Snapshots of a Pop Obsessive
Interview with Photographer Chris Buck

By Scott Woods

[Reprinted from, 1996]

Pop photographer Chris Buck has kept me entertained for the better part of ten years now with stories of his professional encounters and other work-and-music-related musings. On a recent roundtrip to Toronto from New York, Chris agreed to chat with me, live, on tape, about his trade, his passions, his techniques, his nervous system, and just about anything else that crossed our minds at the time.

First, a bit of background on Chris's career: started taking pictures semi-seriously in his teens; earned his degree in Photographic Arts at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto in the mid-80s; became Photo Editor of Nerve! magazine (one of the best music journals ever published in Canada, and I guarantee you I'm not just saying that because my writing 'career' started in the same place!); moved to Manhattan in 1990; has since seen his photography published in Interview, Spin, New York, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek...and that's just for starters. You'll have to read onward to find out the list of luminaries Chris has snapped photos of--and while you're here, be sure to check out more of his work here.

The interview took place on the front porch of his parent's house, one Sunday afternoon in mid-September. In his own inimitable style, Chris broke the ice by singing a rendition of C.W. McCall's "Convoy" into my tape recorder.

(Side note: Touch your mouse over the photos to find out who they are and when they were taken.)

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22 Explosive Memories: Growing up in the Seventies

Scott:   I want to ask you a bit about yourself growing up. What music were you listening to between the ages of 12 and 14?

Chris:   Well, it's funny, you're not the first person to ask me this question, because Morrissey asked me the same thing.

Scott:   Really?

Chris:   [With mock arrogance...] That's right! [Pause.] Oh, so I guess I shouldn't tell you the story?

Scott:   No, go ahead.

Chris:   Well, I photographed Morrissey and he was a really, really nice guy. You know, he has a kind of reputation for being difficult with the press, but he was really sweet in that kind of way that--I've noticed maybe three or four people I've photographed have done this--where they have a sense that I'm either intimidated by them or by the situation, and so they go out of their way to ask me questions, rather than making me make conversation with them. So Morrissey asked me, you know, where'd you come from, where'd you grow up. We talked about photographers like Anton Corbijn and people like that, and he asked me what kind of music I liked. I said, well, you know, like any serious listener my taste has a range to it, and right now I'm listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra and big band stuff, and he said, "no, no, I mean what kind of music really goes to the heart of you; what did you listen to when you were 12 years old?" And I said, oh, I listened to Kiss. And he's like...[makes groaning sound]. So I said, oh great, now whenever you think about Chris Buck, photographer, you're gonna think, oh yeah, he's the one who likes Kiss. And he replied, "yes, it really is a pity."

Morrissey (Sep. '92)

Scott:   I guess that's what I was getting at--what's the first music that really had impact on you?

Chris:   Actually, I guess the music I first really listened to was the music I've kind of gotten back in the last few years, which is what I'd call the Adult Contemporary of the time, which would be late 60s, early 70s--Burt Bacharach and Hal David, cheesier stuff like the Fifth Dimension, that sort of thing. I heard it because my parents played it on the radio. They didn't even own them, though we had the Whipped Cream album by Herb Alpert at home, which of course every decent...

Scott:   Every self-respecting household...

Chris:   Every self-respecting, heterosexual household had. I guess some lesbian households, as well [laughs]. Anyways, when I began to listen to music on my own was 1973, '74. I think the first record I bought was "I Don't Like Spiders and Snakes" by Jim Stafford. On the CHUM charts there was stuff like "The Night Chicago Died" by Paper Lace, and...what else? K-Tel albums, and one of those Cher albums, Half Breed or whatever, you know, stuff like that. I was a really big fan of "The Sonny & Cher Show", and some of the first art I made was Sonny & Cher-related art.

Scott:   Oh really?

