ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU
THE FIERY FURNACES
GUILLERMO DEL TORO
THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS
ROBERT DE NIRO
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC
When you were getting started on Presence, did you make up a list of rules? What were your boundaries?
So since that time the sitters have to be in the same room as the camera, and sadly Krasinski no longer qualifies. I guess that this hard rule gets ambiguous when shooting space is less defined (like with Kathy Griffin, or Masaharu Morimoto), but ultimately it's important to me to stay loyal to the spirit of the project.
When people question me about it they realize that I have a lot of little rules for myself about where someone can hide and how I talk about the project - including not telling where people are hidden. I also never show "peeking" photos - though with about half of the sittings I have a shot with the person peeking from out of their hiding spot. I plan on never showing those. Another one is I tend to hide people in obvious places, it is important for people to be upfront and close to the camera, not way back in the shot.
The session is always a portrait sitting, in that they are always willing and cooperative. I can't just spot Julia Roberts walk into a building and then photograph that building facade and title it "Julia Roberts."
Have there been any others that you had to abandon for technical reasons?
My favorite story comes from my brief impromptu session with Bo Diddley at LAX.
My shot gets three or four people in the foreground and some phone stalls, and I have him hiding around the corner but I can still see his shoes and I'm like "Mr. Diddley, you need to step back more, I can see you." But one, he's fucking Bo Diddley, he wants to be seen and two, he doesn't really understand me and literally, my flight was boarding. So I got a couple of frames but he's visible. I just love him and so it's a shame that it can't really be part of the series.
Do you really think that he was reluctant to hide?
Perhaps, but only because he's such a showman. Wasn't he the first in popular music to regularly name check himself in his songs?
Whoopi Goldberg declined to sit for the series and I think it's because she didn't like the idea of not being visible. She seemed to love the book, she actually pored over it in great detail, but in the end she said no. She was so intrigued by the project, yet would not do it.
How did the whole idea come about?
I was brainstorming about some promotional piece ideas with Julian Richards, my agent at the time, and I was telling him about that Steve Martin Saturday Night Live monologue "Not Gonna Phone It In Tonight." He breaks into song about [singing] "not gonna phone it in tonight! I'm gonna really try tonight." And he walks around the different parts of the studio, you know with the camera guys and the lighting crew, the cast members, and Lorne Michaels. Each sings a line or two with Steve. It's very charming and but also funny.
I guess I have a soft spot for conceptual art that is genuinely funny and clever, so I thought, what if I do some portrait shoots where I literally just call it in. I phone my assistant and I say "You put the one light here and other light there, set the ratio at this, and tell the subject this, you know like 'jump on one foot'" or something. Well, nothing that stupid, but you get the idea. Then, whatever we get, that's the finished photo.
So you, the photographer would be somewhere else?
I would be literally "phoning it in." I'd be at home, or maybe I'm on vacation on a tropical island.
But I figured it was funny as an idea but as pictures it may not be so good. Ultimately I am a photographer so these images may be conceptually sound but not visually be acceptable.
I refined it and suggested to Julian, "What if instead of me not being there, the sitter not being there." We do a shot with George Clooney, for example, and he's no longer there - which would be super conceptual. Then I thought, maybe the twist could be to actually have him there but not be able to see him - and that's how Presence came about.
Viewers must ask you where the people are hiding, yes?
For me it's not really about where they are in the picture. It's pretty unsatisfying to play "Where's Waldo" with this series. Partially because they will never be seen, but also because in most pictures there is often only one or two places that can be hiding an adult human.
Nonetheless, I imagine that most viewers can't help but look for the celebrities, despite your insistence that they cannot be seen.
Well, even the celebrities themselves. I was set up to shoot Russell Brand via one of the producers of "Get Him To The Greek" while they were filming the movie in New York. So, the producers take him through the mock-up and he points at a photo and asks, "Where is he?" and I say, "I can't tell you." My producer friend looks at me with clenched teeth and a smile and says slowly "Perhaps since Russell is sitting for you, you can tell him where one of the people is in the picture" and I'm like, "Perhaps Russell likes a mystery." And with a big childlike smile Russell chimes, "I love mystery!"
At what point did you decide to make this a long-term project, and then a book?
Initially I thought I would do about fifteen and then stop, but once I got really shooting I realized two things. One: I needed at least one or two top notch A-List stars to anchor it because in its own oblique way it is about the celebrity as much as it is about the visual image and the concept. Two: I assumed from the beginning that I would be shooting in hotel rooms and photo studios-where I usually encounter my portrait subjects-and they would all be kind of bland, and blend together. I thought, Well, if I can get fifteen pictures it can at least be an interesting promotional piece. It would be a mini catalogue of some vaguely blank spaces that would be kind of funny or interesting rhythmically and have a bit of photographic Ad Reinhardt quality. It would be about the near repetition of the mundane. The very first one I actually executed was William Shatner. It was just so beautiful; it had such a range of tonality and subtle color shifts. I was like "wow, this can to be really quite stunning, in a more direct way."
It seems that most of the sitters were game; were any reluctant?
Jack Nicklaus really fought me, so I had to give him a quick explanation of how conceptual art works. He came around and seemed to enjoy it in the end.
We actually asked to shoot him with this bear for the magazine assignment and he wouldn't do it, he didn't want to deal with the animal rights people writing to him. Of course now just the bear is in the photo, and it's titled 'Jack Nicklaus.'
David Lynch was the opposite; for most people I have to outline it in detail for them. But with Lynch I started to give my explanation and he cut me off, "I understand." He then walked over and stepped into the shot perfectly.
Getting people to focus on actually hiding properly can be tough. I think that Anthony Bourdain was texting while in his hiding spot.
