Hello, I am Chris Buck, a New York-based portrait photographer. Ask me anything about the photo world, art careers, and working with the famous. I have photographed four Presidents, Jay-Z, and Grumpy Cat.
Growing up in Toronto, my father worked for Kodak, creating an early and natural connection to photography. I was obsessed with pop culture and celebrities, but wanted to photograph them in my own weird way.
Moving to New York in 1990, I developed an editorial career shooting the likes of Johnny Depp, Steve Martin, and Ozzy Osbourne, and for clients like GQ and The New York Times Magazine. My personal projects include people who share my full name in “Chris Buck’s Chris Bucks,” and the partners of exotic dancers in “Gentlemen’s Club.”
I am open in my practice and happy to share my perspective on careers in photography, favorite photo books, influences, and getting people to do crazy shit in pictures. So please, ask me anything!
Proof: Here's my proof!
This is a great question.
I usually have at least one personal project on the go that I can turn to when not on assignment. Some of the projects turn into books, others become a section on my website, and the rest are abandoned (with perhaps one or two pictures from the series surviving to be shown).
But just as important as having a finesse and easy with the technically aspects on set is keeping the creative muscle in good shape, and that can come through writing down ideas, or even brainstorming large projects.
Did you get to pet grumpy cat? And was he as fluffy as he looks?🥺
Despite her moniker, Grumpy Cat was friendly and cooperative, and even posed for pictures with much of the crew at the end of the session. A true star!
Of all the people (and animals) who you've photographed, who was the most naturally photogenic?
As a portrait photographer I don't really think about a subject being photogenic. I'm less interested in the ideal and more in the quirkiness and vulnerabilities of the subject.
Beauty and grace do make a picture better, but that can be found in "unphotogenic" sitters pretty easily if you have an eye for it.
Do you have any advice for photographers who are struggling with the business side of things? I personally struggle with networking and selling myself to potential clients
If you're going to work as a freelancer then I'll have to find a workaround and become better self promoter.
When I was starting out and I had to call magazines to show my portfolio I would (in my mind) take on another persona so that I had the courage to pick up the phone and make the call.
There are a lot of photographers out there and you need to be proactive in getting your work (and yourself) seen. You can be super talented, but it won't matter if few people see hour work.
Of the 4 presidents, jayz and grumpy cat, which do you feel is more influential?
For clarity sake, the four Presidents I did sittings with are G.H.W. Bush (41), George W. Bush (43), Barack Obama (44), and Donald Trump (45).
Presidents generally have more influence than strictly cultural figures. Only the future can tell, but my guess is that Trump will be the most historically relevant figure of these subjects of mine.
Obama is important as the first Black President, but Trump is so outside the box of who ends up in the White House, this could be a marker what the presidency looks like going forward.
I'm just realizing now that this was probably a joke question.
Hello Reddit, I signed off at 5:30 PM EST. Thank you for all of the fantastic questions. Sorry that I won't be able to address the ones posted after 5:30. Cheers, Chris
Hello, what is your opinion on AI in art, photography, etc.?
I'm equally scared and curious about the use of AI in creative works. I imagine that I'll lose assignments to AI but perhaps not jobs that I wanted anyway.
AI will change things, for sure, but exactly how it's unclear. My guess is that there will be some unintended consequences that will make us regret its introduction.
Hello Chris , How's your day going?
Thanks for asking! It's a packed day as I'm flying tomorrow for an out of town shoot. But I can't tell you what it is. ;^)
Just took a look, David Byrne, WOW. who thinks up the ideas for the photo shoots and have you ever had someone say no to the original idea? Anybody come up with a better idea than you suggested and you went with their idea instead?
People say no to ideas all of the time, and then you just move onto the next one.
I go into every portrait shoot with a full range of ideas, from the "They'll do anything" sort, to the "They'll do nothing" kind, as you never know what you're walking into. That's the scary part, but also where the adventure lies.
And yes, I try to be open to other people's suggestions, as good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone.
How often are you given instructions, from art directors or others, on the look of the portraits needed? When you aren't, how do you determine the style of lighting you are going to use for each subject?
Yes, clients almost always give direction, even if it's based on my previous work. It's not uncommon to get instructions like, "We love your Steve Martin bread fingers picture, make something delightful like that."
But often the direction is not what I want to do with a subject, so if I can't gently talk them into an idea I like better then I do my best to execute their request. Every job is an audition for the next job, so I'm incentivized to deliver work that pleases my clients.
That said, on magazine shoots I usually have the time and flexibility to do a set-up or two that closely aligns with my taste and ideas. And often the client prefers these pictures. : )
Have you ever photographed someone and the situation has just been unnecessarily uncomfortable, but you've had no choice but to continue?
Hahaha. All the time!
Literally a third of subjects will tell you straight out, "I hate having my picture taken." And some can be quite unpleasant about it.
Luckily, one of my mottos is: "I'm here to make pictures, not friends."
How did you start gaining clients? Is it about getting an agent? Is it more "who you know"? Like how do you really get your work out there to get more work?