Chris:   Yeah, I made a little clay pendant of Sonny & Cher. It's funny, you know, 'cause when people have asked me, do you like to shoot celebrities, I was often fond of saying I'd rather shoot, you know, Eric Rohmer than Cher, and always Cher came to mind, when of course, I should be happy to photograph Cher because of my history with her. Back to your question, though, I think Elton John was the first artist who I got into, by buying a few of his albums--Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic--and then when he declared he was gay I lost interest.

Scott:   [Laughing.] Are you kidding?

Chris:   Well, I remember when that came out, I remember being affected by it.

Scott:   Wow.

Chris:   I was around that age, and I felt like he became less manly. [Pause.] No, really.

Scott:   I can't say I remember that moment at all.

Chris:   And then I got into Queen. They become a big, long-running thing for me.

Scott:   Kind of ironic, isn't it?

Chris:   Oh, I know, eh! Because Queen are like...I was talking to a friend, a glam fan, who said when Freddie Mercury died it all kind of came into place for him. We've talked about how much transvestitism and drag was a theme in glam, and he was saying that Queen--Freddie Mercury--was a guy who wore black nail polish, who wore leotards, ballet pants or whatever, with a band called Queen--you know, how could you not make the connection?

A Cowboy Junkies' Work is Never Done: Early Contacts

Scott:   Was it ever a serious desire of yours, when you were younger, to be in a band?

Chris:   When I look at all the different instruments I've taken up--I've taken up guitar, piano--I mean lessons, not just me fooling around--trombone, trumpet, and then tried vocals...I guess I have no talent for it, and...I also find it boring. I really do. The idea of going out and performing the same song over and over again seems really boring to me. I'm much like--I'm much like Steely Dan, for example. [Laughs.]

Scott:   You've heard the expression rock critics are merely frustrated rock musicians. Do you think this also applies to rock photographers?

Chris:   Oh definitely. I remember when I was in college, I studied four years of photography, and it was in my third or fourth year that I decided to take photography seriously, because before that I did all sorts of music-related things. I put together tapes of bands, I had a not-very-serious band with Dave, I was in the local music scene, I managed a band for awhile--Violence & the Sacred--so I really wanted to work in music. Eventually, practical concerns got me out of it. One, I had no talent like the way musicians do. You know, they talk about how they hear tunes come to them. I never had that kind of thing happen to me. And like I said, I don't really get any enjoyment out of playing it. Playing a solo from a song brings me no thrill the way listening to music brings me a thrill. I think most critics and photographers are probably like that. If you were to ask me what would be my ideal job, I'd like to be a rock star. But I'd like to be a rock star without really doing the job. I love the music and the scene, I'd like to have the women...

Scott:   [Laughs.]

Chris:   Quite seriously, I really would like to have the women. And you can put that in there! [Laughs mischievously...] But I've worked that out for myself. In a way it's really good that I've had a chance to play music, to be involved in a local music scene--and I don't want it. It was after my John Lydon photo shoot that I kind of looked at it and thought, hey, I got to photograph John Lydon, this really amazing musician who will go down in history--my hero--and I made a pretty cool picture of him. I went into (photography) for a number of reasons. One, I knew I was good at it, and secondly, it was independent and I could control it, which is great. I get to work with interesting people, but eventually I take responsibility for it, whether it's good or bad.

Scott:   Do you remember what was the first picture you took?

Chris:   The very first picture? Hmm, I'd have to ask my dad...When I really started taking pictures was at Junior Rangers camp, when I was already beginning to get into music and movies and stuff. Most of the pictures I took were the lame type of pictures that everyone thinks of taking, like sunsets and stuff, but I did take a few pictures of some of my cabinet mates at Junior Rangers, and they're actually pretty good, they're portraits. There was one black guy there, he was very suave, and I did like a portrait of him, I said I want you to wear your housecoat and be smoking a pipe, so I had him smoking a pipe on his bed. Another one was of George, who was the kind of loudmouth guy in the cabin, and it's him in the morning--it was so hard to get him out of bed each morning--his whole mattress and bunk are on the ground, falling off the bed and he's wrapped in covers on the bed, so in a way it's not that different, it's kind of the beginning of what I do. And those two were the celebrities of the cabin in a way, they were the guys that everyone kind of knew and joked around with or whatever.

