Toronto-born photographer and director Chris Buck has found a way to differentiate himself by shooting what he believes in, rather than shooting what’s popular. This incredible strategy, alongside his diligent work ethic has helped him to make timeless photographs with names like Barack Obama, Tina Fey, Robert Kennedy Jr., and many more.
Our co-founder, Matt Moloney, had the opportunity to chat with Chris about his photography career and what it means to feel accomplished with your work as an artist. Without any further waiting, this is the Chris Buck Interview.
Matt: Where are you from and what made you pick up a camera for the first time?
Chris: I grew up in Toronto, in Canada, in the suburbs there. The best answer I can give to you on how I got into photography was that my father worked at Kodak, so photography was just part of the family; being an integral part of our home life.
It’s a funny thing where often times DNA is involved; it’s what you grew up around and the fact is, is that photography was something that was not intimidating to me and not even really particularly glamorous, it was just, just sort of normal; it was part of life, the way that anything else that was very mundane and ordinary was.
Matt: That’s awesome, so when you first began shooting were you only using film primarily or were you using digital?
Chris: I started shooting in the early 1980’s so digital really didn’t exist yet.
Matt: Haha, I guess that’s kind of a naive question from me just because I’m younger, I can’t even fathom the aspect of not having the digital option!
Chris: Well what’s kind of funny is that a lot of young people perceive film as being the artisan approach, that’s ‘real photography’, and I think often times because they perceive it as being ‘digital’s too easy’ or ‘it’s not really achieving much’, but in reality it’s that photography has always been easy. Photography has always been comparatively easier than any other art form I can think of. My first camera in the early 80’s was a manual film camera that had automatic settings. So I shot everything automatic – it was super easy, like shooting digital is today. Initially I went with a camera, and it was like shooting with your phone today. You just put everything on auto and you pick up the camera and you start shooting and you shoot lots and most of it looks like crap and a couple things work and you try to figure out how to get better.
Matt: I would agree with that, especially now that I get older, I realize with Instagram, people kind of glorify photography and they think that some people are so much better than other artists because they can get certain photos, but I think that that’s kind of a bad mind state to be in, because you need to be humbled as a photographer and realize that photographing things is, like you said, one of the easiest forms of art compared to printmaking, or painting, or anything like that – it’s much faster, it has much less barrier to entry, and I think that does say something.
Chris: I mean I do think that the best people in photography, I do think they take it seriously, I do think it is a real art form and I do think these people have an expertise. And you can see it when people are experts in other fields, like filmmaking or painting, try to take photographs and their photographs aren’t very good. So even though the barrier to entry is harder in those other art forms, it doesn’t mean photography is easier. Making photography is easy, making great photography is hard.
Matt: Yeah I think that says a lot, too.
Chris: It’s not to say that people, like regular people can make a great photograph here and there, as good as anything, but to make great photography on demand, in a regular way, and make bodies of work, that go truly deep, that’s really difficult. And instead one of the challenges of photography is that people will realize that they’ve kind of hit a plateau and their work is good, and occasionally great, but the point of making great works takes going deeper and putting the time in, as it would with any other discipline.
Matt: Yeah, that’s really good insight, because I think we’re living in a really fast-paced world so people kind of expect it to happen overnight and like you said, that plateau will come one day, somebody will realize ‘ok, maybe I don’t have what it takes, do I want to take that extra step to go there?’
Chris: Right, exactly.
Matt: So after you picked up your first camera and kind of knew about it because it was in the family, did you got to any form of schooling for photography?
Chris: Yeah so I went to a four-year degree program in Toronto at a school called Ryerson, ‘R-Y-E-R-S-O-N’. It was a degree program for photography, you know, it was fine. I don’t place a lot of emphasis on that, mostly because most of what I learned, I learned after I went there, but it was good to immersed in photography at that time and to really build something from being a casual shooter to understanding wha the different kinds of photography could be. It was really valuable in that sense and got photography under my skin and I had a couple good professors who gave me real guidance and helped me understand what I was looking for out of it and I think that was really important. I think there’s a lot of ways to be a photographer and it helped me to understand the way I want to be a photographer.
