Louisa J. Curtis of Chatterbox Enterprises Chats with Chris Buck

October 10, 2011

By Louisa J. Curtis

© Chris Buck

Paul Cooper isn't Bill Gates.

I met photographer Chris Buck several years ago now when I was moderating one of my first-ever panel discussions for the photography industry, and Chris was one of my panelists. I was a fan of Chris’ work back then and an even bigger fan now, so I was excited to interview him for this month’s article. When we talked, he asked me to make sure I looked at his Blog, which was relatively new, so I asked him when had he launched it and what purpose was it serving for him? My agent Patrick Casey suggested that I do a Blog. To my mind the only way a Blog can be interesting is if the writer shows true vulnerability, and for a photographer that means discussing what went wrong on shoots; and this seems to be a recipe for losing clients, not gaining them. But Patrick won the argument as he explained that clients will read photographers’ Blogs to get a sense of who you are, what you’ve done and what you would be like to work with. And, as my website doesn’t have a Portfolio or an Overview section, there is no other quick way to get a sense of what I shoot.

So, I work to be genuine on my Blog while showing discretion for my clients. I’d like for the reader to have some sense of the challenges of this job, while keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing. We launched on Mother’s Day this year, May 9th, 2011, hence my first posting is about my mother’s influence on what I do.

Certainly I tell my own clients how important it is to convey your personality these days, not just great imagery, so I asked Chris how much time he spends Blogging? I update my Blog once a week on average, unless the material is time-sensitive, in which case, it might be more often. Blogging does take time, and time spent Blogging is time taken away from making images. I couldn’t agree more! To save time, I tie all my social networking together, so when I update the Blog, it updates everything at once. Perhaps 5% of my on-line audience will be clients but if a handful of those people offer me work I’ll be regularly busy, so I think that it’s worthwhile for now.

I asked Chris what is the most rewarding thing about being a photographer and he said: One, that people have respect for what I do, and two, that I get to take (and keep) awesome photos of my life.  I find that many pictures can be more meaningful later on – especially portraits of family and friends.  

For example, we talked about wedding photography, and how many generations will potentially cherish those precious family images, and Chris told me a funny story of how he had been asked to photograph a cousin’s wedding when he was just starting out at 18 years old. Years later, he was visiting the same cousin and remarked at these interesting portraits of his parents hanging on their wall, not recognizing that they were his own photographs that he had taken all those years ago, and they still looked cool! But back to the point about making photographs, because for Chris it is also about making memorable photographs where the whole narrative is distilled into one single frame and the story is revealed over time. A good image also reveals itself over time because it has multiple layers of meaning.

Many people might mistakenly pigeonhole Chris by speaking of him as a “humorous” photographer, but he doesn’t necessarily want “humor” to be the first thing people say about his work. Undeniably, humor is a thru-line, and he certainly has a serious and wry sense of humor but it is not his intention to necessarily be funny, which is why it works. That’s not what he sets out to do. He said: The word “funny” can be diminishing. When you think of the great photographers, you don’t necessarily think of a good laugh. I’m looking to make photos that are “strange” or “unexpected”, not “funny”. But when an ad is “witty” people are more open to it, and perhaps more willing to buying, so there’s a place for my visual style of wit in advertising. We talked some more about this, and from my own theater training, I know that “comedy” is far more difficult to do than “tragedy.” A clown, for instance, is very serious about their red nose, to them it is perfectly normal, not a funny appendage. Chris continued: A character can be deadly serious to themselves, even though they are funny to the viewer. One of the reasons why I love Hitchcock is the balance of suspense and humor within his movies.

I wanted to find out more about this sense of “mystery” Chris is seeking and asked him if he plans the mystery or does he discover it while shooting? I suppose that it comes from a natural instinct, it’s not like I’m on set thinking, “got to get some mystery in here”. But all great photos have an element of mystery to them, don’t you think? For me, it’s more about what you leave out. Leaving out something can say more. I prefer to take away something obvious and make the viewer wonder a little.  I asked Chris to tell me some of his favorite photographers, and what he admires about them.  Irving Penn, and his portraits from the 40s  and 50s; the portrait of Christian Dior is one of my favorites – he looks both vulnerable and important at the same time. Also, Anton Corbijn – – who as an International music photographer, was my role model when I was first starting out. And, Taryn Simon – – because she is intellectual while still very much being a photographer – the ideas don’t dominate the work.

