Chris Buck Talks About His New Book: Presence

This is the first in a series of interviews I’m conducting to promote my seminar at the 2012 Photo Plus Expo titled “Making a Career in Editorial Photography”. I’ve got 3 editorial photographers at the top of their game who I’m going to interview on stage about their careers and marketing methods. If you’re going to PPE, join Chris Buck, Jake Chessum, Martin Schoeller and me on Friday, October 26th from 1:30 to 3:30 pm.

Chris is somewhat of a regular around here, I really enjoy checking in with him, because he’s always honest with his answers. He’s got a new book out called Presence (get yours here), so I asked him all about creating it and finding a publisher. I know you will enjoy his insight into the process.

Rob: I remember from our previous interview that you place a lot of importance on personal projects and the promotional value you get from them. Can you talk about that and how you go about finding those projects?

Chris Buck: First, I’m trying to think of something that will be original, that’s a big part of it.

Rob: I was going to ask, does originality trump everything for you?

Chris: When I think of something interesting, I automatically assume that it’s been done already. This is a struggle for a photographer at any stage in their career – you want things that feel fresh and new, and not something that’s just a rehashing of what’s been done before.

But, one has to realize, nothing is entirely new, everything has a predecessor to it.

Rob: I gave up even writing about who copied who, because everything can be traced back further than the photographer who thinks they are the original.

Chris: I’ve attended lectures where well-regarded photographers talked about other photographers stealing their ideas and the whole time I’m thinking, “Seriously? You’re a legend. Get over it.”

[laughter]

Rob: A lot of the promotional and personal work that I see is photographers trying to put their own stamp on an idea that exists. I think it’s interesting that you are searching for an original idea completely.

Chris: That’s one thing I’ve realized when doing this and thinking about what I want to do next. Most photographers will find something interesting in the world and then construct a body of work around that. That’s not what I want to be doing and it’s not where I’m likely to make a unique stamp.

I’m going to do better by in my own quiet way, constructing something, or maybe constructing my own curious connection between things. I think that’s where my strength is.

A lot of the ideas I come up with, I’ve not done, because they’re not visual enough. They might be clever and funny, but they’re not visual.

Rob: Interesting, I hadn’t thought about it that way before. Before we get into this current project, how much does the end product play into it? You don’t just do this to entertain yourself. This is a business. This is part of the marketing. This is part of the business of Chris Buck photography, right?

Chris: Absolutely, but It’s hard to think about that until after I do it. There’s a certain level of faith that if I do interesting work and I put it out there, then work will come back my way.

Rob: Ok, let’s talk about this project. I want to know the germination of the idea, where it came to you. When did you realize that it was going to work, and that you needed to pursue this, and that you needed to talk all these celebrities during shoots into participating in your project? What was the beginning?

Chris: I was brainstorming ideas with my agent at the time (Julian Richards), and I had an idea that was very theoretical. It was just the idea of phoning it in. I liked the idea of literally not being on the set and giving instructions to an assistant, or whoever, as to what to do, what to tell the subject, and then whatever we got was the picture.

[laughter]

I liked it in theory, but I realized that the actual work itself would be wildly different based on who actually was on-set and did the execution, and also then, in most cases, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting.

And, just on a personal, selfish level, too, I wanted to control it. I didn’t want it to be entirely random, like a scientific experiment where the visuals wouldn’t have been that important.

So, I switched it. Rather than having me not there I decided to have the subject not there.

Initially, it was going to be a set where I just shot someone and they left. This is the room where I just shot George Clooney, or something. Then I realized it was a bit too esoteric, so I put the subject back in, which anchored it nicely.

Rob: Is this all happening in your head, or is this happening…?

Chris: This is hashing it out with Julian. Then the decision becomes, how much of them do we see?

Do we see an elbow and a top of a head? Are we seeing them peeking or something, and how much? Maybe not enough to recognize them, but enough to indicate where they are. But, I actually realized that I liked the cleanness of not seeing them at all. I also thought it was both funnier and a bit of a playful “F You,” to the audience.

Rob: [laughs] Oh God. I love that. We’re getting back to that, keep going.

Chris: I initially thought of it as a promotional piece, just 15 images in a little booklet, each one would be titled with the person’s name. It would be funny and kind of throwaway, and that would be the end of it.