Matt: Yeah that makes sense. I also was curious too about if you had critiques in your photography program in school? I’m currently in my senior year right now at UMass Boston and I’m taking a few art classes and we have critiques whenever our projects are complete, so did you have anything like this as well?
Matt: And how would you say this played a role in building your style or technique, or just generally developing you as a photographer?
Chris: Well, one of the things that was unique about the critique classes that I had, especially in my fourth year, is that – well, most critique classes that I heard abut then and I hear about now is that you have a professor and you have all the students and the work is all hung up, and the teacher and largely the artist get to talk about the work. But in my class, in my fourth year – everyone would hang the work up and the professor would talk about the work and perhaps ask the artist something about the project, but he did not let the students talk. An this was something I didn’t know what to quite make of it at the time, because it seemed like, part of the value of the critique class was helping people learn how to talk about work, and how to critique other people’s work, but what I realized with being in that class, was that we didn’t know anything. We were so ignorant; whenever we were in a critique I could see how the students made comments but the comments had no depth, or at least where they did have any depth, people were kind of just trying to say words, or sound clever, or be supportive, but this professor took photography serious and he would truly critique the work and truly challenge the student photographer artists in their craft and in their art in a way that I had never seen before. And he was truly trying to help us be photographers, be artists and that was one of the most valuable classes I ever took.
Matt: That’s pretty interesting to me because I’m kind of going through that now where we have our critiques where you have the teacher say what they wanna say, you have the student say what they want to say, and I can relate when you say that the students don’t always give you that harsh critique that you’re looking for. I want that honest feedback even if it might be hurtful, I want that, whereas some of the students might just say something simple and light. But when you have that stern force kind of telling you, ‘ok this was a good decision and this was a bad decision’, that can kind of help you become a better version of what you would have wanted and so I think that definitely helps a lot.
Chris: Well, it makes you realize that most of the time spent with critique classes is just wasting time. Honestly, most professors aren’t good enough to lead a proper critique, but I was lucky enough to have a professor who truly understood photography and clearly had a depth of insight that he could bring to the work. I’ll tell you a fun story actually about him – one of the things about him was that he was a black and white photographer, very emotional street photography, but obviously not every student in the class is going to make that kind of work. He was not trying to make us into him; he wasn’t trying to make us all into street photographers, or emotional, empathetic photographers, he was trying to make us do what we claimed we were trying to do with our work. One time a guy brought in a photograph- it was a studio still life of a motorcycle. And it was really nice, and it was hung up on the wall and the teacher went to critique it and he questioned him and he said, ‘…motorcycles are all about bravado and freedom and adventure, and this picture has none of that. It’s nicely lit, but it’s nothing dangerous, or exciting; there’s nothing hinting at the open road, and freedom, or bravado. There’s nothing about excitement or the allure of that in this photo’. And I was blown away by that because it was the polar opposite of what this teacher did in his own work and yet he totally understood what the photographer was trying to do or should have been doing and it spoke to me as to what a critique should be.
Matt: Yeah I think that’s important because it’s not the subject matter that you’re critiquing but rather the way they approach their subject.
Chris: Right, and and you know, what is the intention? What should your photograph be about?
Matt: That’s actually really interesting – I think that’s a unique perspective on how to improve no matter who you are. Because the intention and the strategy and planning of something has a lot to do with the outcome and the final product.
Matt: So after you finished up college, how would you say it helped launch you into your career?
Chris: Honestly I think the main value of the college purpose for me was getting the basic principles of photography. The photography course was actually my second choice, my first choice was to do a traditional fine art program but the fact that I wasn’t accepted into the fine art program made me take the photography more seriously and it got me thinking about photography in a way to develop some basic skills, but also to have a bit of fun in a way that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t take the course.
Matt: So then when you began your career after college, what were some differentiators and things you did to stand out amongst other photographers?
Chris: Great question, I think one thing I recognized was that I was into making portraits – that was my field of interest. I looked around at how portraits were largely being made at that time, in the late 1980’s and most portraits that were made in magazines, I didn’t think they were very interesting and I didn’t think they were doing what portraits should do. So what I tried to do was make the kind of portraits that I thought should be made, rather than what was popular. So I would look through different magazines and rather than try to make my work look like work that was successful or popular, I was trying to make what I thought should be popular and began making that kind of work.