Thanks for your time.
I got into photography to make pictures of celebrities, so I built my initial portfolio by going to where the famous people were. In my twenties I was into underground bands, so I asked local promoters to introduce me to the acts that they brought to town.
Years later I ran into one of those guys in my hometown and I asked him why he was so generous in giving me access, when there was little to no upside for him. All he said was, "You seemed serious."
I was initially baffled by his response, but then it crossed my mind that when I meet young photographers who are focused and ambitious I do everything I can to help them succeed. People want to help you if you're driven and responsible.
As far as the "who you know" theory, I don't buy into it. Almost everyone who helped me along the way (and there were many generous gracious people) I met because of my journey and my goals. Aside from my father (who worked for Kodak and was able to process my student-era film for free) I can't think of any connections I had that weren't made by just getting out there and proactively trying to make my way.
I mean, I still reach out to colleagues, and folks I don't even know, and ask for advice and connections and the like.
I love candid portraits, where you catch authentic expressions. But I can never seem to get them. I hate that one fake smile face everyone makes for the camera. I feel like if I said the right thing, I might have a better chance.
What should I say?
From what I'm hearing, I get the sense that you're not giving yourself enough time for these photo shoots.
Ask your subject to give you an hour and a half to shoot, and let them know that you're aiming to get something a little nuanced and thoughtful.
If they still keep smiling then politely ask for something else. Oftentimes I'll just say, "Let's try a serious one," and that's gets the reset that I want.
But to be clear, subjects are inherently guarded and purposely hold back their authenticity as they're worried about looking foolish, so you might have to tease it out of them.
What camera do you use ? Favorite lens ?
I currently shoot with a medium format digital camera. It's Hasselblad H4X body with a Phase P-65 back. I like medium format as it gives me the ability to make large prints without much quality loss, plus it's bulky format forces me to slow down and be thoughtful with my choices while shooting.
I remember your byline from an Elliott smith photo (somehow nautical, and a low slung roof). Might you have any memories of that shoot?
It's weird that you should ask, as I was just listening to Elliott Smith.
Elliott was living in Brooklyn at the time and known to be camera-shy the record company recommended that we do the shoot low-key and keep it local for him. But having an editorial background I thought of the images first and my sitter’s comfort second. I had a couple of friends who had just moved to rural New Jersey and together they provided perfect backdrops – one had an old unrenovated farm house and the other an empty in-ground swimming pool. If our subject wasn’t going to give much it wouldn’t matter – the locations were interesting looking.
Elliott was pleasant and cooperative but seemed eager to move on and get home (and he made early dinner plans – perhaps revenge for being made to travel to a location) so things were cut short.
Thanks for doing this. Do you still shoot on film? Was there any stylistic or practical advantage in doing so?
Thanks for showing up here too!
I transitioned to shooting digital only around 10 years ago. It was very difficult to find a digital format that I liked, but once I did I was all-in.
It struck me that digital was going to dominate going forward and it was a distraction in my work if I stubbornly stuck to shooting film.
The fact is that I don't think much about cameras or other technological things much, as I'm here for the pictures, not the process.
How was your experience with Jay Z?
Jay-Z was an easy and professional subject.
The idea of the story was, "How would Jay-Z be spending his time if he hadn’t become a hip hop superstar?" The cover shows working at the local chicken joint, near the Marcy Projects. Some of the others included him watching TV outside the projects where he grew up, seeing his vehicle get towed, shopping in a corner deli, and of course doing his laundry. All shot with a 4x5 camera on location in Brooklyn.
I was recently interviewed for a podcast called "A Shot" on just one picture from this session:
How did you develop the ability to connect with your subjects? Did you always have the type of personality that could easily/comfortably talk to people?
Different portrait shooters have different approaches. Some have warm and collaborative relationships with the subjects, others treat them like a still life object. Both of these can lead to great images.
I suppose that my approach is somewhat in-between those extremes. I like people and getting to hear their stories, but I also like to be in charge of the picture. Hence, I will be friendly on set, but not TOO friendly.
Sometimes I can stumble upon incredible photos of eagles catching a fish, where the shot is taken precisely when the talons grab the fish and a lot of water splashing around. A lot of motion is happening as well.
How do photographers take these kinds of incredible photos?
Nature photographers get up early, are very patient.
Is being a successful photographer have any influence on being a good dad ? To be more specific is your job allowing you to be more or less present in your kid life?
Wow, we're going deep now. Appreciated.
I suppose that I make my own schedule as a freelancer, but as I'm constantly feeling pressure to hustle for work, I usually choose to focus on my professional life.
Making time for my daughter is an overt choice, and it's difficult to do. But she's growing up every day, so I try to remind myself to carve out that time with her.
Maybe I should be hanging out with her instead of doing this AMA?
How much money you can make on busy and slow year?
I don't have numbers at my fingertips but my income fluctuates from year to year. And even the better years aren't always great riches.
