Interview with Chris Buck, part 2

By Scott Woods

Photographer of the Stars

Scott:   Do you get nervous about photographing famous people? Are some of them ever nervous about being photographed by a stranger?

Chris: one's ever expressed anything about being a stranger. No, even people I've never photographed before tend to understand the process, enough so that they can get by.

Scott:   What about the first part of the question--do you get nervous?

Chris:   I get a little bit nervous every time, and I get a lot nervous if it's someone who's particularly important to me, or for an important job. Interestingly enough, when I get most nervous is when there's a lot of nervous energy around the person, like there's a bunch of people all crowding around. I photographed Francis Ford Coppola twice: once when Dracula came out and also for this new movie, Jack. When I photographed him for Dracula, people around him were very relaxed, he was very relaxed, he was very fun, and you know, it was a very fast shoot, and everyone was very cool. The second time there was someone new to the job, she was super-uptight, and she made me all uptight. So that makes a big difference.

Scott:   When people conduct interviews, like this one, they usually go into the interview with a set of questions designed to draw out predetermined answers. Does it work that way in your photography? How am I doing, by the way?

Chris:   You're giving me what I want pretty much, but you're surprising me, too.

Scott:   Is it the same with photography?

Chris:   Well, the fact that I do most of my shoots in the nude makes a big difference, 'cause they usually aren't expecting that! Uh, yeah, what was the question?

Scott:   About predetermined...

Chris:   Absolutely. It's the same way as with an interview. You follow your instincts, yes you go in with a pre-set thing and you try and move towards it, but some things come along and they change your agenda, kind of quietly. Sometimes they'll change course entirely, but usually not.

Scott:   As photographer of the stars, do you try to set the mood, or do you have to cop to the mood of your subject?

Chris:   I set the mood.

Scott:   Really? How do you do that?

Chris:   Even if the mood involves reacting to them. It's my shoot, and they know it, even if it's a big star or whatever.

Scott:   Do you ever place your subjects in what, for them, might be uncompromising positions? And how do they usually respond?

Chris:   I do it all the time! I work to do it--it's my job. I want to make a photograph that's an interesting photograph that might say something about them. So to do that you need to put people in situations where they feel awkward. Well, to me anyways, those are the pictures I relate to, maybe because I feel awkward. So I relate to pictures of people feeling awkward. So I'll do that with people. I won't tell them that, I won't say, 'hey, I'm gonna make you feel awkward,' though sometimes I will, if I feel there's some sort of connection with them and I think they're gonna get it. Some subjects respond well to this, Usually it's somewhere in between.

She Appeared Like an Angel Out of This Filthy Mass: Snapping Madonna

Scott:   Who is the most famous person you've photographed?

Chris:   Umm, Madonna would be the most famous. After her, there's a lot of people who are very famous, Willie Nelson, Pat Buchanan--anyone I mention them to is gonna know who I'm talking about. There's a lot of people who fall into that.

Scott:   Describe the encounter with Madonna.

Chris:   I'd been a big fan of Madonna for a long time at that point, and I'd seen her live, and she was totally magnetic and I was really impressed by her. In a way I was more drawn to her as a person and as a personality than I was as an actual singer, though I enjoyed the album True Blue, so it was amazing to see her open the show with "Open Your Heart"--it was incredible. I'd actually had dreams about meeting her...Anyway, I always kind of felt like I would meet Madonna, on some level I felt a certain communion with her. You know, life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone. I hear her call my name...

Scott:   And it feels like home?

Chris:   And it feels like home! So I dreamt about her, and the way I met her was I went to a lecture that (photographer) Stephen Meisel gave at a photography museum in New York, and I brought my camera along 'cause I was into photographing photographers at the time, and I took a few pictures of him, you know, talking or whatever...

Madonna & Stephen Meisel (Feb. '92)

Scott:   Do you like his work?

Chris:   I think it's interesting in that he's very good at what he does, but he's essentially an excellent hack. Or even more specifically, he's an excellent imitator. He does other people very, very well, often better than they do themselves. So his work is very exciting in that sense. I wouldn't consider him an influence in any way but I find he's an interesting person. And his photographs of Madonna, that I'd seen at that point, were really good. So I went to the lecture, and he had nothing to say, it was really hellish. And then he took some questions, and there was someone at the back asking questions, and all these people on the panel with him would laugh when this person would ask questions, this woman. And she was asking stupid questions or whatever, like, "are all your models good time girls?" and stuff like that, and I was like, whatever--I didn't pay much attention to it. And then he said, "should I introduce you?" and I thought, oh it must be his assistant or something--I could tell it was obviously someone he knew--but then I thought, wait a second, maybe it's someone that WE'LL know, and I turned around, it was very dark, I could barely see, but then when she asked another question I was like--[snaps finger]--Madonna! The wheels were turning...