Matt: That’s an interesting thought process. So when you saw different types of ideas in magazines and things like that was it for inspiration to do more photography, or was it inspiration to ‘do different’?
Chris: Well, I looked at what the magazines were doing and I thought it was lame and really not that effective… you also have to keep in mind that my skill level is not very high at this time. My ideas for what I might make in a photograph I actually couldn’t put on the page yet. But I still felt that what I was trying to do, or wanted to do, was more interesting that what was actually being run and kind of popularized in the publications. Even though I really had no evidence to show that I could do better, I was confident and even, I’ll say arrogant enough to say, ‘you guys are getting it wrong and I’m going to show you how to do it right’, and so over those next few years, I worked hard at improving my skill and my vision, in terms of my goals, to be able to execute that and show that.
Matt: So going on that note of improving your skill and vision – what would you say were some ways that you did that? Was it just non-stop shooting? Was it trying to better work with the settings and the camera?
Chris: Well, let’s put it this way – in photography, I talked about shooting in auto and that’s how I got to shooting at all, but shooting a photo, and shooting a focused photograph that is really about a particular vision or aesthetic is very different, and so I worked hard trying to move my photographs to the aesthetic that I wanted for my work. So in a way, I had to learn about all of the things – I had to learn had to make my camera skills better, I had to learn how to understand light, and you know it’s funny, once you can see light and understand how light moves and how it affects the image, it seems very kind of obvious, but before you know that, trying to look out in the world and see it understand how that will show up in a photograph or how it affects the mood and feeling of a photograph, it’s very difficult, and it took a lot of trial and error and trying different things, and then of course trying to work on artificial light too, whether it be flash, or strobes – that became a whole other area I got into that I had no knowledge of, and no natural instinct for either so that took me many many years to learn how to do artificial lighting.
Matt: Yeah, whenever I speak to other photographers, that’s always one of the toughest things to learn because not a lot of people don’t just have that equipment, so getting that hands-on experience only comes when they have the opportunity to be around it, so it’s definitely tough and learning how to manipulate the lights once you do, it’s very difficult and takes a lot of time.
Matt: So fast-forward a bit. Now you have more skill under your belt, you have your college experience, I’m guessing you also have some work experience at this point – so tell us how you became more engaged and well-known in the industry so that you could start getting more clients.
Chris: Well, so when I took an assignment, the client would give me an idea of what they wanted, sometimes more specific, sometimes less specific, but my goal was always to get exactly what the client wanted, and then to do extra pictures for me. And so what would end up happening is, maybe 3/4 of the time they would use the pictures they asked for and 1/4 of the time they’d use the extra pictures that I shot through my vision. Over time that ratio shifted from half the time using the pictures they asked for to now maybe 3/4 of the time they use the pictures I like, and 1/4 of the time they use the pictures they originally asked for.
But I always tried to put the work that I cared about most, or thought was most successful, in my portfolio and later on for my resume. So even though I might shoot something specifically for the client, I wouldn’t necessarily show that in my portfolio.
Matt: That makes sense, because it’s not necessarily something that you would’ve put together through your vision.
Chris: And it speaks to the thing that I mentioned earlier – I care more about my vision than what the market thinks is good because part of my role is to shift the market. Now obviously I’m one photographer and I’d have a hard time shifting the market. But maybe me and a dozen other photographers over 10 years, we all shift the market.
My attitude was that my job was not to shoot to the magazine’s style, but my job was to change the magazine’s style.
Matt: Wow, that’s the mentality I think a lot more photographers need to have. You need to have that mindset that you’re going to be different, because if you’re not, then it’s just another photo.
I think it’s interesting that you made it a goal to always give your client more. I think that speaks a lot because not a lot of people are willing to do that. Most people want to get the job done and get paid and I think that it’s pretty cool to see that you’re always willing to give them more of what they want.
