Hide and Seek: Chris Buck's Conceptual Celebrity Portraits

By Conor Risch

© Chris Buck
Chris Buck's portrait of actor Amy Poehler. To see more portraits, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

A delightful irony underlies Chris Buck’s celebrity portraiture: Though he feeds our celebrity-obsessed culture with his images, the fact that he couldn’t care less about boldface names is what makes his work interesting. “I’m definitely not precious about famous people,” Buck says. “I’m making pictures for my clients and for the audience, and not for the subject.”

The lack of awe allows Buck to ask his sitters for the unexpected, whether that means duct taping Sir Richard Branson to a wall, convincing David Cross to make a photograph in which he seems to be kicking a dog or photographing Steve Carell sprawled out with his head on a table as if he’s simply had enough.

“It’s very much a love-hate thing,” Buck says of his interest in celebrity. He photographs the famous to make a living, but he has also probed and poked fun at the idea of celebrity and its cultural manifestations in his personal work. In one series, “Isn’t,” Buck photographed celebrity lookalikes. The pictures were convincing, playing on the well-known public personas of people like Madonna and George W. Bush to such effect that only careful examination revealed the ruse.

For his most recent personal project, “Presence,” which has been published in a book from Kehrer Verlag that will be available in the U.S. in September, Buck asked celebrity subjects to hide somewhere in the frame of his images so that he could create a “portrait” of them in which they couldn’t actually be seen. Buck titles the images with the subjects’ names, and in the book includes a document, signed by a witness, stating that the person in question is indeed hiding somewhere in the image.

Buck says the images are “a great compliment to the celebrity because the images are changed knowing that Kathy Griffin is in the picture or Jon Hamm; they’re enriched, they’re made more interesting, and I think that’s a very powerful statement about what these people and their stories bring to the picture.

“At the same time,” Buck adds, “It’s a bit of an ‘F-you’ because you’ve worked really hard to become successful, and now I’m not going to show you.”

Buck began “Presence,” which he’s worked on for the past five years, as a promotional project. The idea was to show art directors and creative directors who might hire him for advertising work that he could “conceptualize and execute larger bodies of work,” and that he has “a great imagination and can do interesting work that is genuinely surprising and creative.”

Originally Buck envisioned a lot of images shot in studios or hotel rooms, with a celebrity hiding somewhere behind a chair or other prop, because that’s where he often photographs his subjects for clients and he’d be piggybacking on those shoots. His first photograph, however, was of William Shatner, whom he was photographing on location. Shatner led him to a barn on the property, where he hid amidst several bales of hay and a pile of sawdust. The textures of the hay and the oddity of the scene gave the image an unexpectedly rich quality. “If we can get enough like this mixed in with the photo studios and hotel rooms,” Buck thought, “this actually could have more legs” beyond a simple promotional series.

One of Buck’s inspirations for the project was Philippe Halsman’s Jump, a book of images of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor jumping in the air, which the photographer shot during the 1950s while working as a portraitist for LIFE magazine. The project “worked out so brilliantly because it was inherently positive,” Buck explains. “The key thing about his series is that it was something that was hard to say no to,” he adds.

For “Presence,” Buck had a similar proposition—it was clever and subversive, but not humiliating for the subject in any way. The reactions he received were varied, but mostly positive, he says. Actor Russell Brand was delighted by the idea and spent a lot of time hiding in the lobby of The Plaza Hotel in New York City during downtime on a film shoot. Chevy Chase, Buck recalls, didn’t initially believe any of the celebrities were actually hiding in Buck’s photos. Musician Devendra Banhart and comedian Sarah Silverman insisted on hiding in places that were more difficult than those Buck originally suggested “because it was more fun for them,” Buck says.

For Buck the series has been a creative outlet, something special to show clients, and it has yielded his first book. It also opened doors to the fine-art world, with Michael Foley Gallery planning an exhibition of the work in 2013. And in addition to its commentary on celebrity, the work also says something about the photographic medium. “One thing I realized when doing the series was how much we as photographers manipulate spaces to make them appear to be something other than what they are,” Buck notes. “A lot of times people will say, ‘I can’t tell where they’re hidden, there’s nowhere to hide in this picture.’ I never realized before how much we change and distort the physical location just by the angle or the lighting.”

Related Article:

Chris Buck Photo Gallery

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