Chris Buck Interview

- - Photographers

“I think there’s a certain arrogance that goes with wanting to do something like this.”

That’s Chris Buck telling me what it takes to become a photographer; it’s one of many astute insights he had when I talked to him on the phone several weeks ago. Chris is one of my all time favorite photographers. I worked with him several times when I was Photo Directing and the best part is always when you get that box of contacts after a shoot because it feels like Christmas morning when you open it. There are the smartly executed pictures you talked about and then there are always surprises, pictures and ideas you weren’t expecting in there as well. You will discover why that happens and more perceptive insights into the business in part two of this interview tomorrow.

I consider Chris to be one of the great editorial portrait photographers of our generation, he also cares very deeply about the business of photography and was very generous with his time for this interview. Here’s what we talked about:

APE: You just had your 20th anniversary.

That’s 20 years just being a full time photographer not making a living any other way. I say that because that’s how I define being a photographer.

APE: Yeah, that’s how I define professional photographer as well.

I was the photo editor at a pop magazine in Canada called Graffiti for a year after getting out of college.

APE: I would love to get a snapshot of what you were like 20 years ago and what was going through your head.

Funny you should ask, because I just ran across this footage from 21 years ago where I was interviewing my mom and sister and they turned the camera on me and started asking me questions, “what are you up to, what are your plans for the future” and I talk a little bit about how I want to photograph bands and I want to photograph other people and just shoot portraits for a long long time. It’s amazing because I ended up saying what I ended up doing.

APE: So, what made you think you could become a professional photographer 20 years ago?

Well, obviously I wasn’t totally sure. I think there’s a certain arrogance that goes with wanting to do something like this. I was living in Toronto at the time, I looked around at the photography that was being made in Toronto at the time and thought, this is really lame, this is not the way portraits should be done. And I think that was the impetuous that gave me fuel to last me through the first five years, when I was really not making a living financially.

Chris with Peter Buck and Lional Richie, Toronto, 1986, photo by Howard Druckman

Chris with Peter Buck and (cardboard) Lional Richie, Toronto, 1986, photo by Howard Druckman

APE: That’s a pretty bold statement to make. It’s not something you would really hear from photographers today.

I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I had a fair amount of humility, I still lived with my parents in the suburbs. I considered assisting and looked around and thought there were two, probably actually one photographer that I felt like I could learn something from and so that’s how I felt. I saw the work I was doing at the time and felt it was as good and I kind of imagined what I could do and thought it was far more interesting than what was being done. I really think that’s important and If you don’t feel that way at the beginning of your career or after a year or so out of college then you probably shouldn’t be shooting.

Anton Corbijn, Toronto, 1987

Anton Corbijn, Toronto, 1987

One of the things I say to young photographers now is that what you react against is far more powerful than what you are influenced by. I loved Irving Penn and Anton Corbijn at the time and it’s one thing for me to be influenced by them and say I want to make cool pictures like them but it’s something completely different to see the mid 80′s sunset lighting with blue sky behind (that was the prominent look at the time) and think “how lame.” For me there’s no mystery to it and it’s very heroic which is also something I didn’t like, so I find my reaction against that stuff to be far more exciting

Reacting against photography was much better for me, because there were many more avenues to go down and say “this is what a portrait should look like,” instead of saying “I want to make pictures that look like this.” When you react against something you can go in so many different directions then when you are influenced positively because that’s a much more narrow influence.

APE: Ok so you meet with a lot of young photographers and you have this internship program, so do a lot of them have this attitude.

The arrogance?

APE: Yes. I want to know if it’s changed in 20 years. Do young photographers still think like this?

I think different photographers find their paths in different ways and some do start off being very influenced by someone and then they shake that off after a few years. So, I’m not saying someone who is influenced by Nan Golden or Philip Lorca DiCorcia is necessarily someone to be written off. They might develop into something really interesting but I don’t think it’s the best way to start out.

James Mahon is someone who assisted me and is now shooting fashion and we will have huge arguments about how things are done. He definitely has some arrogance and in many a ways it’s one of the most powerful things about him.

APE: It’s interesting because as a former client of yours I wouldn’t necessarily call you arrogant.

Oh really? There was that one shoot I did for you where someone who was working for you at the time sent me a shot list and I called you and said “Rob, I assumed you hired me to do what I do, is this really what you’re looking for.”

APE: Oh right. I guess I never felt you came off that way, but maybe it’s because that how I expect photographers at your level to act.

You factored that in, but some may see it as arrogance.

William F. Buckley Jr., Stamford, CT, 2004

William F. Buckley Jr., Stamford, CT, 2004

APE: That brings up something interesting because many young photographers feel like their hands are tied when it comes to client demands because the client can just go off and hire someone else. When you were young how did you behave.

