Canadian-born photographer Chris Buck has shot everyone from Barack Obama and Donald Trump to Leonard Cohen, Kendrick Lamar and Maragret Atwood. His portraits are compelling in their simplicity, a peeled-back look at the often unseen side of their subjects. His new book UNEASY: Chris Buck Portraits 1986-2016 just launched last week. I spoke with him over the phone and asked him to take me behind the scenes of a few of his most memorable shoots.
VICE: Why don't we start with this amazing Donald Trump portrait?
Chris Buck: So this was shot ten years ago. He was not the President of the United States or anywhere close to it. He was just a TV personality and well-known real estate business guy. We initially had this conceptual shot where a bunch of my friends and my wife's friends dressed up in suits and held Donald Trump masks in front of their faces. The idea was Donald Trump is everywhere. At the end of the shoot I gave him a print of another photo I'd taken of him. It was actually a pretty strange picture I gave him but I gave him this 11 x 14 print, he took it out of the envelope and said, "what's this?" I said, "I want to buy more time with you and I'm giving you a gift in exchange." He kind of shrugged and said, okay. So, he posed for this last shot for a couple of minutes and now it's the shot you see that's in the book.
It's an incredible shot. So much of what we see of him now is the stereotype, the temperamental person, what was the mood like on set?
I've photographed him three times now and I was surprised the first time, I was genuinely surprised how kind of like low-key he was. When I first photographed him, The Apprentice had become a big hit, it was the beginning of the first season and I had known who he was already. I found him kind of an obnoxious presence and didn't really find him of interest but in person, he is much more low-key and kind of reasonable. I photographed his daughter a year before. I mentioned how I met his daughter and she was very sweet and very polite. She was just in her early 20s at that time. I said to him, when a child is really well-put together like that, it's quite an accomplishment to the parent. I think he took note of that and kind of relaxed a bit, and was more easy to work with after that. I think he appreciated the compliment.
In the second shoot, we had this little crowd and he actually really came alive and really like loved having the audience and he was quite funny. One thing I have noticed, during the election campaign when he have these private meetings with people who he really should have like no connection to or there's no reason why they should endorse him, like American Evangelicals or Bill Gates, people like this, they come out singing his praises. Having met him and spent time with him, I totally get it because he is an amazing, warm, great, sales personality. He really is very likable and very charming in person. He's one of those rare people who is so different in person than he comes off in the media. I recognized that the first time I met with him but it became much more pronounced the second time.
Did he see this photo?
Yes. Actually, I met with him again, about a year and a half ago for my third shoot with him. I had the mock up for this book together. I showed him the book and I showed him this picture and he really liked it. I mean, I think he liked it because it's a picture of him. I asked him for an endorsement, he said he'd give me one, I haven't got it yet. He was very cordial. What can I tell you? I tried showing him more of the book but he really was only interested in the picture of him. He was just kind of funny. He was very decent about it. I've got these amazing pictures of him looking at my mock up, it's very bizarre. What can I say? I was surprised when he became President.
I think we all were. Moving on to this image of Barack Obama, I don't want to compare the two but there seems to already be a different energy to this photo.
This was in 2013, basically right before his second inauguration. Yes, he's obviously a very different personality than Trump but they do have things in common too. I think they're both pretty self-involved. I think they both are kind of all about themselves, so in that way they're kind of similar. I think in a way, their little competitiveness with each other make sense because they both love their internal narratives. Obviously, Obama is more a detailed person and more of a traditional intellectual. Anyone who runs for president kind of isn't that different from each other. Occasionally, some presidents genuinely fall into it kind of by accident, like Gerald Ford, I think he never really intended on being president. But most of them have this intense ego that brings them to run for president. In that way, I actually think they're more alike than dissimilar, at least they have things that are alike.
Do you think that's true of politicians in general, that narcissism?
I think when you get to the point of prime minister or president, you're in a different level of ego than ministers in Parliament or whatever. I think a lot of them genuinely get into it out of the sense of service. I think when you become party leader or prime minister, I think it moves into a whole other level. Like with our current prime minister, I really like Justin and I've met him a couple of times. He's a very sweet guy but really, he loves being prime minister. He's gone feet first. He's in. He loves it.
Have you done his portrait?
I haven't but I did a talk in Toronto, I guess 15 years ago and he was at the talk and he approached me afterwards and said, hello. Actually, I've got a great story with him, do you want to hear it?
Oh yeah. For sure.
We stayed in touch a little bit after we met. I never became close to him or anything, but I ended up being in Ottawa one time for a social thing with friends. He was hosting an event in the same building that I was in. I went by to say hello to him, I guess he was a guest of honor or something. This would be eight years ago or something, and so I went over and said, hello. Of course, he remembered me and I invited him to go drinking with my friends and I. He very politely declined and said, he was invited by this group and he really should stay for the duration. He appreciated the invitation but he really couldn't take me up on it. I ended up talking with a friend about it who was on that trip with me. When he became prime minister, we were kind of recounting the story and he said, 'yeah, but there's more to it.' I'm like, what do you mean? He said, 'you don't remember?' I said, no. He said, 'you invited the prime minister to come to the strip club with us.' I said, I did not. He said, 'you may not have asked explicitly but you certainly implied that this is something we were going to do and that he was welcome to come join us.' I was like, okay I don't remember that but if you say it, I'm sure it's true.