Chris: Yeah, well part of the problem is that if you’re in photography to make money, you’ve chosen the wrong profession. If you want to make money go into finance, go into real estate, don’t go into photography. If you’re not into photography for the work, for the art, then you’re wasting your time. And I’m no saying that because I’m against money, I’m fine with money. It’s more that there are so many people in photography that you’re unlikely to make great money in this business. You might make a living, and sometimes you’ll make more money that others, but the fact of the matter is that there’s so many talented people that the area is a fun business to be in. So based on basic economics, there is more supply of quality photographers than there is a demand for photographers, and therefore the financial value of our work is often depressed. So if you’re in it for the money then you’re probably going to be an unhappy person.
Matt: Definitely. Especially with how saturated the photography world i, you definitely can’t just do it for the money.
My goal was always to get hired for one small picture, but then give them so many options that they’re saying ‘I wish this was a feature because there’s so many great photos here’
Matt: So when you first started out, did you do a lot of cold outreach, or were you more focused on creating a stellar portfolio that you could use to pitch with?
Chris: Well once I got an initial portfolio that was at all showable, then I was doing the outreach; going to magazines, showing my portfolio, trying to get a small job that I could kill with the intention of landing a bigger job. My goal was always to get hired for one small picture, but then give them so many options that they’re saying ‘I wish this was a feature because there’s so many great photos here’. And that was my intention with every job in my early years – I would overshoot, do multiple shots, or fantastic shots with real variety, and they would see them and think, ‘Damn, I wish we were running three pictures’, or that this was a feature because there’s so many great shots here. I did this so that next time they would think of me for a bigger story.
Matt: That’s so smart to me. I mean, myself a photographer, I tend to stick to the assignment when I ‘m shooting, but you doing that is creating a need for them as a client, when you look at it from a business perspective. You’re telling them that your work is so good that they need to hire you for a bigger project later.
Chris: Well and I think the other thing too – earlier you asked me about translating my vision into my portfolio and I built that portfolio, but I did it while shooting every job I did. So, when I would go shoot these small jobs, it wasn’t just a chance for a picture for a magazine, it was also a chance to get an awesome shot for my portfolio. SO in a way I was doing two things at once. in a way I was showing the client what I could do and show them something exceptional, but I was also potentially getting a great shot for my portfolio, to then show other clients
Matt: That’s smart – you’re thinking about new jobs while you’re on the job.
Matt: And so, going back to the outreach, do you work with an agent or an agency at all?
Chris: Yeah I have an agent, but I’ve been in the business for a long time and my agent is really just for advertising so for people are justing starting out, it’s difficult to get an agent.
Matt: Definitely, I feel that when you get an agent that’s another realm of photography, and I’ve talked to some people that are positive about agents and some that are negative, but I think it has a lot to do with what you’re shooting and who you’re trying to shoot for, so I think for some people its’s beneficial and for others it won’t be.
Matt: In a more artistic manner, I’m curious to know how you brainstorm and think of your ideas for your portraits? For example, looking through your portfolio, I found the portraits of Steve Martin and Tom Hanks incredibly intriguing. For these types of photos does it just kind of happen on set, or is it pre-made in your head beforehand and you know you’re going to make that shot?
Chris: So I will say first, the ideas for advertising jobs normally come from the client, and I’m brought in to help execute it. So I might help out with some of the performance or some of the ideas on set, but the overall ideas for advertising are almost always coming from their team and not from me. And magazine work is a mix of my ideas and the client’s ideas and occasionally the subject will contribute as well, but mostly it’s my ideas for the magazines. For the Steve Martin portrait, that was the magazine’s idea and I put my details in to execute it. For example, I chose the location, and worked with the prop stylist and obviously worked with the team on set. But the idea for that was actually from the magazine client and it was actually an homage to an older portrait of Picasso by Robert Doisneau. So in a way the idea existed before.
Matt: Although you’re getting a lot of ideas from client, how do you continue to keep your mind working to create ideas?
Chris: I guess part of it is that I don’t think I’m there yet. I don’t think my best work has been made yet. I’m still working on trying get there. I’m always working to reach new levels of success and I think it’s always important to put your personality into your work. I think part of what you see in your work that might be different than other people; I’m not saying better, but different, is my that my work reflects the way I see the world my interior life.