The first one I shot was William Shatner, with these bales of hay. It was so rich with color and texture that I was like, “wow, even if a fraction of them are this interesting, this could actually have legs and become a full book.”

Rob: Tell me about the first shoot, though. The first time you told William Shatner what you were doing, and what you needed to do.

Chris: I’m pretty fearless about stuff like this, so, I just asked. Let’s put it this way, in my previous shoot with Shatner, I had him being arrested by two LA cops. So, asking him to hide in a scene was peanuts in comparison.

Rob: I remember from our previous interview, didn’t you ask him some other crazy things to do?

Chris: Yeah, I asked him to do a lot of crazy stuff and he just said, “No, I will not do that.”

Rob: So in comparison to what you normally ask celebrities to do, this is tame.

Chris: Right. Well, for one thing, they’re not even going to be visible. So it doesn’t matter how they look or what they’re doing. They can be crouching or standing, or whatever it is. It doesn’t matter , as we don’t see them.

Rob: Were some of the people reluctant? Thought it was stupid?

Chris: Well, a few of them kind of felt like, “If I’m not going to be in there, why waste my time with this?” But if they bothered to put up an argument, they ended up doing it. Because it mattered to me, and they just went with it. Whoopi Goldberg looked through my entire mock-up and she spent a good 10, 15 minutes on it and then wouldn’t do it.

I don’t really know what she was thinking. But she didn’t want to be part of it. Maybe she felt like she had worked hard to be visible and was not into being portrayed without being visible.

Rob: Then did some people get really into it and understand the whole concept?

Chris: Oh, some people totally got into it, and got really excited. Rainn Wilson I shot for New York magazine, and then afterwards I had him pose for the series. When he walked out of his hiding spot, he said, “We do a little business, we do a little art.”

Rob: So you finished the project. Tell me about approaching a publisher.

Chris: Well, I shot it in five years, and about three-and-a-half years into it, I began to look for a publisher. Remember, I contacted you early on asking you for some help and you have that list of publishers on your blog, which was one of my resources.

Basically, I made a list and started going down it. At first, I was approaching just one at a time, but pretty soon I was approaching three, four at a time. I’d go through a stack of mock-ups, and then I would stop and think, OK, what’s working, what’s not working? Then I’d make a new version of the mock-up.

In the end I made three different mock-ups, and was always improving on it. The last one I made with a designer and I hired someone to be my representative just for approaching the publisher (Alan Rapp).

Rob: Wow.

Chris: Well, that’s because I had gone to seminars on how to do a photo book.

Rob: You went to seminars?

Chris: I’d gone to seminars over the years and it was made clear that one was expected to present the proposed book as a finished product – sequencing, layout, foreword or introduction, and cover design – everything.

One of the problems I think that I had with the publishers was it’s essentially an art book from someone who’s not an art photographer. They didn’t quite know where to put it. It’s a pop culture photographer making a fine art book, but they couldn’t sell it on my name as an art photographer.

Rob: Oh, I can see the pitch for sure. “A celebrity book?” “Yes.” “There’s no celebrities in it?” “Pass” [laughs]

Chris: Well, they’re in it. You just can’t see them.

Rob: Right. So, back to the process, because a lot of my readers will be interested in the book publishing part.

Chris: Basically, here’s the approach I took. I can put it very simply. I had never published a book before, so I didn’t really know that world. I knew editorial, and I knew advertising. I looked through my Facebook and through my general contacts, and I reached out to anyone I knew who had any connection to people who had been published

It was absolutely humbling and eye opening. It was such a good process for me. Not that I was arrogant, but I had a certain place in the editorial and advertising world and I had no place in the world of publishing.

Rob: Was that hard for you, to go back to square one after having your very successful career?

Chris: Well, the hard part is that while I’m well regarded in my field and have done well, a lot of people treated me really shabbily. Not responding at all or being rude.

Rob: Oh, my.

Chris: I found it surprising. You would expect people would at least think, “Maybe, I’ll cross paths with this person at some point in the future, I guess I should at least be polite.”

Rob: Absolutely. But, no that wasn’t the case?

Chris: Some people were, but many people weren’t. I found that amazing.

Rob: Right. Is that just publishing, they’re overwhelmed? They see so many projects that are horrible…

Chris: I don’t know. I think that these different areas are more separate from each other than we realize. Because my next step after that was trying to get a gallery, and that was the same thing just starting over from scratch. Again, contacting anyone I know who had ever had exhibitions in galleries at all. It’s contacting former assistants who are now as successful as me or more so.