I like it that he very politely replied like, 'oh, I'd love to but I have to fulfill these obligations.'
He was already planning his ascent then. It's not like he made it a secret. He's been on that track for a long long time.
Moving to another seminal Canadian figure, tell me about this portrait of Leonard Cohen, when was this one taken?
It was taken 2001, in Los Angeles where his home was. That was a big deal for me. I was a big fan. I mean I'm really like—of all the people I've shot, there's really maybe just a dozen who were genuinely like heroes to me. He was one of them. It was quite daunting. I was well into my career at that point, so I managed the anxiety or whatever and it worked out fine. We had two hours with him. One of these things that's interesting about him that I think you might appreciate, was that when we walked to him, he was huddled over the stove wearing like a suit and a hat and he had a cigarette hanging over his mouth. He was frying up some eggs for his breakfast. He was all hunched over, he literally had a hunched-back. He looked like Humphrey Bogart or something, kind of short and kinda aged. He looked amazing in his suit and everything. But then, when I started taking pictures, he straightened out and became very proper. He always looked so elegant, every picture of him. My whole thing is getting to the more vulnerable side of people. The book is called, Uneasy, that's where I really connect. I was trying to get him to let down that guard but he clearly has this…he wants to look his best which I respect, but it's my thing to get beyond that kind of presentation.
How do you do that?
Part of it is, sometimes they will let their guard down when I'm not actually shooting. At one point, we were just talking, he was sitting, he was sitting this way where he had his hands sort of draped down. They look like dolphin fins…it looked like a fin or something. The way his hands were sort of set, I was like, hold it, don't move! I dragged the camera over on a tripod and I just insisted, do not move. I just gently set the focus and I executed these frames and that's how I got that shot. He's pretty proper but there was something about his hands, it was sort of strange and fish-like. I thought it was just so beautiful and strange, and that's how I got that shot. For whatever reason, he trusted me enough to let me get that moment.
How often do you have to break that barrier by making yourself uneasy to get that shot?
In some ways, I get the vulnerability from people in ways that are relatively artificial. I just make them go into a place in a room that just forces them to be like physically constrained and I guess I do kind of expose my own vulnerability. I don't know, it's not that conscious, it's funny. As a photographer and as a journalist, I'm sure you know, you have your whole little bag of tricks that you kinda roll out to get people to open up. You do what you have to, to get people to reveal themselves and to kind of let that barrier down. You try different things with different people and you kind of see what works. As a journalist, people have done it with me where they'll kind of tell an kinda awkward or a vulnerable story, hoping I'll go there too, knowing perfectly well that their vulnerable story is not going to end up in the piece, which is fine, like I get it because I do it too. But it's a thing one does to get people to open up. That's our job, is to get people to show something of themselves.
What are some of your other tricks? Obviously, you've talked about kinda showing your own vulnerability, what else do you use to get people out of their own heads?
I don't really spend a lot of time trying to make people super comfortable. In a weird way, I don't want people to feel comfortable enough to say no to me. So when I ask them to do the thing that's kind of strange or vulnerable, they just do it and they don't question me. When I say, go on your hands and knees, or go in that corner or whatever, they kind of obey. I don't want them comfortable enough with me to say, you're really cool, I just don't want to do that. I want them to say, yes, and just do it. I want them to be a little intimidated by me. I kind of will be friendly enough but I do like to convey a sense of 'I'm in charge and it's best you just obey.'
One other thing I'll do is I'll bring a gift for people, like with that Donald Trump shoot where I brought him a print. I would give people a print. If I know they're a fan of someone and I photographed them, I'll bring them a print. It's amazing how that will create this sense of indebtedness that becomes implied in the shoot. They will give me more because I've given them something. Even though I'm just a photographer, I'll study people I'll read interviews with them, I'll learn their history and I'll have conversations with them that show that I know their story and I think that helps, too. People will tell me, you know more about us than the people at our own record label. I think that endears me to them and they'll more likely say yes.
How did you choose the people that made it into the book? What is it about these portraits that connected them for you?
I think it's a mix of who they are and also the images themselves. I think it's also a balance of different people or different vocations, I think that was important to me. I didn't want to have just actors and musicians. I want to have lots of photographers and writers and politicians. I love super niche celebrities, people who, in their field are super well respected, but outside their field, they're barely known. Like Vince Cerf who is one of the inventors and innovators of the internet back in the 70s and 80s. I photographed him in the mid-90s and he's still like an important person. That was super cool to put him in the book and people who know who he is are like, 'Whoa, Vince Cerf, that's so cool.' Obviously, it's well and good to have people like Barack Obama or Kendrick Lamar but to have people who only very specific people are going to know, it's a way of me curating who I think is important.
Follow Amil on Twitter