“I think there’s a certain arrogance that goes with wanting to do something like this.”
That’s Chris Buck telling me what it takes to become a photographer; it’s one of many astute insights he had when I talked to him on the phone several weeks ago. Chris is one of my all time favorite photographers. I worked with him several times when I was Photo Directing and the best part is always when you get that box of contacts after a shoot because it feels like Christmas morning when you open it. There are the smartly executed pictures you talked about and then there are always surprises, pictures and ideas you weren’t expecting in there as well. You will discover why that happens and more perceptive insights into the business in part two of this interview tomorrow.
I consider Chris to be one of the great editorial portrait photographers of our generation, he also cares very deeply about the business of photography and was very generous with his time for this interview. Here’s what we talked about:
APE: You just had your 20th anniversary.
That’s 20 years just being a full time photographer not making a living any other way. I say that because that’s how I define being a photographer.
APE: Yeah, that’s how I define professional photographer as well.
I was the photo editor at a pop magazine in Canada called Graffiti for a year after getting out of college.
APE: I would love to get a snapshot of what you were like 20 years ago and what was going through your head.
Funny you should ask, because I just ran across this footage from 21 years ago where I was interviewing my mom and sister and they turned the camera on me and started asking me questions, “what are you up to, what are your plans for the future” and I talk a little bit about how I want to photograph bands and I want to photograph other people and just shoot portraits for a long long time. It’s amazing because I ended up saying what I ended up doing.
APE: So, what made you think you could become a professional photographer 20 years ago?
Well, obviously I wasn’t totally sure. I think there’s a certain arrogance that goes with wanting to do something like this. I was living in Toronto at the time, I looked around at the photography that was being made in Toronto at the time and thought, this is really lame, this is not the way portraits should be done. And I think that was the impetuous that gave me fuel to last me through the first five years, when I was really not making a living financially.
APE: That’s a pretty bold statement to make. It’s not something you would really hear from photographers today.
I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I had a fair amount of humility, I still lived with my parents in the suburbs. I considered assisting and looked around and thought there were two, probably actually one photographer that I felt like I could learn something from and so that’s how I felt. I saw the work I was doing at the time and felt it was as good and I kind of imagined what I could do and thought it was far more interesting than what was being done. I really think that’s important and If you don’t feel that way at the beginning of your career or after a year or so out of college then you probably shouldn’t be shooting.
One of the things I say to young photographers now is that what you react against is far more powerful than what you are influenced by. I loved Irving Penn and Anton Corbijn at the time and it’s one thing for me to be influenced by them and say I want to make cool pictures like them but it’s something completely different to see the mid 80’s sunset lighting with blue sky behind (that was the prominent look at the time) and think “how lame.” For me there’s no mystery to it and it’s very heroic which is also something I didn’t like, so I find my reaction against that stuff to be far more exciting
Reacting against photography was much better for me, because there were many more avenues to go down and say “this is what a portrait should look like,” instead of saying “I want to make pictures that look like this.” When you react against something you can go in so many different directions then when you are influenced positively because that’s a much more narrow influence.
APE: Ok so you meet with a lot of young photographers and you have this internship program, so do a lot of them have this attitude.
APE: Yes. I want to know if it’s changed in 20 years. Do young photographers still think like this?
I think different photographers find their paths in different ways and some do start off being very influenced by someone and then they shake that off after a few years. So, I’m not saying someone who is influenced by Nan Golden or Philip Lorca DiCorcia is necessarily someone to be written off. They might develop into something really interesting but I don’t think it’s the best way to start out.
James Mahon is someone who assisted me and is now shooting fashion and we will have huge arguments about how things are done. He definitely has some arrogance and in many a ways it’s one of the most powerful things about him.
APE: It’s interesting because as a former client of yours I wouldn’t necessarily call you arrogant.
Oh really? There was that one shoot I did for you where someone who was working for you at the time sent me a shot list and I called you and said “Rob, I assumed you hired me to do what I do, is this really what you’re looking for.”
APE: Oh right. I guess I never felt you came off that way, but maybe it’s because that how I expect photographers at your level to act.