[laughter]

Chris: Again, really humbling.

Rob: So back to the publishing. You had three mock-ups. You had an agent specifically for the book. You had gone through a series of publishers and then you finally found one who got the whole thing and was interested in you and the project. You just ran into them?

Chris: No, I did not run into them. What happened was I met with Darius Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson. They had just done a book called “Publish Your Photography Book”. I met with them as professional consultants and that’s what actually led to the introduction to Kehrer.

Rob: Can you tell me anything about the process of publishing the book? It’s a beautiful book.

Chris: Thank you. For people who are interested in doing a book, in terms of the actual execution of making it, I’d say the one thing that was a revelation to me in terms of the actual quality of the book itself, is that I made match prints for every visual for the book.

Now maybe that’s a norm, but when I was actually on press in Germany and the technician is working the machine he is standing there holding the match prints I made in New York. And, he did an amazing job of matching them. I went back and rescanned all the images from the original negatives and transparencies and worked on each file for hours at home. Then took them to Picturehouse.

B.J. DeLorenzo, who made the match prints there, would actually alter my files to make the match print look good he’d do what he had to do. Then those final files that made the match prints were the ones that went to the publisher.

Rob: Awesome.

Chris: The fact is I’m 99 percent happy with how the images look in the book because of the amount of care and time we put into making files I was happy with and then making match prints that matched those files.

Rob: So, how many did you print?

Chris: 1000 pieces.

Rob: Ok, that’s not very much.

Chris: It’s a small run. If people are serious about getting the book, they should get it sooner rather than later because it will sell out.

Rob: I want to go back to something that you said about the pictures being an “F-you” to the reader. How much of this project is in the outrageousness, the absurdity of taking pictures of celebrities where you can’t see them?

Chris: Well, it’s meant to be full on ridiculous and full on serious at the same time. I think that this ultimately comes across. I never even joke that the celebrity might not be in there. I take it very seriously. I spent five years shooting, two years looking for a publisher, and then a year and a half releasing the book.

Rob: Yeah, that’s no joke.

What about the fact that you’ve worked so hard and so long on a project that some people will think is the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen? [laughs]

Chris: I guess so. I like that.

Rob: Good, because I’m referencing the comments on article about the book on the “Huffington Post”.

Chris: Oh, God.

Rob: Do you enjoy that many people don’t get it?

Chris: Honestly, when I read through the comments, it actually is upsetting.

Rob: Really?

Chris: On a theoretical level, I like the idea that people think it’s a waste of their time or whatever. A lot of people obviously don’t understand what it is. One of the comments supporting me said something like, “This is a guy who’s been shooting celebrities for 20 years. You have to see the work in that context.”

I thought that was a nice way of framing it. But I don’t know. I mean, yes, at some level, it is fun that people dismiss it.

Rob: Well, it’s back to the “F-you.”

Chris: It’s never enjoyable to hear that people think you’re an idiot.

Rob: No. No. But there’s a little bit of “F-you” in the whole project, as you’ve said.

Chris: I suppose that I’m getting it back at me.

Rob: I think it’s an awesome project, and I do think it fits your personality so well. Obviously, as a promotional vehicle, it’s beyond the promo cards and the little booklets. It’s a full-on book that I assume you’ll be using it as a promotion as well as a part of your body of work.

Chris: Absolutely…but I do wonder. As I started Presence I was thinking, “OK, this is for creative directors and art directors in advertising who are top of the top, super creative, super imaginative, thinking outside the box. I want to show them I can really do work that’s outside the box.

[laughter]

Chris: Then I look at the finished thing. “What work on Earth would this ever lead to?”

[laughter]

Chris: In the long run I think it’s a really good thing only because I think it’s funny and it’s cool and it’s going to have a nice life to it.

Rob: Yeah, it’s memorable. It has great personality. It’s a standalone piece.

Chris: Even the relationship between the pictures and the names is actually relatively subtle. In a way people will complain and say, “I can see how the Jack Nicklaus one makes sense or the David Byrne one, but the rest of them…There’s no connection.”

I think that some people miss the point. When you look through the work you make your own connections. If you take it seriously and spend some time with it you can’t help but do that. That kind of subtlety will make the book interesting still in 10, 20 years.