Scott:   The voice recognition...

Chris:   Yeah. I don't think he ever introduced her. It was very much a real photo world gallery thing--she was in no fear of being mauled, and she was hanging out, she was very relaxed, she was wearing a leather jacket, she had no makeup on, her hair was kind of pulled back. She was basically there to meet up with her friend--I think they had just finished shooting the Sex book. Anyway, I thought it'd be great to get a picture of her with Meisel. So I was trying to get light readings, and this guy, her bodyguard, was like, "Hey--no pictures, no pictures!" And then when Meisel came around I asked him, "can I get a picture of you and Madonna together?" And he said, "I don't know...well, I'll ask her." So he reached over to her and said, "this guy wants to get a picture of us together, you wanna do it?" And she was like, "Oh sure!" So he goes behind her and puts his hands up, minstrel-style or whatever, and she says, "Who are you?" Which kind of sounded like, where are you from? And I said [confidently] "I'm Chris Buck!" And I really said it like that, with an almost--not like you-should-know-me, but more I-am-somebody. I said, "I'm Chris Buck," and she said, "Oh--hi Chris!" She smiled and we did the picture--I took one frame. The reason I only took one frame was I felt, she's in her private time here, she's not here to make a scene, it was really sweet of her--of both of them--to pose for the picture, and I want to respect her time. So I took the picture--and splashed it all over the magazines!

What really happened was the next day I called all these different magazines--Interview, Entertainment Weekly--saying I've got this picture, are you interested? And they were like--nope! No one's interested. Okay. Eventually American Photo magazine used it in a story about Stephen Meisel and the Sex book, and then Sex came out and everyone wanted it, 'cause it was a picture of them together, and there weren't any pictures of them together that were available. So Entertainment Weekly ran it, and then New York magazine called me for it, and they eventually ran it on the cover, which I had really mixed feelings about, because it wasn't really what I did, it was kind of a snapshot, it was grainy and kind of fun, like a nice picture, but it was not what I wanted represented as Chris Buck photography. Then Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous used it as a story about [in best Robin Leach impersonation] "Famous Photographers of the Stars!" [Laughs.] And that was really a turning point for me; that was a marker that I had made it.

Scott:   So how do you feel now about the New York cover?

Chris:   It doesn't matter, no one really cared either way. The picture's a really fun picture--you've seen it, right?

Scott:   Yeah, I had the cover of the magazine hanging up for a long time.

Chris:   It's not a bad picture, it's just know my work...

Scott:   Stephen Meisel looks like Chris Lowe.

Chris:   And like Chris Lowe he walked right off after I took the picture!

Rock Stars in Their Underpants: Notable Encounters, part 1

Scott:   Tell us about Placido Domingo.

Chris:   Placido Domingo was the biggest asshole around; he is such a fucking asshole.

Scott:   Really?!

Chris:   No, I'm just kidding, he was really nice.

Scott:   What was he like, really?

Chris:   He was actually what you'd expect, very gentlemanly.

Scott:   Pretty much like most of the opera people I know...

Chris:   Totally pro, gave his 110%. He came in, fully in costume, ready to go on stage and he's like 'Aaaahhh!!' [Makes loud, operatic bellowing sound.] Just for us. It was amazing.

Placido Domingo (April '94)     Sophie B. Hawkins (April '88)

Scott:   You photographed Sophie B. Hawkins?

Chris:   Yep. For New York magazine.

Scott:   She didn't pose nude for you...

Chris:   Almost!

Scott:   Really?!

Chris:   I got her down to her bra and panties! [Laughs.]

Scott:   Did you plan that?

Chris:   No. If I get the instinct that someone might take their clothes off than I'll take it as far as I can.

Scott:   How do you get that instinct?

Chris:   I photographed George McGovern in his Speedo bathing suit...

Scott:   Go back to Sophie B. Hawkins. What transpired that suddenly she was in her bra and panties?

Chris:   Well nothing transpired particularly, I just said, "what do you have to show me?", and she showed me a bra, and, uhh, I can't remember, but I said something like "what if you added this and just wore a black bra with it?", and she just said, "oh, that's fine." I never act like anything I'm doing is weird or outrageous. I always act like it's the best idea in the world or that it's the totally normal thing to do for a photo shoot. If I say with confidence, "It'd look SO COOL if you were to do this." "Yeah? You really think it'd be good, eh?" "Oh, it looks incredible!" "Okay--let's try it!" They'll see my confidence and enthusiasm and run with it--and that's really important.

Scott:   You talked a little bit earlier about John Lydon--why was it so important for you to photograph him?