You factored that in, but some may see it as arrogance.
APE: That brings up something interesting because many young photographers feel like their hands are tied when it comes to client demands because the client can just go off and hire someone else. When you were young how did you behave.
Honestly, it’s an issue I still deal with. I was in Austin recently and I looked up Dan Winters and we went for lunch. And I asked him “Dan, you have a reputation for handing in just one picture or however many pictures they might run. You’ve got to be kidding me, you really do this?” He was like “Yeah, I do.” We talked most of the lunch about that. It was really inspiring for me. I try to give much tighter edits now. It’s important because potential clients will look at my work in magazines and either say “Chris Buck is not as interesting as he once was” or they will say “this is a really cool picture and this is what I expect of him.”
But, you know I live in a real world too and it’s a place that’s complex and not always generous to you, so there are clients I give more pictures to, but from 2 years ago to now it’s half as many frames as I used to turn in. I went and saw Larry Fink recently and he talked about being on a shoot and being humiliated by the shooting circumstances. He’s been doing this for 40 years now and he still puts himself in those situations. It’s good for young photographers to hear that, because it’s not like you get to a point where everything is easy.
APE: Are their myths that you have to dispel when talking to younger photographers about the business that come up over and over again?
There are so many things.
One of the main things is that most people don’t make it quickly. They think that If you are meant to be successful in photography it should just take a few years and the obvious stories are about Irving Penn, or David LaChappelle. Larry Fink is a great example of the alternate narrative and one of the things I really admire about his career is that in a way his name became known to most people 30 years into his career and that’s kind of amazing. The young photographers tend to know about the people who made it in 5 years but that’s really, really unusual. If you go look at the top 100 photographers working today most of them made it in 10 to 15 years not in under 5. I think that’s really important to know. People get into it and in 3 years they’re like “I’m getting good feedback but I’m not getting a ton of work.” It took me 12 years before people started saying to me “wow, you’ve made it.”
Another thing that’s like a personal crusade for me is trying to talk young photographers out of assisting. Because, I really think it’s a dangerous road to go down. I really try to discourage it. The example I give is that assisting a photographer to become a photographer is like assisting the CEO to become a CEO one day.
APE: That’s an unusual point of view.
Well, if you look at the careers of assistants there’s a number of problems with it. You can certainly learn things from assisting, but I guess what I recommend for people if they feel any clarity about who they are as a photographer then I would really recommend that they intern rather than assist. And, I mean a real internship not sweeping floors. Don’t intern for photographers where you have no access to them or the shoots. People tell me they intern for big name photographers for their resume, but why do you have a resume. If you’re a photographer you don’t need a resume. Your portfolio is your resume, not some piece of paper.
You can certainly learn more from assisting, fair enough, but if you’re any good at assisting you end up doing it for 5-8 years. That’s a long, long time to not be focusing on your own work. And people say they’re only going to do it for a couple years but if you’re any good at it you don’t.
APE: When I think about some of the famous photographers who were also assistants for famous photographers, they didn’t really do it for too long. Maybe they assisted a couple years and they usually had a bad attitude about it too.
I was having lunch with a couple of my assistants on a shoot and one of them said “half the people I work for never assisted”. When you think about it, that you’re assisting to become a photographer yet half the people you assist for never did it. Statistically it’s kind of a crazy number. So, is that really the ideal route to becoming a photographer? I think it’s certainly one but there are other routes that aren’t really being talked about. When you’re 32 and you want to stop assisting and try and shoot full time and you’ve been making a decent living for awhile how do you transition to shooting full time when you’re not going to make any money for 2-3 years.
APE: I see the same thing with people who want to transition to Photo Editing mid career, because you reach a point where you can’t really intern or work for no money anymore.
Also, having to live as a starving artist at 32 is a really painful thing. When you’re 25 living as a starving artist is actually kind of fun.
APE: You have assistants, so as soon as you get a new assistant do you tell them about this?
No, of course not, if they’re great assistants I don’t want to lose them.
Part 2 tomorrow.