Much of Chris’ work is shot in series and I was curious in particular to know more about how the Phobias series came about, especially as this was not shot using real people?  The “Phobias” series was shot for OUTSIDE magazine. I was given 20 phobias to read through and then choose 7 or 8 of them to actually shoot.  They wanted photo-illustration, or conceptual images. When you shoot portraits, the viewer has to connect with your subject in some way, but with conceptual, you have to convey the idea of something, so it’s better without the face. I was excited about the idea of using something symbolic or non-human to illustrate this particular concept.

My agent at the time, Julian Richards and I were brainstorming and I misunderstood something he said, which actually then turned into the concept for the shoot. I knew that I wanted to play with scale and use a Ken-type doll, and that’s what we did. It’s interesting how photography with miniatures and dioramas has become a genre in and of itself. I’m a fan of Corinne May Botz’s series  “Unexpected Deaths”, as well as the classic work of David Levinthal

Each series has it’s own set of challenges and Chris continued: The “Isn’t” series was difficult to do as the edit was essentially based on the frame in which the model looked most like the celebrity – so then the edit wasn’t necessarily based on the best photo. I did the Michael Jackson one first as a shoot for GQ magazine and then Maxim magazine asked me to do a regular series for them, and they had a budget. Sometimes I would like a series to be larger – I would have liked to do more for the “All Fours” series but it was too challenging to pull off, for a variety of reasons. I was also curious if he knows when he’s done with a particular series, or is the door always open?  You know for different reasons – what’s that expression – An art project is never finished, you just give up.   

And while we were on the subject of challenging, I asked Chris what would he say is the most challenging aspect to what he does?  Getting access to celebrities, because I really only get to work with them through my editorial jobs. Most of the famous people that I photograph are perfectly nice and generous, but they’re there for a reason, to publicize a project in the mass media, and as I can’t provide that to them on my own there really isn’t a strong incentive for them to sit for me otherwise.

Often, when shooting a celebrity, photographers are not given much time, so I asked Chris if he likes to have plenty of time with his subjects or does he prefer to work quickly? My shoots end when people insist on leaving! “Um Chris, I really have to go now…” One time I was photographing the director David Fincher and he asked me, “How long is this going to go?” So I told him, “When you ask me to leave.” He replied, “This is the last roll then.” It was actually an amazing session; we chatted a lot, and argued about filmmakers (in particular Sam Peckinpah), and he knew my work before I arrived (which is rare).  If I have all day, I’ll take it. One time I shot 40 rolls in 3 hours, all for 1 frame. Some photographers will say, “I’ll know when I’ve got it”, I find that totally unfathomable.

So I asked Chris what made him want to become a photographer in the first place? So that I could combine what I was good at with what I was interested in. I love music and popular culture, but I have no musical talent. I was good at photography, so becoming a portraitist of the important people of our time was a great compromise. My plan is to do this over a period of 50 years – and I’m about halfway through! I, for one, certainly look forward to seeing the second half!

And here are my ChatterDozen quick fire questions with Chris’ responses:

1) What would you do if you weren’t a photographer?  I would make documentary films. I love the American Cinema Verite films of the sixties and early seventies, so I’d probably use that approach as a starting point.

2) If you could be born in another period of history, when would that be and why?  Our own time is exciting – I think it is important as an artist to connect with our own time – the past shouldn’t be more magical than the present, or the our possible future.

3) What was the last movie you saw? Our Idiot Brother (with Paul Rudd)
On DVD – The Secret in their Eyes (crime thriller from Argentina and 2010 Oscar Academy Award winner for best foreign language film).

4) What is your favorite TV show? I do watch GPS (Global Public Square with Fareed Zakaria) but my real favorites are Top Chef and Project Runway! (Man after my own heart – for Top Chef & Project Runway, that is!)

5) What is your favorite food? Confit de Canard (aka Duck Confit). But they only seem to be able to get it right in Europe, maybe that’s part of the allure.

6) What is your favorite animal? Cats (then zebras) I reassured him that cats made sense seeing as he’s a Leo!

7) What is your favorite color? Dark blue.

8) What is your favorite day of the week, and why?  Wednesday – it’s the day with the least pressure.

9) What is your favorite music, song or band? Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, LCD Soundsystem, and Nick Cave.

10) If you could get on a plane tomorrow, perhaps to somewhere you have never been to before, where would you fly to and why?  Africa – to do a proper tour of the continent. I was in Ghana for a weeklong shoot ten years ago, but it really felt like just the tip of the iceberg.

11) Who (dead or alive) do you admire? Alfred Hitchcock, Dennis Prager, Diane Arbus and Frank Sinatra.

12) What 3 words best describe your photography?  I can’t say.

Louisa J. Curtis – Creative Consultant, Chatterbox Enterprises  For more information on Louisa’s services, or to be added to her monthly ChatterBulletin mailing list, contact her at