Chris:   He was one of the first persons who was a personal idol to me that I photographed.

Scott:   And how was it?

Chris:   It was great. It was exactly like you'd expect him to be. I'd be like, "Umm, Mr. Lydon...John"--he wanted me to call him Mr. Lydon--I said "could you move to the left a bit?" [In British accent] "No! I'm not moving to the left!" "Why not?" "It's fucking boring." And then he'd just kind of go and do it. At one point he had these sunglasses on. "Could you take your sunglasses off?" "No." And then just, "No--because they're off already!" It was weird, almost like he'd do anything to not be told what to do, but he'd still be cooperative. He was very nice, actually. I liked him.

Rocksucker Blues: Notable Encounters, part two

Pat Buchanan (July '96)

Scott:   Why do you refer to Pat Buchanan on your list of subjects as a critic?

Chris:   I started talking about music with him, I was mentioning bands who have Presidents names and stuff like that--you know, the Nixons, Presidents of the United States of America and stuff like that--and he was laughing about it. He'd never heard of the Dead Kennedys...

Scott:   Really?

Chris:   I thought he might've liked them. Anyways, I asked him who he liked and he said, Patsy Cline, which wasn't surprising, and he also said he liked Joan Baez, and I was like, "Joan Baez?!" He's like, "oh yeah, she's got a beautiful voice," and I said, "what about her politics?" "Oh, in those days everyone was against the war." Isn't that incredible?

Scott:   Yeah, most of her music is pretty hellish.

Chris:   I know, she's so terrible.

Scott:   She does have a good voice, though. Any wild Robertson Davies'stories?

Chris:   I was probably more intimidated by him than anyone else I've photographed; more than Lou Reed, Morrissey, whoever. Photographing a writer is odd because when you read someone you get inside their head in a weird sort of way--there's an intimacy there that you don't have with other arts. And him, he's also of another time; not just the way he looks, but his whole persona...even the way he writes is like a Victorian novelist or something. And trying to make small talk with someone like that...he was a very polite man, but basically he had no interest in engaging in small talk with Chris Buck. He was very polite, so I don't want to sound like I'm dissing him, 'cause I'm not, but there was nothing I could say to him that would charm him or enchant him. I ran out of things to say to him after about three minutes. I was smart enough to not say, "I love your books, I've read this one and that one!"

Scott:   What was it like to have Pussy Galore come over to your house? And how'd that come about?

Chris:   I photographed Pussy Galore for Graffiti magazine in 1988. I knew them more by their album titles than by their music. So I photographed them downtown, then I told them I had Cocksucker Blues on video and they said they had some time to kill, we'll come by and see it. So they drove out here, came in--this is like my family home, my mother and my sisters are home and all that. So we go to the basement and we're watching it. And we recently, a couple months before that, had made a rule that smoking was only allowed in one room in the house, and it wasn't that room. And of course, they're very cool people and they wanna smoke. So they were lighting up and I'm like--uh-oh. But I didn't want to look uncool in front of Pussy Galore so I didn't tell them they couldn't smoke. So my sister comes down and she's like "Chris!" So I go upstairs and I talk to my sister, and I say, "please, cut me some slack, make an exception, obviously this isn't going to happen all the time, I don't wanna make a bad impression on these people." So I go downstairs, and a few minutes later my sister comes down, she walks in the room and everyone turns and looks at her and she says, "You're gonna get it when dad gets home!"

Pussy Galore (April '88)

Scott:   What did Pussy Galore do?

Chris:   They, umm, started laughing, and I was never a cool person. My chances of becoming a cool person rapidly decreased at that moment.

Someday a Real Rain Will Come and Wash all the Garbage and the Trash off the Sidewalk: Buck's Shit-list

Scott:   Give an example of someone who was an awful experience to photograph.

Chris:   Beck.

Scott:   How come?

Chris:   He just would not do anything.

Scott:   What did you ask him to do?

Chris:   Well, for example, we were at an old hair salon, it was built in the early '70s, it had those big hair dryer things you put on your head. I just wanted him to sit there plainly and put it on his head--he wouldn't do it. I thought, okay, maybe a little silly. So we went to another location and there was a shopping cart that was molded by an artist so that the front part of it where you legs go over was brought down so it was kind of a leg rest, and the sides were rolled over to be an arm rest--he wouldn't sit in it. I thought, this is really cool looking and it's totally inoffensive, I can't imagine how this could be read incorrectly, and I didn't get it. But the pictures were done very simply and against great colour and the magazine (Spin) used them beautifully, and in the end it was a great shoot.

Scott:   When he would refuse to do those things, would you push it at all, or would you ask him why?

Chris:   At first I'd ask why, but after awhile I just wouldn't bother.

