Portrait photographer Chris Buck has interacted with some pretty big personalities while on set. From Barack Obama to Willie Nelson, Buck has been photographing actors, musicians, and politicians since the mid-1980s.
His images have a sense of humour that he describes as “uneasy,” which, as it happens, is also the title of his new book of more than 300 portraits. Placing his subjects in what some might consider “uncomfortable” positions, Buck has collected a mass of interesting photographs, as well as some fantastic stories from being on set.
Here are our favourite behind-the-scenes stories from his latest book. All captions were provided by Buck.
'The president came in, shook everyone's hand, then went to where our seamless was set up. As he took his seat I asked, 'Sir, are you chewing gum?' He said, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of it.' I said, 'Well, if I see it again, I'll be talking to you about it.'
The magazine had worked out three setups for us with the White House. The rest was relatively tight, with the president facing straight into the camera. The second was a classic three-quarter portrait, with him looking off, and the third was pulled back, showing the full lighting and seamless set up in the Map Room.
A few frames into the second setup, I said, 'Sir, keep your head position, but look with your eyes to the camera.' He followed my direction but said, 'I don't do that.' I shot anyway. I felt like I'd spent the first 25 years of my career preparing to defy a sitting president to get the shot that I wanted.'
'He could tell I was nervous, and I told him that I really wanted to do something great and special. He looked at me and said, 'If you are meant to make a really wonderful picture, there is nothing in this world or any other that can stop that from happening.' And I thought, 'Wow, that's cool.'
He paused and then said, 'If you're meant to make a bad picture, there's nothing in this world or any other that can stop that either.''
'I had shot with Donald Trump before, and although he'd seemed distracted, he was cooperative and easy to deal with. This time the story was a conceptual shot that required additional people in the picture, so I recruited friends of my wife's and mine to be our extras.
Now, with an audience, Trump came to life; he was charming and funny. Direct and a little bossy to be sure, but always in a relaxed and friendly way. In fact, it was the perfect dynamic -- he had an audience to play to, but they were my people, so both his and my quips would get laughs.
Once we finished with the required setups, I brought out an 11x14-inch print from our previous shoot as a gift. He said, 'What is this?' I said, 'I'm giving you a print as a gift to buy an extra setup from you.' He shrugged and said, 'OK,' and this is how I got the portrait that's in this book.'
'This was for a story about AMC doing original drama programming. 'Breaking Bad' was not out yet, and the network sent me a DVD of it to watch on the flight to Los Angeles. I was totally hooked -- it was like watching an underground movie; so dark and weird.
Bryan Cranston I knew from 'Malcolm in The Middle;' I remember at one point saying to him, 'I don't know what this is going to do in terms of its success level, but it's such an amazing piece of work, it's just a great thing for you.' And he said, 'I couldn't be happier; this is an actor's dream come true.' It was nice to see him be so genuinely appreciative of the opportunity.
Jon Hamm, when he came in -- he was only in his mid-thirties then, and he came in unshaven and scruffy. He looked like a young guy who'd just come from a Hollywood nightclub, having had cocktails with friends. I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm totally screwed, he doesn't look like Don Draper!' And then he went into makeup and hair and he came out like it was 1961.
His people said, 'Look, he'll smoke for your pictures, because that's what Don does, but don't make him do it more than he has to.' I replied, 'Yes, of course, we'll keep it to a minimum.' So, at one point we decided to take a break, and Jon went outside to have a smoke -- perfect!'
'Where possible, I try to pull photo ideas from the subject's life. Jimmy and his wife had a newborn girl, so I thought it would be fun to have him holding a baby. By coincidence, a couple that my wife and I are friendly with had just had their second child, and it was a girl.
Jimmy's PR people agreed to this setup beforehand but were a little weirded out with this young baby on set (she was seven weeks old, just a bit older than Jimmy's child). I was excited about getting this shot, so I wanted to jump right into it, but the PR team suggested we do other things first, since an 'accident' could end the shoot pretty quick. This seemed reasonable, so we shot some non-baby poses first. And it was good, but not great -- let's get that baby in here!
I had the mother remove the baby's clothes, then her diaper, and pass her to Jimmy. His people seemed to be surprised that she was naked, but isn't that why they wanted me to wait?
Jimmy was clearly nervous about holding someone else's baby, but nervousness quickly turned to panic as the baby almost immediately peed all over his shirt and down his pants. He made a gesture of passing her back, but I stopped him and directed him to smile. He lasted another four frames, and then insisted on giving back the baby.'
'Running errands on a spring Saturday, I popped into a hot-dog joint on Lafayette, just south of Bleecker. A minute after I placed my order at the counter, Philip Seymour Hoffman came in. The place was almost empty, so I went up and said hello. We had done three (portrait) sittings together, so he recognised me right away and was friendly, if low key.
We sat down and ate. He had a cheeseburger, and I had two hot dogs wrapped in bacon, with hot sauce.
During our conversation I congratulated him on his Best Actor Oscar for Capote, which he had received only days before. I told him that he couldn't now go and do stupid big-budget action movies (a common misstep made by past winners). He chewed his sandwich for a couple of seconds and then told me that his next picture was 'Mission: Impossible III.''
'When mapping out a session with a comedian, it's normal for us to have a detailed conversation about concepts -- this happens with their publicists, but also with the subjects themselves. Steve Carell was professional and easy to work with, but he struck me as being on a higher level of sophistication than most. Even when discussing silly and ridiculous ideas, he'd do so with an almost dry intellect, carefully thinking through the meaning of the gag before agreeing to it.
But I always like to do some shots that are quieter and less conceptual, as well. This is a good example of this -- I had him in this half-outdoor space connected to the studio. I asked him to lie down and put his head on the table.
Interestingly, when people turn to this picture in my portfolio, they often laugh, and I think that's because when people see a comedian, they react viscerally, like there is a reservoir of humour from their previous work.'
'People often ask whether a shoot was fun, or what the vibe was like on set, and my response inevitably is, 'It doesn't matter, just look at the pictures.' But this was a session that actually was fun, and the mood was nothing short of joyful.
At the suggestion of the New Yorker photo editors we did a quick tour of the Lower East Side, stopping at some visual spots that I had scouted the day before.
One of my favourites moments came when I went into a construction-supplies store to ask about doing a quick portrait by their store entrance. The manager politely told me that he couldn't allow it without clearance from the head office in Virginia, but as I started to head out, his younger associate eagerly added, 'But if it's Matt Damon, perhaps we can work something out.' I relayed this to the girls waiting outside, and we all had a laugh over it.'
'Bush entered the room, dressed really well, looking great; and he had this 'aw, shucks,' shrug-of-the-shoulders way about him. And he was self-deprecating and talkative, suggesting confidence and openness.
I wanted to capture a sense of that, so I kept him talking. I asked what he thought about his competitors. Bush went into a very serious description of how Al Gore would be dangerous for the country. I thought he'd say something safe and respectful, but it was possibly the most passionate moment of our time together.'
'He didn't want to be there, and he wasn't quiet about it. Willie Nelson was pressured into doing this shoot by his record company, so we were all walking on eggshells as the session began. I suggested that we start by having him in his own clothes -- perhaps we could ease into the shoot. It went fine, so I asked the stylist to try some vintage hippie Western clothes on him.
She came back to me flustered a few minutes later; apparently Willie was upset that she had told him that his Rolex watch didn't match this look. 'You asked Willie Nelson to remove his Rolex?' I went into emergency mode and rushed over to him. 'Yes, it's a contradiction to have a high-status watch with a rustic outfit. But that's what makes for real superstars -- they embody the contradictions.''
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