Chirs with William F. Buckley Jr., 2004, photo by Paul Draine

Chris with William F. Buckley Jr., 2004, photo by Paul Draine

Honestly, it’s an issue I still deal with. I was in Austin recently and I looked up Dan Winters and we went for lunch. And I asked him “Dan, you have a reputation for handing in just one picture or however many pictures they might run. You’ve got to be kidding me, you really do this?” He was like “Yeah, I do.” We talked most of the lunch about that. It was really inspiring for me. I try to give much tighter edits now. It’s important because potential clients will look at my work in magazines and either say “Chris Buck is not as interesting as he once was” or they will say “this is a really cool picture and this is what I expect of him.”

But, you know I live in a real world too and it’s a place that’s complex and not always generous to you, so there are clients I give more pictures to, but from 2 years ago to now it’s half as many frames as I used to turn in. I went and saw Larry Fink recently and he talked about being on a shoot and being humiliated by the shooting circumstances. He’s been doing this for 40 years now and he still puts himself in those situations. It’s good for young photographers to hear that, because it’s not like you get to a point where everything is easy.

APE: Are their myths that you have to dispel when talking to younger photographers about the business that come up over and over again?

There are so many things.

One of the main things is that most people don’t make it quickly. They think that If you are meant to be successful in photography it should just take a few years and the obvious stories are about Irving Penn, or David LaChappelle. Larry Fink is a great example of the alternate narrative and one of the things I really admire about his career is that in a way his name became known to most people 30 years into his career and that’s kind of amazing. The young photographers tend to know about the people who made it in 5 years but that’s really, really unusual. If you go look at the top 100 photographers working today most of them made it in 10 to 15 years not in under 5. I think that’s really important to know. People get into it and in 3 years they’re like “I’m getting good feedback but I’m not getting a ton of work.” It took me 12 years before people started saying to me “wow, you’ve made it.”

Another thing that’s like a personal crusade for me is trying to talk young photographers out of assisting. Because, I really think it’s a dangerous road to go down. I really try to discourage it. The example I give is that assisting a photographer to become a photographer is like assisting the CEO to become a CEO one day.

APE: That’s an unusual point of view.

Well, if you look at the careers of assistants there’s a number of problems with it. You can certainly learn things from assisting, but I guess what I recommend for people if they feel any clarity about who they are as a photographer then I would really recommend that they intern rather than assist. And, I mean a real internship not sweeping floors. Don’t intern for photographers where you have no access to them or the shoots. People tell me they intern for big name photographers for their resume, but why do you have a resume. If you’re a photographer you don’t need a resume. Your portfolio is your resume, not some piece of paper.

You can certainly learn more from assisting, fair enough, but if you’re any good at assisting you end up doing it for 5-8 years. That’s a long, long time to not be focusing on your own work. And people say they’re only going to do it for a couple years but if you’re any good at it you don’t.

APE: When I think about some of the famous photographers who were also assistants for famous photographers, they didn’t really do it for too long. Maybe they assisted a couple years and they usually had a bad attitude about it too.

I was having lunch with a couple of my assistants on a shoot and one of them said “half the people I work for never assisted”. When you think about it, that you’re assisting to become a photographer yet half the people you assist for never did it. Statistically it’s kind of a crazy number. So, is that really the ideal route to becoming a photographer? I think it’s certainly one but there are other routes that aren’t really being talked about. When you’re 32 and you want to stop assisting and try and shoot full time and you’ve been making a decent living for awhile how do you transition to shooting full time when you’re not going to make any money for 2-3 years.

APE: I see the same thing with people who want to transition to Photo Editing mid career, because you reach a point where you can’t really intern or work for no money anymore.

Also, having to live as a starving artist at 32 is a really painful thing. When you’re 25 living as a starving artist is actually kind of fun.

APE: You have assistants, so as soon as you get a new assistant do you tell them about this?

No, of course not, if they’re great assistants I don’t want to lose them.

Deborah Fellner, Rockaway, NJ, 2008

Deborah Fellner, Rockaway, NJ, 2008

Part 2 tomorrow.

There Are 57 Comments On This Article.

  1. Great interview, I find myself drawn to his attitude and overall philosophy in regards to photography.. can’t wait for part 2 tomorrow.