Scott:   Out of everyone on your list--the musicians, that is--who did you most want to kill?

Chris:   There's a lot of people who have treated me really badly. Should I list them off?

Scott:   Yeah!

Chris:   Elvis Costello did, but I didn't really mind 'cause I expected it. Nick Cave, the first time I photographed him, was probably the worst ever. After I took each frame he basically would throw an insult at me.

Scott:   What kind of insults?

Chris:   Like, "do you even know what you're doing?" "Why are you taking a picture of this? This is so lame."

Scott:   Does that really throw you?

Chris:   Mmmm, no, because I don't really pick up on it, usually. Things like that I only know when someone tells me afterwards. When I photographed Motorhead they were throwing insults at me the entire time, and the only reason I know what happened is because my assistant told me what they said. They were saying stuff like "did you win this job in a lottery?" [Laughs.]

Scott:   It's a good thing you don't notice.

Chris:   I know! I mean, I know they're insulting me, but the details don't really register. [Scanning list of subjects...] Umm, who else we got?...Listing all the people who have been mean to me is really good--this is my small chance at revenge. The Pogues made fun of me because I was so quiet. John Cale was really harsh with me. It's funny because a lot of these were at the beginning of my career, when I don't think I was projecting the kind of confidence I do now. When people are difficult with me now it makes me really mad. Ian Hunter was a real jerk! I don't remember exactly what happened, but I remember coming away from it really angry. Actually, of all the people I've mentioned, I'd say the one I wanted to kill the most was probably Ian Hunter, and now he's dead so...

Scott:   No, Ian Hunter's not dead...

Chris:   Oh Mick Ronson's dead. Mick Ronson was really nice, I wouldn't want him dead.

Living High in the Dirty Business of Interviews: The Obsession with Dean and Frank

Scott:   Let's talk a little bit about Dean and Frank.

Chris:   Let's!

Scott:   How did you discover these guys, and what do you find so appealing about them?

Chris:   Well, Frank, I discovered because he's a popular icon and I read that Kitty Kelley book, and that kind of got me more interested in him, even though I believe a lot of it to be just conjecture. I was drawn to him as a personality first, in the way that he's a very charismatic and exuberant, fun person, but also he could be very mean-spirited and kind of boorish. As I started to get into his music, he became a real icon of almost the perfect artist, not that everything he did was perfect, but at his best, he was untouchable. He did his form of music better than anyone else ever has or I believe ever could. His best peak-era stuff--late '50s, early '60s--like "Under My Skin," just the pacing, the orchestration, could not have been better.

Scott:   Okay, what about Dean?

Chris:   Just one more thing about Frank. Even though he's behaved badly, he's also someone who has taken life in a hard way, and it's not so much that life has been particularly hard to him--though some might argue it has--I think it has no more than any average person--he takes on a certain quality, like Nixon, that people can see his vulnerability, and they can see that he takes love and heartbreak very personally and really is affected by it in a way that you don't see in most performers...Frank is really vulnerable in that area, and I think that's one of the things that made him a great big star.

Chris Buck, photographed by Alan Farmer (Dec. 95)

Scott:   And Dean?

Chris:   Dean, I got into him much later, again through a biography--Nick Tosches' book--and Dean's musical contribution is next to nil, but his presence as a personality is undeniable. He really does rival Frank, in a very different way, almost in a complimentary way. He's so smooth, so refined, and he can be totally goofy and funny--he actually does remind me a lot of Cary Grant, even looks like him. He's the definition of cool. I remember reading something about how Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, those two guys at that time [late '50s, early '60s]--it was the only time where hip and, where hipness and...

Scott:   Conservatism?

Chris:   Not necessarily conservatism...where hipness and a kind of adultness came together. The way it was phrased was really perfect, it was like, you could be stylish and hip at the same time. This is probably my favourite period overall, I'd say '58 to '63. I love the clothes and the haircuts, it's Kennedy's time, Frank and Dean, and not coincidentally, I think, it's the period right before I was born.

Scott:   It's interesting, also, because a lot of rock critics point to that period as being really fallow, 'cause Elvis was in the army...

Chris:   Right--between Elvis and the Beatles.

Scott:   Yet I think it's a great period in pop, it's more like just a bunch of bands who came and went, and girl groups...

Chris:   Right, but notice I didn't mention anything about pop music? Obviously, Frank's pop music, but I like how he's pre-rock and roll, and yet there's something of the rock and roll swagger to it, in a sense, without the brashness and the rebellion. What I like about those guys, Dean and Frank, is, we can be adult and still have a lot of fun. It's helped my transition into adulthood in a sense, in that I can be an adult and still have a very good time.

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    (This interview first appeared in Popped in 1996.)