Matt: That makes sense and I think the key word you said there – ‘different‘ – as a photographer, after a while you get to a certain point where you kind of become humbled and you realize .’ I’m taking photos but anyone can take photos, so I don’t want to make better, but I want to make different, so it takes me further.”
Chris: Yeah I think asking for better is too much pressure. I think you should always try to be better. I put a lot of pressure on myself but I think I strive the most when I’m trying to work hard but I take the pressure off of making work that’s ‘perfect’ or always making a 10/10. Taking that pressure off actually helps me make better work.
Matt: What were some obstacles you faced along your journey
Chris: I think one of the main things that is important to get you there is that the narrative and the culture around photography, or music you see it too, is that the breakout career is not always a reality. For most people it’s going to take a long time to become successful and that’s not a bad thing. For most people, you’re going to work hard and you’re not going to get the attention you feel you deserve, for like 10-15 years. You might have supporters and people that like what you do, but getting people outside your immediate circle group to care about who you are will take a long time. If you focus on your work and making something that is different than you’ll be ahead of the game as opposed to those who are shooting what’s popular right now. You have to do what you and do it for a long time. Most people, no matter what career, that you really admire are people who have been doing it for a couple decades, not just people who have been hot for like 6 months.
Matt: I think it’s definitely true, especially with social media. You see a lot of people came and go because of that – their work is not enough to hold them. Tat breakout career or whatever sparked them was not enough to hold them once that trend was up.
Matt: Moving past the obstacles, what were some of the most gratifying moments fo your career?
Chris: One thing is that if you work so hard for so long, occasionally you have a picture that comes together really easily and without much effort and that is a treat, it feels like a gift. But I like to take those gifts and really appreciate them because I’ve worked so hard for other achievements and to meet other goals. And to have some shots come together so easily and be dynamic and beautiful without any effort, I feel like I’ve earned that because of all the hard work I’ve put int other shoots.’ And it takes so much effort to get to a decent place. An example would be a photograph I made of Robert Kennedy Jr. 20 years ago. We were getting ready for the shoot and he came over to my assistant and I and said I have an idea, ” I think we should take photo with me in the lake (which was frozen) like popping out of a ice fisherman hole. And I was like, ‘Woah that is so awesome’ and i’ve ended up shooting it and it became a really important picture in my career.
Matt: Wow, that’s unreal. And in that moment, did you feel accomplished, or did it come later on?
Chris: Well I just felt grateful. Most pictures I have to plan ideas for days and really work hard with the subject and have all of the production and usually not everything works out. But for this, the subject came up with the idea and my thought at the time was that my job was to get out of the way and let it happen, and make sure there’s film in the camera.
Matt: In terms of who you’d like to work with in the future, who/what is one person or brand/publication that you’d like to work with?
Chris: Oh boy, umm… I think probably Kanye West.
Matt: Wow, I did not expect that at all!
Chris: Really, what did you expect?
Matt: I don’t know I just… A lot of people have this hatred towards Kanye West an I just wasn’t expecting that to be the first person to come to your mind.
Chris: Well you know, I think he’s different. He’s different and he doesn’t care what people think of him, and I think that’s awesome. I like that he’s a risk-taker, I like that he doesn’t care what other people think he does what he thinks is right, and I think that’s really inspiring.
Matt: I think it’s interesting you say that because throughout the whole interview you’ve talked about how you aspire to be different in your work. I think it’s telling that you chose Kanye West because he’s so different with his work as well.
Through years and years of trial and error, working harder than his clients asked for, and having a unique vision that can not be compromised, Chris Buck has set a foundation for himself in the photography industry that will last a lifetime. His timeless portraits and his incredible magazine covers and advertising campaigns all come together to create Buck’s incredible body of work that, well, speaks for itself.
From the whole team at FilterGrade, we’d like to give a big thank you to Chris for taking the time to sit down and talk with us about his experience and career. For more of Chris’ work, be sure to check out his portfolio if you haven’t already and also be sure to follow him on Instagram to stay up to date!