Photography is a competitive business with more good photographers than there are good assignments. I think of it as as much "a calling" as a business. And if I'm making great photographs on occasion, and making a living, then I'm pleased.
Can you speak on getting an agent? Do you have one? How does that work and do they get you work?
Yes, I have an agent in the US, and in Canada (where I grew up). The agents only represent me for commercial work, and not editorial assignments (as there is no money in magazines).
As a freelance photographer you're largely fending for yourself, and it can be pretty solitary, so having an agent in your corner is of real value. Plus, having a rep is a sign of stature, as not everyone can get one.
My agents take a percent of my advertising jobs, and otherwise I don't pay fees for just being on the roster, so it's a win-win situation. I have had an agent for over 25 years, so I have no illusions that they are the magic bullet to big money and constant assignments. Hence, I work hard to promote on my own and keep making great work.
The market place either has wants what you make, or it doesn't, no agent can get you jobs if the clients aren't interested in what you do.
Where on earth does a beginner begin? From there, how would one know they're ready for The Surprising Portrait Workshop?
One of the great things about photography is the low barrier to entry - everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times. So, take lots of pictures, and over time figure out what subject matter interests you most. Then, laser focus on that subject, shooting hundreds of sessions, thousands of photos.
On photography, I like to say, "Being good is easy, being great is super hard."
I am leading a workshop in Los Angeles next month called "The Surprising Portrait" and it's all about making your portrait practice a reflection of who you are and what makes you tick. Technical prowess is not key to success in my workshop, only a dedication to getting better and doing the deep personal work to get there.
Hey Chris, any advice on the getting a coffee table book of photos? One you would recommend? Weird question I know but you know a lot about photos. :)
I would recommend "New York Changing" by Douglas Levere.
This is a strange series of pictures where he revisits many of Berenice Abbott’s New York locations from "Changing New York," her 1937 monograph.
In the book the older and new images are shown side by side, in a way that is exciting for anyone who loves photography, or New York. But what’s truly special is how obsessive Levere became about the project – not only are they the same scenes but in many cases he uses the same kind of camera, lens and time of year, as much as possible allowing only the scene to change over time.
Fascinating and magical.
OK, I'll ask. How representative of your work would you rank the selfie you took for proof?
The proof picture was taken by my intern, Maddy, so it's not a selfie.
What was the process like for you getting the clients you did?
For most people, becoming successful in photography is a slow build. You get an assignment, and you work hard to make it great, and just maybe they'll hire you again. But even if they don't, if you made a good picture or two, you use that to secure other work.
Unfortunately, the public and the media often focus on the "Cinderella Stories" where someone becomes a seemingly overnight success (like Irving Penn, or Ryan McGinley), but that's not how it goes for most photographers (even the successful ones).
For most people it will take 10 years from when you're first getting jobs to when you feel any outward sense of success, like being known by peers outside your immediate friend group.
I appreciate you constantly pushing the concept of a portrait from something staid to something dynamic and fascinating and fun. I assume you're going into these shoots with a concept from a photo editor or art director. But you're also photographing people who sometimes heavily controlled (image wise) and giving you little-to-no time.
I appreciate you constantly pushing the concept of a portrait from something staid to something dynamic and fascinating and fun. I assume you're going into these shoots with a concept from a photo editor or art director. But you're also photographing people who are sometimes heavily controlled (image-wise) and giving you little-to-no time.
I'd love to hear about your approach. Do you start simple and work your way up? Or do you go in with a mood board and your dream idea upfront? How much are you involving the people your photographing in the process?
I usually do research before a shoot, so that I have some background on the subject. This makes interacting with them go smoothly, and they are then more likely to join me in trying an adventurous idea. Also, the research can sparks ideas, like maybe they have a surprising interest that we can turn into a picture.
Part of my approach is that I'm optimist and excited about doing something different and fun, and that can be contagious. Most of my sitters are highly accomplished, and they got there being risk takers, so I tap into that part of their personalities when pitching ideas.
Have you ever photographed "normal" people ? If so , When was the last time ?
Making portraits of non-celebrities is a big part of my practice. I often do it for advertising jobs, ironically enough.
I find real people shoots more challenging, and hence more satisfying when I do it well.
My biggest project with regular people subjects was my book "Gentlemen's Club: Partners of Exotic Dancers" in which I photographed and interviewed 40 couples and partners from across North America.
How do you decide the setting in which someone is portrayed?
Where I shoot is usually set by the parameters of the assignment, but if I got to choose I'd usually shoot at someone's home.
When you shoot at a subject's home then everywhere is fair game as a background or environment - even it's the corner of the garage, or inside of their closet. It's their space, that they've chosen to be a certain way, hence, a meaningful background for my picture.
How much money did your parents make yearly and for what companies did they labor? I'm guessing they were not plumbers. Please be honest about your privilege.
The answer to your question is in the bio.
Big fan of your work. I've been thinking about how photographers practice. A pianist practices scales, for instance.
What can a photographer to do keep their skills sharp in between paid gigs?
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