Rob: After you launch this project is it just on to the next one? Have you already started the next one? You’ve got five years.

Chris: I’ve got other things going on, but I got a great piece of advice I got from someone who I reached out to in the book world who’s a curator and done a number of compilation books. She said, “One thing you have to do that a lot of artists don’t like is you need to stick with it. You worked hard to do this book. The book’s now done. Don’t just walk away because you’re bored with it”

I’ve taken that directive seriously. My New York book launch is going to be at the International Center of Photography, which took a lot of finagling and patience to pull off. I’m doing a book launch in Toronto in Canada, and doing a book signing in L.A., and I’m doing some workshops, and putting myself out there

I’ve seen friends do books where, the book comes out and does well, they get good buzz, but there are all kinds of other things they don’t do. They’re basically relying on inertia or word of mouth for their book to get played. I find that kind of shocking that someone is going to spend all that time and energy to make a book and then not put everything they can behind it.

Rob: Right. I mean, self-promotion is really difficult for artists and photographers.

Chris: It is. Maybe they feel like it’s below them to be doing that. I don’t know.

Rob: So, does anybody besides you and the assistant and obviously the celebrity know where they are on set and will you ever reveal that?

Chris: I will not reveal it. I don’t talk about where people are hiding. Obviously, my assistants and staff know where people were hiding. If they want to talk about it I don’t really care, but I’m not going to say.

I feel like the witness statement is enough. In fact, I purposely did not have the celebrities sign them. I wanted it to be someone who was observing. I felt like if the celebrities were signing for themselves then it’s almost too much proof.

Rob: So you’re taking it to the grave?

Chris: Absolutely.

There Are 20 Comments On This Article.

  1. dan taylor

    Thank you, Rob, good one.

    At the beginning, Rob, tsp tsp, it’s “join x y z and ME” at photo expo, not “join x y z and I”

    c’mon man ! :- )))))

  2. Great interview guys. I was a bit surprised to learn that Chris ran into so many roadblocks and unfriendly publishers in route to “Presence.” Yet, I am not surprised that none of it hindered him.

  3. Thank You for this interview, It is a great read, and Mr. Buck, congratulations on your book being published after all this time.

    I like pieces that are like touchstones, the viewer either “gets it” immediately or they have a puzzled look on their face. I would think that a great many people that you respect will get it. The institutional art world does not like to allow “outsiders” in and I admire you for sticking with it!

    • It’s brilliant in it s own way, I mean besides the totality of the project, especially since there is really no way to find them, no matter how long you look.

  4. Ryan Loewy

    Thoroughly enjoyed this. Hoping I can scrape up enough money to get myself a copy. I also hope Chris comes out with a book of his basic editorial portraits, similar to what Dan Winters did.

  5. This is such an ingenious project. People love celebrities and will want to at least look at this book after hearing about it. It’s like a Where’s Waldo for the celebrity hungry (and the pictures are beautiful as well).

    On top of that, like the interview states, it’s such a “F-you” to the viewer and dare I say it, even to Chris’ career (or at least the people he shoots). I’m not saying that Chris’ career is crap. It’s far from that. In essence he is saying that this whole celebrity loving culture is ridiculous (hell, his “ISN’T” series is a good example). On a certain level he’s also saying his own career has a certain degree of ridiculousness to it because of his subject matter.

    I love it. It’s brave and ballsy. Good work on pushing the boundaries.

  6. Tim J Luddy

    One of the things I love about this project is that it points out how, at a point where even the average news consumer knows that a photograph can’t be considered as evidence, the viewer of these photographs needs to factor in the reputation and the trust that the photographer has earned, just as with a storyteller in any other medium. (Unless of course, Chris is just F-ing with me!)

  7. I don’t understand why Chris Buck didn’t take this project to the obvious next level and leave the right side of the page blank. :)

    Something like:
    Will Steacy’s Photographs Not Taken
    http://www.thephotographsnottaken.com

    To better understand how a publisher will view a book proposal, it helps to understand the economic realities of book publishing. The multiplier for a book is 8. So if a book costs $3 to print it sells for $24. Of this, the bookstore takes 50 percent. By the way, in the music industry the multiplier is 12, and unit cost for a CD is about .99 — and even a multiplier of 12 wasn’t enough for this industry.