Scott:   What was your first published photograph?

Chris:   I was involved in school musicals at my high school and I was into photography and doing the yearbook...probably my first picture published was, I think, pictures of the school play rehearsals, which were published in the school newspaper. And there was stuff in the yearbook.

Scott:   How did you move into rock photography?

Chris:   I think I was in grade 13 when I worked at Roy Thomson Hall, and I worked there with Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies.

Scott:   That was before the Cowboy Junkies?

Chris:   Yeah. And she was into music, and I was into music too. [Leans back in chair...] Yeah, I remember one time...

Cowboy Junkies (Feb. '90)

Scott:   Are we in for a round of Margo Timmins' stories?

Chris:   That's right! Anyway, Margo was managing Kinetic Ideals and Hunger Project, which was her brother Michael's band, so I talked to her about wanting to do photographs of bands, and she said, you know you should really photograph local bands because they'll be vain enough and yet small enough that they'll let you do it. I thought, that's a really good idea. So eventually she got a band, and they were doing well, so I approached her and asked if I could photograph her band and she said--No! Of course, within six months I was their official photographer.

The Aesthetics of Buck

Scott:   Would you say your early photographs portend, in any way, to what you would call the Chris Buck style of photography? Did you have any direction back then, or were you making it up as you went along?

Chris:   I was basically doing what I do now--I mean, there were certain key turning points, but it's not like I suddenly became talented or something.

Scott:   But what I'm getting at is did you already have a certain umm...

Chris:   A certain aesthetic? Really early on I knew there were certain things I liked and didn't like. I was reading the English music papers around the time I began taking pictures, and that was a big influence on me, photographers like Anton Corbijn. And I recognized, hey, these are rock photos that don't look like rock photos--they're just beautiful, classic portraits. And I realized that's what I want to do. I want to make real portraits, but of rock and roll people who I like. That was basically always my aim. I wanted pictures of rock bands that were not your typical pictures of rock bands.

Scott:   You wanted something more revealing?

Chris:   Not really more revealing, just to have a different kind of look to them, I like them being more serious, like not smiling and stuff, just something different going on, something mysterious or something that's somehow engaging.

Scott:   You started out doing primarily black and white. Was this for financial reasons?

Chris:   No, it was definitely for aesthetic reasons. Recently, say in the last couple years, I've gotten much more into colour. Colour was a commercial concern at first, so I had to do it. I mean, it was ridiculous, I'd be like showing a portfolio of 95% black and white, and they'd say, 'do you shoot colour'? Oh yeah. 'Are you good at it?' Yeah. 'Great--here's a colour job for you. They'd just give me a job. But at one point I really began to shoot much more colour and really tried to do it very well 'cause I needed to get more colour in my portfolio to get more work. That was when I moved to New York (in 1990).

Scott:   What did you originally like more about black and white?

Chris:   Well it's something I didn't really realize at the time, but in thinking about it since I think that it's detached from reality. I mean, what's great about photography is that it appears to be truth, and even though we know photographs can be manipulated through computers and through re-touching and combination printing and that kind of thing--people have been able to alter photographs since the turn of the century and make things look like they're somewhere where they're not--even though most people are sophisticated enough to know that a photograph can be made up, we still believe a photograph when we see it. If you saw a picture of Jean Chretien strangling a protestor you'd believe it's real--not to suggest there's a conspiracy or anything. But you'd believe it's real. If someone said it's real and showed you the picture you'd say, well there's the proof, it happened. That's the real power of photography. And I love that, because you can take a picture of someone, portray them in a certain way, and people will believe that's what the person is about. And it's very, very powerful.

Johnny Thunders (March 1986)

Scott:   Is that dangerous, too?

Chris:   It's dangerous, but hey, anything that has power is dangerous. You just have to understand its place.

Scott:   But even if the "truth" of a photograph is actually twisting the reality , does that in itself turn it into a new truth or something?

