“You have to be really ambitious but you have to balance that with patience. You have to have both.”
This is part two of my interview with Chris Buck (part one here). I mentioned yesterday how shoots with Chris always came in to the office with pleasant surprises in the contacts. Unexpected shots. I had assumed this was because he was coming up with ideas on the fly, but that’s not quite how it works. Read on to see how Chris manages to achieve these little surprises, how he arrived at his style and so much more.
APE: Was there a eureka moment with your photography where you thought I’m onto something or this feels really good to me?
The build up of my career has been very gradual. There were benchmarks, but they were so far into my career that it didn’t feel like they changed the momentum or direction of my career. When I was about 30, which was 6 years in there was a turning point, because I began to see the various influences on my work come into play and it felt like maybe I’d arrived at having some kind of visual style. If it existed before that I hadn’t seen it. I’d always envied the people in photo school who had a visual style right out of the gate. I didn’t have that. I had an interest in a certain subject matter, but I didn’t have a visual style. it It was probably a good instinct that I didn’t push it, because eventually it found me.
Anyway, one of the pictures that felt like it had that visual style and oddly it’s an Irving Penn homage is a picture of Elvis Costello. What it has in it that feels like me is a certain discomfort with the physical body. There’s a lot of work in ’94 that I’m very proud of that show markers of on my style There’s a certain kind of awkwardness with the body, a certain kind of framing and a certain distance from the subject. Then just a little bit of a sense of humor that creeps in subtly. My pictures of Chris Farley and Julia Child would fall in there too and those were shot within a few weeks of each other.
I think that may also be a function of having testicular cancer and turning 30 at the time as well. I remember thinking that I had always thought one day I want to be as good as Irving Penn. But then I came to some kind of recognition that I will never be as good as Irving Penn, so I’m just going to be who I am and it will be fine. Recognizing that made me step into my skin more comfortably and in a weird way helped me to get to the point where maybe someday I could be as good as Penn.
APE: On your contact sheets there are Chris Buck moments and there are pictures of people standing around. How do you get clients to pick the Chris Buck moments?
I think to be a great photographer you have to be a great editor of your work. I look at the photographers I admire and a lot of it is in the editing. When I look at my contact sheets I think of it as being a sculptor. How they start off with this big piece of stone and they chip away till they find whatever it is they’re trying to create.
When you go into a shoot you have your intentions and your hopes, but when you look at your contact sheets you have to do the best that you can to separate those hopes and intentions from what you actually have. Because, you may have some gems in there that don’t really connect to what you were trying to get out of the shoot. You sometimes just have to go with that so you whittle down the shots to find the perfect piece in the middle. I do a first edit and then a second edit to get down to those 6 frames to hand in.
APE: Do you have a few secrets about the business that you can share with us?
You have to be really ambitious but you have to balance that with patience. You have to have both.
APE: Can you tell me something you did early on in your career that led to your success?
Living with my parents. It allowed me financial flexibility. For the first five years of my career I didn’t make much money, but I kinda didn’t need to. I lived at home and saved money and then that little bit of money I saved I brought to New York with me when I moved here and I lived off that. In New York I basically only took the jobs I really wanted, so I wasn’t sitting around thinking what compromises do I need to make to make a living. I ended up doing jobs pretty much how I wanted. Even when I did shoots that were commercial I always shot stuff for me as well, so when I got to the point where I had some success, my original vision was largely intact. That was really, really crucial.
I didn’t want to become one of these people who starts off kinda interesting with some edge and then 15 years in you have a successful commercial career but the pictures are unmoving and not very interesting. Not compromising served me well, because when I started getting commercial work, I only got top level commercial work, but there is also a price to pay. I’m not nearly as successful as I’d like to be in magazines or in advertising. There are a lot of subjects I don’t get access to because I don’t make overly flattering pictures or power portraits. In this last political year I got one call and that was to photograph Al Franken. So, I’m definitely aware of the work I lose because of how I shoot, but don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to come off as sour grapes. Ok, look there’s some bitterness about it but still in the end I will choose having the career I have, doing the pictures I like, as opposed to another career where I get all the access.
APE: I wanted to ask you about marketing. What are your thoughts about marketing and how important is it for your career.
2009 is going to be a really big promotional year for me. It’s sort of lined up with the way I’m redoing my website because besides the main portfolio I’m adding a bunch of sections that I can launch every two months, so it gives me an excuse to send a little email like “hey, I’m doing a thing” to clients and I’ll have a rotating gallery that’s themed as well. I’ve been shooting long enough that I can show all pictures with a red theme or pictures with musicians. The new site will launch quietly between Christmas and New Years.
APE: I tell photographers all the time that if you want people to come visit your site you got to put something new up there. Don’t send that email every month that says go check out my site because I checked it out the last time you sent it to me.
It seem like young photographers are better about updating their sites and portfolios maybe.
They probably have more time but they also have more to prove. They’re also getting better so the last shoot they’ve done may be the best one they’ve done.
APE: I’ve found the young photographers to be incredibly savvy and they’re using the web, blogging and projects to get their work out there.
I believe there are two kinds of photographers. There are those who look at other peoples work and there are those who don’t. I’m not one to look at someone else’s work. I find it more distracting than helpful. I tend to be generous with young photographers and I’m open to meeting with people but I don’t really look at my competitors work.
APE: That actually fits with how I would describe your photography because I think the pictures are quite unexpected. So, maybe looking at the work of other photographers would invade your thoughts.
APE: Is marketing a big part of becoming successful as a photographer?
I do think it’s important. There’s not a lot of opportunities for Photo Editors or Art Buyers to actually meet the photographers so if you can send out a printed piece and email that has some personality they can get a sense of who you are and how you might deal with subjects and how pleasant you might be to deal with on the phone. That stuff is crucial to getting jobs. People are still gonna hire people that they kind of like the vibe of.
