By Andrea Jezovit
It was 1994, and Elvis Costello hated the shot of himself set to appear in Impact Magazine.
So he called photographer Chris Buck’s agent.
“He pretended to be a friend of Elvis’s, and was acting like, ‘Yo, Elvis won’t like that picture’ and all this,” Buck says. Only after a lengthy conversation did Costello reveal who he really was, and the agent explained that the photograph wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. But Elvis had a point. It wasn’t a glamourous portrait. In it, he stands stiffly against a hotel room wall, addressing the camera with an awkward expression.
“It’s not unflattering in a particular way,” Buck says. “He certainly looks uncomfortable, but I think that so much of his music is about being uncomfortable that I think that it suits him.”
Since graduating from Ryerson’s photography program in 1987, Buck has made a living taking not-so-glamourous portraits. Shots of celebrities such as James Gandolfini, Chloé Sevigny and Billy Bob Thornton are far from slick and conventional.
Instead, it’s Gandolfini’s backside, Sevigny making a face fit for porn and Thornton peeing–all for mainstream publications.
“I make no claims for my work as being amazingly new or inventive, but it was, I guess, a little more personal,” he says.
Though Buck incorporates the personalities of his subjects into his work, his portraits of others are reflections of his own interests as well.
Many incorporate sexual themes–Paul Reubens, with blown bubble gum on his face, looks like he’s wearing a condom–as well as a sort of bodily discomfort. “I think to a large extent I’m not that comfortable in my body, so I think a lot of pictures show that kind of awkwardness with the body, not as much as they used to but it’s still in there to some extent.”
It seems like it would be difficult to get, say, Dave Matthews to pose in what looks like a gorilla suit for Blender, or John Cusack to share a couch with a blow-up doll in a piece for W. But Buck says he gets what he wants from subjects today through his confidence and professionalism; most stars are co-operative about his ideas but sometimes Buck has to rely on spontaneity.
During a shoot with former U.S. senator George McGovern at McGovern’s summer rental, Buck asked the old man if he could change back into the Speedo he had just been wearing at the beach. “I really don’t want to over-talk it and have them think it out too much. A lot of my ideas, the more people think about it the more they might become cautious about it,” he says.
Despite his adamant self-expression, Buck says he doesn’t feel the need to take a lot of self-portraits, though he’s happy with a recent shot for Esquire.
The magazine asked Buck to photograph himself as part of a fashion spread, dressed impeccably and incorporating some prop to distinguish himself as a photographer; Buck had a makeup artist give him a black eye and swollen face, and had his assistant reach into the shot with a light metre as the picture was taken.
“It’s kinda the most sorta strange out of all the pictures that we did, and so I was happiest because I think it just makes people sort of look and think, ‘Who is this guy?’ you know? Which is good.”