Did the more "artistic" types have an easier time with the concept? Although that may be an arbitrary distinction. I know you are a fan of Snoop Dogg - how was he?
We did two shots for the series but he didn't really see the value in it. He was obviously thinking about it while hiding though, because afterward he said, "I'm going to make a new record and we're going to have the best producer and do the full packaging but when you play the disc, there will be no sound."
I didn't want to break it to him that John Cage already did that.
Andy Samberg was funny and very cool to spend time with, but he too thought about it. He was quiet for a while and then says, "I have an idea for your next series: you stage a full-on fight. A punching, hair-pulling, teeth-flying, fucking brawl - just craziness. Then you frame your photograph just to the side of it."
When people say something like this, they clearly understand what this series is about, and that's very satisfying.
It's not easy to convince fifty public figures to pose for a photograph in which they will not technically appear.
Public figures are not conceptual people. They are busy and suspicious, vulnerable, result-oriented. They're being pulled in multiple directions at once before you even hit them with your own request. Like I said, it's not easy. You have to be willing to beg, wheedle, horse-trade, appeal to reason, appeal to duty, annoy, pester, hassle, play dumb, lie outright. Chris Buck did all these things, but mainly he pestered.
I was in New York City producing the movie Get Him to the Greek. I'm an old friend of Chris through his wife, Michelle. He had some favors to call in. I remember feeling mildly put out when Chris decided to cash a favor in by asking me if he could come by our set during a lunch break to take pictures of one of the stars of our movie. That meant I would have to pull him out of his only real break in a sixteen-hour workday to do exactly what he had just spent his entire morning doing - having his picture taken. And in this case, he wouldn't even be visible in the picture, which sort of defeats the point.
It was with some dread that I walked into Russell Brand's trailer and asked if he'd mind participating in Chris's project. I got ready to have to explain it all multiple times.
But instead of letting loose a stream of florid Dickensian profanity, Russell reacted with delight. Chris's idea struck him as subversive. He wanted to participate. In fact he was so enthusiastic that I pretended that arranging the thing had been my idea.
Russell spent the better part of lunchtime working with Chris. He hid in plain sight all around the lobbies of the Plaza Hotel. The result ended up on the cover of this collection. Russell is a vivid presence in real life as well as in front of the camera. He makes a strong impression. So too, in Chris's photograph of Russell, which suggests that even the void Russell leaves behind is larger than life.
It isn't surprising to me that so many celebrities took to Chris's concept and agreed to “pose” for him. Most actors are accustomed to being used as a prop. They sit where they're told and act how they're supposed to for the director, or the photographer. They're under hot lights, dressed in borrowed clothing. Most of the time the camera captures their reflection - that is all. Nobody understands this more than Chris who has taken thousands of photographs of celebrities for magazines and advertisements. Perhaps that's what fueled his desire to see this project through, amidst the pestering and cajoling and calling in favours - to strip the artifice away as much as possible.
The result is Presence, a series comprising what may be his most truthful portraits. Or, if not that, then they may be his least false. Or, maybe they're total bullshit. The answer is fixed somewhere inside the photographs, without a doubt, though we can't see it.
Photo by Lisa Kannakko
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Nowness, U.K. January 6, 2013
London Telegraph, U.K. December 7, 2012
A Photo Editor, U.S.A., November 9, 2012
New York Magazine, U.S.A., October 20, 2012
Toronto Standard, Canada, October 12, 2012
Los Angeles Magazine, U.S.A., October 11, 2012
Politken, Denmark, October 4, 2012
JustLuxe, U.S.A., October 2, 2012
Plaid, Canada, September 25, 2012
GQ.com, U.S.A, August 30, 2012
Huffington Post, U.S.A., August 29, 2012
Toro Magazine, Canada, August 27, 2012
National Post, Canada, August 23, 2012
Cool Hunting, U.S.A., August 21, 2012
CNN Photo Blog, U.S.A., August 3, 2012
Photo District News, U.S.A., August 1, 2012
Tagesanzeiger, Germany, July 16, 2012
Kurier, Germany, July 5, 2012
Zeit, Germany, July 2, 2012
Timothy Archibald blog, U.S.A., May 16, 2012
July 1 - 6, 2012 - Santa Fe Workshop: The Surprising Portrait with Chris Buck
September 12, 2012 - Presence Book Launch Day
October 4, 2012 - Book Signing and Launch Party, International Center of Photography, New York, 6 - 7:30 PM
October 12, 2012 - Book Signing and Canadian Launch Party, TYPE BOOKS, Toronto, ON
October 13 - 14, 2012 - Pikto Workshop: UNCOMMON: New Approaches to Portraiture with Chris Buck, Toronto, ON
October 18, 2012 - Book Signing, Hennessey & Ingalls Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA, 6 - 8 PM
October 26, 2012 - PDN PhotoPlus panel: A Career In Editorial Photography, with Chris Buck, Martin Schoeller and Jake Chessum, moderated by Rob Haggart, 1:30 - 3:30 PM
October 27, 2012 - PDN PhotoPlus panel: The Art and Business of Portraiture, with Chris Buck, Lydia Panas and Charlotte Dumas, moderated by Michael Foley, 8:45 - 10:45 AM
November 7, 2012 - Talk and signing with Aperture, New York
November 8, 2012 - Party for the launch of American Photography 28, featuring two images from PRESENCE
January 16 - February 24, 2013 - Exhibition of prints from Presence, Foley Gallery, NYC. Opening Reception January 16, 6 - 8 PM
February 7 - 9, 2013 - Texas Photo Roundup: Chris Buck Portrait Workshop, Austin, TX
February 23 - 24, 2013 - Weekend Portrait Workshop, Vancouver, BC