Chris:   Yeah, but the truth might be that this is how Chris Buck wants to see this guy. I remember in third year photography class my teacher asked me to try and photograph the essence of this person. And I was like, what a load of baloney! You cannot photograph the essence of one person in one photograph. You can do photographs where people will go, "oh man, you captured my husband," and that's great, but really, you're capturing one aspect of them. You can do a photograph that doesn't look like a person at all, but it's more telling about who they are as a person.

Heroes & Villains: Photographers on Trial

Scott:   Did you ever go through a period where you mimicked, say, Anton Corbijn?

Chris:   Oh totally, yeah. In my last year at college I remember talking to my professor about it. I said I 'm concerned about imitating him, and he said, "you should imitate him. If you feel a desire to, then you really should, because that is how you're going to learn." That's something I've told young photographers as well. There's a time when you have to stop doing that, but if you're in college or just out of college, that's how you learn about how to light, how you learn about what interests you, about how you understand it. If I look at a photograph by Richard Avedon, I go, I like that picture. Well, what do you like about it? I like da da da da da. Now, go do that photograph. Go do a picture of Scott Woods but make it like an Avedon picture. Then you have to look at the Avedon picture in a whole new way. Technically, how does he do that? But then also, you're technically doing it, but something's missing, so you go back to the original picture again and see there's something else going on here that's much more subtle, that is not technical, and obviously I recognize it in some ways, but I can''s not conscious. And that's how imitating someone really helps you learn.

Scott:   Were you intimidated taking Anton Corbijn's photo?

Chris:   Photographing a photographer is funny. Most of them fall into an area where they're reluctant to be photographed, but once they agree, they're among the best subjects because they know what's needed to make a good photograph, and they'll tend to actually be more cooperative than most people.

Anton Corbijn (Oct. '87)

Scott:   How do you feel about having your picture taken?

Chris:   I used to like it, and I didn't really care if the pictures were flattering or not, but now I'm a little more self-conscious about it, and I don't really know why. Maybe I'm more controlling now.

Scott:   Can you single out one favourite photographer?

Chris:   If I had to pick one? [Pause.] Irving Penn.

Scott:   What era was he from?

Chris:   He started in the early 40s and really peaked in the late 40s, early 50s. He's still working today. Actually, I wrote to him and got a letter back from him, saying he liked my picture of Pete Rock. But he also made a note of saying, where was C.L. Smooth?

Scott:   Really?

Chris:   No, he didn't. [Laughs.] He's in his seventies now or something.

Scott:   I have to ask you: what are your thoughts on Annie Liebovitz?

Chris:   I admire that she works very, very hard; she's an extremely hard-working person. But as a photographer--I mean, I never really noticed her until I became a photographer, and then I recognized that she was really well-regarded or whatever, and I essentially reacted against her.

Scott:   Why?

Chris:   I don't dislike her as a person or anything--I have nothing against her. It's just her style...there's no mystery, there's nothing that captivates me in her photographs. They're descriptive in a literal way, and they're literal even in a way that has no twist or interest to me. I don't mind photographs that are literal, but they have to have a literalness that at least has some kind of twist or whatever, and that might be considered pretentious, but that's kind of my taste. Essentially her photographs have no mystery or ambiguity; they are what they are, and they're nicely lit and pretty, and they don't captivate me at all. The only reason I noticed her at all is because she's so hugely known and popular.

Scott:   What about the photo that she might be best known for, theRolling Stone cover of Yoko and John? I think that captures something interesting.

Chris:   Yeah, I think it does, and I think that's one of her very best pictures, and clearly that's a great photograph by almost any--well, certainly by my--standards. That's one of the exceptions. It's one of the pictures by her that does have a certain amount of ambiguity and mystery to it. But if she had her way--in fact, she even said this--Yoko would be nude as well. If Yoko was nude as well, it'd be a really crappy photo. I can come up with a half dozen pictures by Annie Liebovitz that are really great, but you can find a half dozen pictures by anyone who works enough where you can say, hey these are the exceptions and they're really wonderful pictures.

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