  2. That whole assisting thing is tricky. Personally, It’s how you set yourself up in this business. Being connected. They don’t teach you that in photography school. So many start assisting to learn the ropes because when you first enter the business you realize how big it is and there is much to learn. Beside the technical learning you also see that relationship the photographer has with his or her client. Some assistants have a harder time developing that side of them. It doesn’t matter if your quiet or loud. It’s about trying. Nobody is going to hand you work. Promoting starts as soon as possible. Meeting start as soon as you get an appointment. If the young assistant doesn’t put forth an effort, they remain in the same spot. Anybody’s career works the same way. I remember my third year assisting Walter Iooss Jr. . He was like kid, you got one foot on the boat and one on the dock. I welcomed that comment. I was scared to stop assisting but I knew things were happening and looked forward to the challenge.

  3. That’s me… the 31 year old practically starving artist that doesn’t live with his parents… too much time assisting? maybe…

  4. Awesome, he’s the shiznit. Don’t agree about assisting at all, but I’m a Minnesotan and it’s a VERY different business out here, but your personality makes such a difference in that regard too. The best photographers I assisted always asked about my shooting, encouraged me to shoot, and would share stories about their transitions to shooting. Must be a Midwest thing.

  5. “One of the things I say to young photographers now is that what you react against is far more powerful than what you are influenced by…”

    I think this is a particularly “canadian” point of view in the sense that growing up in canada, the dialogue is always oriented north-south-our culture was a distinct reaction against the values, tastes and mores of our american cousin in many ways.

    At least that jumped out at me, another suburban canadian kid.

    The gift it gives you is a strong sense of authorship, at least in the negative way. The downside is that you can develop outsider fatigue, where you feel like what you do is never understood or appreciated. CB seems to have resisted this well.

    And still rocking the square!!

  6. You can get by without assisting. I couldn’t agree with CB more. Being someone’s slave when you’re a better photographer than your boss is no fun.

  7. Great interview. You should have interviews on here every day. And it’s true that there are a ton of alternative’s to assisting when you are starting out, in LA you can be a movie extra!

  8. What a fantastic interview. Hats off to Chris Buck. The part about Larry Fink and the thing of being humiliated by your shooting circumstances – to wit……

    Tomorrow I am photographing the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, for Newsweek Magazine and the past couple of days we have been trying to set something up that reflects what I am trying to say about the man. Here we have the mayor of one of the greatest cities in the world for a magazine that will be on sale globally and the press office are hell bent on getting me to do this damned portrait in something that is not much more than a conference room in London’s City Hall. On top of that we have 20 minutes with him – which is quite usual for people of this nature. Even getting to the point where they will let the man be photographed outside the building, on an actual London street has been a work of soul crushing magnificence. I explain, “Look – this is for international publication. The readers need to know who this man is and a picture of him in a beige and grey room is not going to do it. I really would like him to be under the umberella of a London sky with red buses, black taxis and feral hooded youths lurking nearby. Then the picture will do it’s job.”

    But the flacks don’t see it that way. To them this is an exercise in time management. Path of least resistance etc. They are not interested in a great portrait of the mayor of a great city. They are concerned with getting him to his next appointment on time – but the fact is it’s not more difficult for him to go down 3 floors to street level than it is for him to go up 3 floors to conference room level. However, they talk at you, they look through you. You are a silly photographer – a frivolity – and surely a quick snap in between appointments will do, won’t it? They don’t recognise the power of posterity.

    So, the humiliation of shooting circumstances is always with us and always will be.

  9. Thanks Chris Buck! I really enjoy your photography, and it’s good to hear a little bit about your story. The bit about Dan Winters only turning in one image is amazing. I had not heard that before. It’s inspiring, but like you said, good to balance that with certain realities too. Obviously someone who is starting out might not be able to get away with that, but it’s good for me to think about doing tighter edits, and maintaining what I want to be about.
    I also like your thoughts on “reacting against photography”. I feel that a lot, but have never tried to put it to words.

  10. Rob, great interview. His point of view is so down to earth. It’s refreshing. My favorite part is about dealing with your expectations. A lot us expect to be successful within a year or a few years max. The web has totally fueled these high expectations. I love hearing people say that’s crazy. It helps you focus on your work.

  11. Great interview. Some of his work, especially the William F. Buckley portrait above, reminds me of Avendon. The photographer asserts control, and the finished images, while striking and unusual, are not necessarily flattering to the subject.

      • i agree with the avedon, esp that photo above but also i think the word flattering is kind of arbitrary– yes it’s not flattering in a typical glamour shot sort of way, but the beauty rests in the raw and the natural and sometimes its hard to make the latter triumph the former and have people value that– which yes, tons of credits to the photographer on that.