    The bookstore pays for the books they order net 90. But they return the books that haven’t sold just before net 90. Unfortunately, these returns may be too shelf worn or damaged to resell — so the publisher takes another hit. Visit your local bookstore and look at the copyright dates on the books, and you will be surprised to see that almost all are 2012. Because of industry return policies, stores order more copies than they can sell. This is called carpeting.

    The publisher has to pay for warehousing, distribution, and other related costs. A partial advance is paid to the author at the start, and the balance at the acceptance of a completed manuscript/photos. It is not unusual for the author to never see another penny after their advance.

    Royalties on sold books are paid in part, because the publisher needs a hold that extends for up to 2 years against returns. A book with a print run of 1,000 copies most likely will never earn a profit or break even for a publisher. The accepted standard for a book that wont loose money is 10,000. When a literary agent or an author brings a book to a publisher, they need a one-page proposal. This proposal should show how the book will be marketed. It’s the most important part of the proposal.

    Speaking of marketing. It’s not unusual to send 500 copies to reviewers. Of course with a photo book this number would be lower. But it eats into the 1,000. The publisher also has to pay for a publicist to arrange radio interviews and take an ad in the magazine Talkers.

    The irony is that of the photo books up for consideration, one of the more feasible types is a book with celebrities. But customers want to see the celebrity. The books that interest publishers the most from an economic standpoint are non-fiction How To books — books on cooking, how to fix your 1950′s car, how to groom your pet, how to take better photos, etc. Of course the best books for publishers are school text books — they sell for a lot, and their audience must buy them.

    I think the best book route for most photographers are e-books with companies like Blurb. Their e-books can have photos and video. The price point is good, and there are no printing difficulties to deal with. The photographer can also make traditional books for client meetings, or show the book on an iPad. Best of all, the time drain for photographers is limited. I think Blurb takes 20 percent of the sell price.

    Eyes. How many eyes can a photographer put on their book? With a print run of 1,000 and 100 percent sales, and a gallery show — the most optimistic number would be what? 2,000? With Blurb, the author can select the book preview to show the whole book or a portion of the book. If one selects just a portion to theoretically tease the viewer into buying the book, then the number of eyes on the book will drop precipitously. But if the whole book is available in preview mode, then it’s not difficult to get over 6,000 views. And unlike a printed book, the views have legs — succeeding books from the photographer will be part of their bookstore — and each book they make will increase the audience — and all without a huge drain on the photographer’s time and resources.

    Why do photographers make photo books? Self-promotion, ego, creative satisfaction, and seeing the state of the state of one’s work are some of the reasons. The danger with any book project is that it will drain too much time, energy, and resources from the photographer, and in the process damage their core business.

    Personally, I applaud Chris Buck and other authors for their determination and dedication. However when it comes to book publishing and the viability of any project, economic realities and the preferences of the buyer will always rule the day. “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

    • Excellent Dan, thank you for this comprehensive reply!

      The photographers that I know personally with published books (other than self published) have all suffered greatly from depression, after struggling for years to complete and publish a book, when they see their “baby” in the remainder bin in a bookstore….

    • A few corrections on the retail end of things:

      “Of this, the bookstore takes 50 percent.”

      Only very rarely will a publisher offer that kind of discount to a bookseller. Book shops generally get a 40%-46% discount from publishers and distributors.

      “But they return the books that haven’t sold just before net 90.”

      Actually, bookstores can’t return most books until after the 90 days. And most shops will give a book 4-6 months before returning it.

      “Unfortunately, these returns may be too shelf worn or damaged to resell — so the publisher takes another hit.”

      The bookstore takes the hit if the book is damaged. If a publisher or distributor receives a damaged book as a return, then they will refuse to credit the shop’s account, and they will either send back the book or they will remainder it and sell it again to somebody else at a larger discount.

      “Because of industry return policies, stores order more copies than they can sell.”

      But outside Barnes & Noble, and maybe Powell’s on select titles, nobody really does this with photography books. Most book shops are just buying single copies of art and photography titles, except in rare cases. If a publisher gets a return on a title like this, it’s not because the store bought a stack and couldn’t sell them; it’s because they bought a single copy and couldn’t sell it. Remainder tables are where you’ll find the healthy stacks of photography books.

  8. An assistant who worked on this told me about the project a few years back and I’ve been waiting for it ever since. I’m happy that I’ll finally have a copy to occupy my shelf.