a perfect leg opener, as we used to say, for the rest of the record. 

Part of it was, I was stoned out of my mind, because I don't smoke dope. I mean, I do with Willie only - kind of a form of Texas etiquette. But Willie just jumped right into it, and there was Bobbie, his sister, on keyboards, and Kevin Smith, his bass player. Willie provided the talent, the song, the studio, the pickers, his time and for that he got an Air Force One Zippo lighter that Bill Clinton personally gave me, and I've never used. And I know Willie is a Bill Clinton fan. At least I can say that he's a good little Democrat, which is more than I can say for myself. 

He really conveyed some kind of a - I don't know how to describe it, but it sounds like a bar room, it sounds like a spontaneous event, and it's kind of got a fun feel to what's basically a sad song, which is always good if you can make that work. I'm not looking too deeply into this, but I'd say there's a linkage to every song or I wouldn't have done 'em. I didn't do anything because I thought people would like 'em.

ME: You also did "Pickin' Time," which is a Johnny Cash song a lot of people don't know so much these days.

KINKY: "Pickin' Time" is virtually unknown - people just don't know Johnny Cash for that song. Maybe they've got ADD, maybe they've forgotten it, who knows? And as we recorded it, I thought that song isn't just about some farmer in overalls waiting for the cotton crop to come in - layin' by till pickin' time. I think we all are, Rick. I think we're all laying by till picking time. 

ME: You could almost call it a series of haikus.

KINKY: You're right. I love the rhyme "a jug of coal oil costs a dime/stay up late past pickin' time." You're right. Exactly right. That song is one of Cash's very best.

Kinky Friedman, Hugh's Room, Toronto, Oct. 2015

ME: It's another melancholy sentiment.

KINKY: I really think that melancholy is a word I'd use. Romantic has been used, romantic in the true sense in that true romance usually results in tragedy, and Romeo and Juliet are very good literary examples, of course, because if they'd lived happily every after we wouldn't know their names. I would just say that true love usually results in a hostage situation, but we know that. The great material was produced and created by melancholy people, or by tragic circumstances. 

That's why the songs coming out of Nashville right now sound like the background music for a frat party. They're written by a committee, they've got a click track going so it wouldn't sound like Willie, and the result is a very derivative sound and if they're well connected in the industry they sell a lot of records, like Miley Cyrus or Toby Keith. Toby Keith is approaching a billion dollars, Rick. That's more than Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Bob Dylan rolled together.

Kinky Friedman, Toronto, Oct. 2015

ME: Do you think country music is savable?

KINKY: I don't. I think it'll swing back. I think it's complex. My theory is that the gene pool appears to have dried up. When you talk about talent, I'm sure you and I could to through Toronto and go to some clubs and find some talent that looks like Levon Helm when he first got there. You'll see a young act that was pretty hot. What we won't see is anything that inspires us. So we could see a guy who could play the guitar just like Stevie Ray Vaughan - there's one of those around. There's somebody who wants to be the next Townes Van Zandt - he's around. So you've got a lot of people whose hearts are in the right place and who have a lot of talent in terms of playing an instrument, but as far as writing a song - maybe the culture can't absorb it any more. 

I can see why success will distance you from your art, so in Willie's case or in Bob Dylan's case you'll say 'How come they can't write a song as good as what they did before?' Well, we wouldn't understand it anyway, we wouldn't know it, and they're so good at what they do that they can write a mediocre song and it sounds great. So you can't really distinguish anymore, you can just say that great songs aren't pouring out of Nashville the way they did when Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein and Roger Miller were writing them. And Tompall Glaser - don't forget who wrote "The Streets of Baltimore." 

You're getting songs about trucks and whatever they're writing about, and there might be a line in there that somebody likes. "The Loneliest Man I Ever Met" was written by Tim Hoover and myself in Nashville maybe thirty years ago, about our friend Tompall Glaser who we felt was a forgotten, unsung hero of the Outlaw movement, because he was the only one who had anything to lose. (laughs) He was already the king of the hill on Music Row, and he burned a lot of bridges to throw in with the Outlaws, so it was kind of about him, but of course it's also about everybody. And I've had countless people tell me that they're the loneliest man I ever met. I'm not the loneliest man I ever met, but I'm working on it.


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.