Over the past two decades, Canadian photographer Chris Buck has made his mark by putting famous people in vaguely incongruous situations and snapping at just the right moment. His creative take on portraiture not only exposes an alternative side of his subjects, but it also leads to images that are themselves intriguing even sans celebrity. His new book, “Presence: The Invisible Portrait,” explores this notion. Rather than highlight the good looks of a host of household names, Buck has instead asked them to hide, for a collation of celebrity portraits where no celebrities are actually visible. “I like that the resulting photos are playful and intellectual at the same time,” he tells us.
The laundry list of superstars in Buck’s book includes everyone from Kathy Griffin to Jay Leno, as well as some of his “favorites,” Günter Grass, Michael Stipe, Cindy Sherman and Russell Brand. Read on for more from Buck about “Presence,” and pick up a copy of the 112-page hardcover book from Amazon or Kehrer Verlag.
What inspired you to make this book?
As someone who photographs both regular people and the famous I’ve always been aware of how the backstory and glamour associated with a well-known sitter influences our appreciation of a photograph, so I thought it would be interesting to do a series of “pure” celebrity portraits. Portraits where the depiction of the actual person was minimal and the power of suggestion of the name was heightened. It’s a bit of an experiment—does the name attached to each photographed scene actually change your perception of it?
How did the celebrities react to the book concept?
Most of the subjects are creative people and once they got a handle on what we were doing they were engaged and amused by it. Some did have some funny reactions. With Snoop Dogg he was obviously thinking about it while hiding, because afterward he quipped, “I’m going to make a new record and we’re going to have the best producer and do the full packaging but when you play the disc, there will be no sound.” Everybody on set laughed but I didn’t want to break it to him that John Cage had essentially already done that.
Do you take a different artistic approach to shooting when the celebrity is visible?
I guess that I view the “Presence” images as full-on conceptual where as my other work with celebrities are portraits in the traditional sense, even when they are unconventional. I’m very proud of this body of work but it’s pretty damn subtle. I think my usual portraits as more overtly visual and immediately satisfying—I kinda miss that.
How do all of the invisible celebrities in the book connect to your concept?
As I was shooting the series it was important to me to get a range of people—from different professions, from high and low culture, from various parts of the world—and I did so to make the book more entertaining (the journey is more interesting if you’re going from Robert De Niro to Nick Cave to Patti LuPone to Archbishop Desmond Tutu). But your question brings me to see another result, that it levels the playing field. You can be Günter Grass or Weird Al Yankovic, and in our contemporary celebrity culture you become reduced to just another bold-face name.
What are you trying to say by removing the celebrity?
They aren’t “removed,” per se, they’re hidden in the scene. This is an important distinction for me, as the hope is that you’ll be aware of their presence when viewing the picture. That said, Presence seems to me to be both the ultimate compliment, “you’re so celebrated that just your name is enough to make this picture better” and a casual “fuck you.” You’ve worked hard to be worthy of a top portrait session, now, go hide yourself.