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Canadian photographer Chris Buck reflects on 11 of his most iconic celebrity portraits

By Jennifer Berry, FLARE


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February 24, 2017
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Photographer Chris Buck is the force behind some of the most iconic and witty celebrity portraits – Jimmy Fallon holding a baby? Yep, that’s one of his. Now the Toronto-raised artist has collected three decades of his work shooting some of the world’s most famous celebrities –including both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, not to mention Canadian icons like Leonard Cohen – in a beautiful new coffee table book Uneasy (Itasca Books, $62).

Here are 11 of the most memorable shots from the book with behind-the-scenes commentary straight from the source. – Jennifer Berry

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Barack Obama, 2013

This is arguably the most important sitting of my career, and it lasted 4 minutes, 22 seconds, and 11 milliseconds (someone from the White House timed it on a stopwatch). The president came in, shook everyone’s hand, then went to where our seamless was set up. I saw that he was chewing gum, so 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 first 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.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Michael J. Fox, 1996

I’ve learned to have measured expectations when meeting the famous; generally the best of what they have to offer is nicely distilled into their work. But sometimes I’m wowed by the charm and personality of a subject; working with Michael J. Fox was one of these occasions.

We shot at his publicist’s home in Los Angeles, and he was warm and gracious – but on top of that he was super funny and charismatic. When he found out that I was also Canadian, he broke into doing accents from different regions of the country.

This might sound a little corny, but it wasn’t; it was weirdly nuanced, while still hilarious. Of course, I also love him because he wrote me a letter supporting my American green card application.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Leonard Cohen, 2001

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.”

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Margaret Atwood, 2000

We began making a real connection when I told her about my experience nine years earlier photographing Robertson Davies. I had never felt so unsure about how to approach a subject. What could he find interesting about an awkward 27-year-old photographer? Atwood told me that Davies could not have written such carefully and lovingly observed novels if he were not interested in people. And then she went on to tell me a funny story:

One day, a middle-aged film producer came to discuss a possible project, accompanied by his young mistress, whom Davies described as dowdy, unkempt, with tousled hair, little makeup, awkward shoes. And he told Atwood (with his wife standing next to him) that this was not what a mistress should be—she should have beautifully manicured hands and a glamorous hairstyle, and dress extravagantly. What else was a mistress for, if not her excess and decadence?

After sharing her funny story, with 15 minutes left, the session began again, and we made this interesting picture together.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Martin Short, 2004

The idea for this shot actually came from a visit to China 10 years before. Driving on a semi-rural road from the airport into Beijing, I saw a number of people getting a high cut just like this. The patron was sitting on a simple chair, while the barber stood behind them, cutting away.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Jay Z, 1998

The idea of this shoot was to photograph Jay Z as if he didn’t become a hip-hop superstar, that he was still living in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn where he grew up, and show what he would be doing with his day if he didn’t become “Jay Z.”

So we shot him watching TV in the courtyard with a super long extension cord. We shot him shopping in the local bodega. And we did this shot at the chicken joint literally across the street from where he grew up.

We had that nametag made with “JIGGA,” one of his nicknames, which I think is very funny because it’s sort of a slang nickname that looks so formal as a nametag. He was already certainly an important player in the rap and hip-hop world, but he didn’t yet have the cultural iconic status that he has now so one of the charming things about this picture is it’s hard to imagine him doing it now that he’s such a “serious grown-up”!

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Tegan and Sara, 2014

I met Tegan and Sara through an intern I had. I was playing their music in the office, and my intern was like “You know I know them, right?” His band opened for them, so I went to one of his concerts and Sara was there, and I was a total fan boy, nerding out on her. Amazingly, she talked to me and eventually looked up my work and they hired to me take PR photos.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Louis CK, 2010

At the time that I was given this assignment, Louis C.K. was still known for humour about his family and his kids. I pictured him at a little girl’s birthday party, with a princess theme, perhaps. He’s in a backyard, there is no one there except for him, with all the remains after the party: hats, toys and half-eaten birthday cake.

And I wanted to have, in the middle of it, a miniature white horse that they’d extravagantly rented for the party. Louis would be standing there with it looking bewildered. GQ told him about this idea, and he said, “I’m not doing anything about suburbia or about my kids, forget it.”

But we stuck with the idea of the miniature horse, and he kind of agreed to it, so long as we did it in an urban New York setting. In the end, I think that he regretted even agreeing to the horse. A number of photo editors from other magazines have since told me that any time they shoot with him, he’ll only show up in a studio and allow no props—it’s just him against a plain seamless.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Aziz Ansari, 2010

In working with celebrities, you have to pass ideas by publicists in advance. If an idea is kind of small, like just a gesture or in this case a small prop, I can kind of get away with doing a shrug and “I picked it up on the way to the shoot!” and that’s what I did in this case. I think I literally bought it on the way to the shoot.

We did some very elaborate shots with him – we shot in hotel rooms and had cast a woman playing a maid and he was hugging the maid – that were pre-cleared by his people but I brought this along just in case.

I loved this more simple shot where it’s a weird juxtaposition of Aziz and this other figure – I think it was a G.I. Joe head –in the shot that’s almost invisible. There was something about it that was more quiet that I really liked. And it kind of speaks to my favourite humour from him, which is more casual and low-key.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd, 2007

This was shot for GQ and one of the ideas that was hashed out between the photo editor and I was the idea of them wearing lederhosen. And we just thought it was really funny because when you imagine lederhosen you imagine either children or older German guys with big handlebar moustaches playing tubas or something wearing it, but in this case, it was one guy who is a handsome, American leading man-type and the other is this sweet, goofy Canadian.

We proposed it and the publicists said “fine.” We shot the same day that they were doing the DVD packaging for Knocked Up and were using the same stylist who mentioned to them in passing “Oh, we’re shooting you in lederhosen later.” And they were like “What?! That’s awesome!” and became totally obsessed with it and it’s all they talked about it during their morning session.

So when we got with them to shoot in the afternoon they couldn’t wait to get into the lederhosen and in a away we had to roll it back because they were so “on” that I had to choose a quieter shot because the scene and the costumes are so strong and I didn’t want them to be delivering too much of a performance. I wanted it to feel almost authentic, like they were spritely, athletic young men from Bavaria. Paul Rudd was delivering more of a performance than Seth, where he’s giving it kind of a sexy twist, but I was trying to pull that off a little bit.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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Donald Trump, 2006

I had shot with Donald Trump before, and although he 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 11-by-14-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, “Okay,” and this is how I got the portrait that’s in this book.

Photo courtesy of Chris Buck

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