I don’t market as much as I should and to be honest I got to the point where the work I was creating on shoots assignments wasn’t holding together well enough enough as a group for a little booklet to send out. So, I started shooting from scratch for my promo pieces and I’ve been shooting three projects over the last two and a half years, two of which are ready now and I’ve got one that I’m going to shoot for another year or two. The two that are pretty much shot are ISN’T, a series of portraits of celebrity look-a-likes, and Chris Buck’s Chris Bucks, which are all portraits of other people with my name.
APE: I have this idea about how you shoot, that everything happens on set. Do you know what the picture is going to be beforehand?
I do a lot of research before a portrait shoot, because I don’t want to go into a shoot scratching my head thinking what am I going to do here and I don’t really have time during the shoot to come up with ideas.
Here’s a typical shoot: I’m given an assignment, I research the person a bit, read some interview’s, then talk to the magazine and finally go away and write up 7 different ideas for shots. I’ll go somewhere quiet and sit and think of ideas. I also have a list of ideas that I’ve been building over the last 10 years or so.
APE: Wait, you have a written down list with 10 years of ideas?
Oh, it’s like 10 ten pages long, but I’ll get back to that in a minute. So, I come up with a rough list, just free association ideas like 2 or 3 pages on a notepad. Then I’ll go back and see, what can I really build an idea on here, then I’ll email the magazine and say here’s what I’m thinking but I won’t tell them all my ideas, maybe half of them and these are only the ideas I’m seriously thinking of considering. I don’t tell them all the ideas because I don’t want them to come back and say no to things that I know I can pull off relatively easily. I might buy a simple prop and have an idea that I can do with the subject that I don’t even need to tell them. I always have ideas I tell them and ideas I don’t, because if I tell them and they say no then I do it anyway, they will ask why I’m wasting time on ideas they’re not interested in.
When I actually go into the shoot I’ve learned I need to be ready to throw the ideas away if I realize they’re not going to work out or something better comes along. So, when I go to location I start over again with my pad of paper and write down places I think are interesting. Then I go back to my original idea list and say I want to throw out these and keep these. One of the reasons I mentioned this is I really put a full range of ideas from “this person will do anything” to “this person will do nothing” in case I need to find a safe shot that will still be visual. For example when I shot with Buzz Aldrin he was very uncomfortable being shot and he wanted to know why we were doing each shot, so I had to place him in a beautiful environment and all he had to do was sit there and the shot looked really cool. But there’s other people who are willing to do crazy shit and you want to be ready for that because you can’t always know. For example when I shot Billy Bob Thornton I had this idea of him urinating on the backdrop and amazingly he said yes so I try to be ready for both. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way because I’ve gotten in there with someone and they’re like “what have you got? let’s Let’s go crazy” and I wished I’d prepared for it.
You thought that I work it out on the spot but the reason why I make the notes is I get really nervous. So, otherwise I’d just forget.
APE: Ok, back to this master list. When do the ideas go on the list?
After the shoot I’ll put the ideas I didn’t use on the list. But on a new shoot I definitely go to the master list last because I don’t want to be recycling ideas I’ve already thought of. I want to come up with something new. I think the best ideas are the fresh ones anyways but when I’m not sure of what I have I’ll go back to that list, but it literally will take me 45 minutes to go through it. It’s so detailed now.
APE: Are there ideas at the beginning of the list that you’ve never done that are good ideas.
There are ideas on here that are so crazy I don’t think I will ever do them. That would be a great idea for a book, to actually shoot every idea on the list.
APE: That would take you like a year.
No, no that would take me ten years. Here I’ll break out the list and read to you from it. Alright well I actually have 2 two lists. One list is the original list I made which is broken into sections like: Working The Location, Location Ideas, Lighting, Poses, Styling, Props, Backdrops and Studios, Technical Stuff and then General Approaches. And then I have a section called Vows and Declarations which is just things I want to be doing in the future or whatever. Then I’ve got another list and it’s basically a list of people I’ve photographed and the ideas I wanted to do with them and didn’t do. So here’s the top of the list:
Moby: with a fat whore, broken glass, bubbles, pulling an actual prank, in the trunk of a car, hotel lobby with his pants down, not exciting.
Obviously some of it is very vague like “not exciting.” That could be anything. Once I do a shot I take it off the list because it’s a successful execution and I don’t want to do it anymore.
Werner Herzog: Taxidermy rooster (he thinks roosters are evil), holding a bunny, feeding an animal while dressed as the same type of animal, with a celebrity impersonator, doing something precarious, drinking from a water fountain, washing his face.
APE: What about working with publicists. It must be a challenge for you to get some of these ideas past the publicist.
For a long time I just kind of ignored publicists and if they stepped in and said “we’d rather not do that” obviously I respected their wishes but I’ve learned through experience that some publicists are shy people and they need to be invited into the process. That’s something I actively do now and it’s working out really well.
There’s often some aspect of compromise on my part. They will say “you know Chris I see why it’s an interesting picture but I don’t see our subject doing that.” I find they tend to say “we will do this but we wont do that.” I don’t present ideas that are terrible so I’ll say “I love this idea will you give it a go” and more times than not they will say “yeah, why not” or they’ll say “let’s do a test and see how it looks.” If I deal with them one to one they tend to be very open. Most tend to be very open to what I want to do.
APE: But, not always, right?
Here’s the idea I had for William Shatner: In the living room wearing a bathing suit dripping on the carpet. I told him that idea and he was like, “that’s the worst idea I have ever heard.”
So, I shot a picture of him getting arrested and crossed “getting arrested” off my list.