  12. Great Interview, great job to both Rob and Buck.

    The keeper here is the point about assisting. I never really saw how learning to rig up a 20 x 20 silk helped someone refine their vision. But the big question is …what is one to do if they want to get into commercial photography and the don’t want to assist? Newspaper photographers start shooting and enter the workforce right out of school, in some form or another. One can do that, and there you are the image maker and the decision maker…two key roles…but what else?

  13. Very strong interview. In the murky, mystical, magical world of photographer advice, he offers some quite clear and logical points of view.

  14. i think chris makes an extremely viable point when he speaks about reacting against photography…a lot of times i find it much easier to help define myself as a human being, as well as my own personal work, by figuring out what is is a don’t like first. it seems to be a better jumping off point.

  15. laura levine

    Great interview, Chris. Looking forward to Part 2!

    I love how you directed your mom the cameraman.

  16. todd huffman

    One of my favorite things about assisting was watching how photographers get, work with and keep clients.

  17. first, Chris Buck’s photos kick a lot of butt, hands down. Great interview too, made me curious about how he said photographers shouldn’t assist but that they also should expect to wait 10+ years to shoot full-time. So, aside from a healthy trust fund or a job serving tables, how do you expect them to eat during those years? Of the alternatives, assisting seems to be not only the best bang for your buck, but experience spent doing nearly the same thing you do when you shoot, except with a little role reversal. If the scare is that the assistant will either propel themselves into a lifer position or become a clone of their photographers, that seems to be more the assistant’s responsibility than a fault of assisting in and of itself.

  18. Great interview.

    I think that the assisting thing is only a trap for those who are afraid to be photographers. The ego (hubris with a dose of naivete), which I agree is essential, won’t let you assist for long. You will get out of it what you can and then have the “I can do that!!” moment and say “fuck this” on go on your own. Assisting can be a really valuable way of getting into the business, especially in NYC. I would estimate that all the jobs that I got in the first 2-3 years of my career (after 3 years of assisting) were from contacts that I made while assisting. The catch is only assist a top tier photographer because you will make top tier contacts and meet the other assistants of top tier people.

  19. wow thanks for this. chris bucks my freakin hero.
    he mentioned he was working on a book when we exchanged emails. can you ask him how thats going? i never heard back from him…

  20. Great interview. So true about assisting. I can’t tell you how many assistants I’ve met who want to be a big name photographer now and don’t want to put in the time and patience of creating their career.

  21. Many of the photographers I assisted never were assistants themselves….but I can only think of one or two who didn’t assist, but actually knew how to light a picture. That’s fine if you just shoot flash on-camera, raw natural light, but so many photographers go into huge commercial jobs relying on the lowest paid people on the shoot–the assistants–to order equipment, design the lighting, and stay on schedule. I’ve always wanted to be self-sufficient, and I’ve always thought that really understanding lighting was essential to becoming a great photographer.

  22. This was a great representative of the photographer as a career. Chris has such a great attitude on his approach and seemingly knowing where he is in the greater part of his photography and where to take it in the moment. I totally feel the same way as I am now 31 it has taken me seven years out of college to define my style and just to get all the experimentation in photography out of my system to finally approach my work and be secure with other people’s work to understand my creative voice vs. others. Photo school has a funny sense about itself because it’s there to make accomplished photographers commercially viable right out of the gate. Its always great to hear someone else’s story and how their career is a life long journey and has greater value than that check that’s “in the mail.” Young Photographers need to hear more stories like Chris’s about the journey and how it pertains to a life of photography. Thanks Chris and Rob you guys rock.

  23. I did the assisting thing for 6 months. I hated working for someone else. I got into this game to be “the photographer” not the assistant. I know there are people out there that want to be the assistant, and the is great. We need people like you.

  24. Thanks for the info about this super photographer. I just saw an interview with him on Arts and Minds (Bravo) on City TV. It was worth watching to the point where I am still searching the photographers, although I can’t find Jeff Well anywhere.
    Your work brought out the more personal side of this artist, surprising issues after TV glamourized each photographer as highly successful, famous, etc.

    Sue

  25. Informative. My son is my assistant and I’ll be sure to keep these points in mind and try to at least make him a part of the creative process. Better yet, encourage him to do his own thing when he develops the skill sets!

  26. That was a great interview. I’m a fine art photographer specializing in landscape photography, but also do some portrait photography and general street photography of people, so I understand where Chris was coming from. Although I don’t try make my living this way, I do try to sell my work via the website and through exhibits. The biggest problem I have faced has been the one of subjective selection by judges in contests or juried exhibits. My best work, though technically and artistically excellent, is frequently rejected in favor of technically lacking photographs that are out of focus, poorly composed, and improperly exposed. After much consternation I have decided that I will not try to copy a style like that, and continue to produce the work I prefer and enjoy.