A Toronto photographer describes what it was like to shoot Donald Trump (and seven other big-name celebs)
The Etobicoke-born photographer Chris Buck got his start in the 1980s, shooting indie bands and musicians for the local music magazine Nerve. In 1990, he moved to New York City, where he quickly established a career as one of pop culture’s quirkiest portraitists, landing regular gigs with GQ, Esquire and New York. Buck shoots his subjects in outlandish, surreal situations: Andy Samberg getting a scalp massage from a black bear, Steve Martin with baguettes for fingers, Seth Macfarlane in a spacesuit. “For the most part, people want to look cool, thin and young,” he says. “I’m subtly manipulative. At some point in the shoot, I’ll ask them to do something that’s outside of their comfort zone.” On February 22, he launches Uneasy, a collection of his most memorable photographs from the past three decades. We asked Buck to tell us the stories behind a few of them.
“In person, Trump was different from what I expected. I knew him from The Apprentice, and I found him off-putting. He was still bossy, but in a way that was funny and friendly. He’s a great salesman, and if he wants to, he makes you feel like you’re important and awesome.
At one point, he asked, ‘Are you using a wide lens? I suggest you use a flat lens.’ I said, ‘Mr. Trump, are you telling me how to do my job?’ In another setup, I told him we were using a flat lens. He said, ‘Mark my words: this is the one they’ll use.’ And he was right. He loved being the centre of attention and he loves being in the media, despite his criticisms of it. He’s a total ham. In my opinion, that’s why he ran for president. It’s the ultimate showboating platform.”
“This was one of the most intimidating shoots I’ve done. We shot in the map room of the White House.. To photograph a sitting president was scary. I’d photographed W. and elder George Bush, but neither of them were sitting—and Obama is a rock star. There’s an aura about him. In the end we had four and a half minutes. We mapped out the shots with the White House team. The first was a straightforward, face-to-camera shot. The second was a classic three-quarter, looking away. As we were doing that shot, I said, ‘Sir, hold your head in that position, but look at the camera.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t do that.’ And that’s when I snapped the photo.”
“The day we were supposed to shoot with him, he showed up so late that we lost all our light and had to stop. He went to his kid’s softball game and blew off our shoot. I had a flight the next morning and had to cancel it. We rescheduled for the next day, and it ended up being an advantage because we got so much material. We shot on the street, in studio, in his clubhouse. It was very cool. I bring gifts for people as a way to lower their defences and make them feel flattered, and I got him a big bottle of Bombay Sapphire because of his song ‘Gin and Juice.’ He said, ‘I can’t drink that stuff! It makes me crazy.’ He smoked weed the entire shoot.”
“It was the ’90s, and we were shooting for Saturday Night magazine in my old professor’s house in Cabbagetown. She always had this whimsical, Mona Lisa smile look on her face. I said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ At first, I wasn’t getting far with her. There was some disconnect. Then I started telling her a story about photographing Robertson Davies in 1992 at Massey College. He was absolutely intimidating. I told Atwood that I sensed he wasn’t interested in me. She stopped me and said, ‘I only knew him a little bit, but given the kind of writer he was, I’d say he was interested. My gut says he would have been interested in you.’ After that, she opened up.”
“This is my favourite shoot I’ve ever done. When I got the call, I was in L.A. to shoot Billy Bob Thornton. I had two shoots coming up already. I was very anxious. I said, ‘I’m not sure I can do it. Then I found out it was Leonard Cohen. I agreed immediately. At the shoot, told me the stories behind his songs, and he had me sign a Polaroid for him. After we were done, he made lunch. A nice side of chicken liver with pastrami on rye.”
“He was already a star at the time, but it was before he became an icon, one of the superstars of hip hop. We shot in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, where he grew up. I wanted to shoot him as if he’d never become a rap superstar. We had him working at the chicken joint (“Jigga” is his nickname), finding out his SUV was being towed, shopping at the bodega. He was totally game. He wasn’t super-emotive, but he gave it enough that it made it work. “
“At the time, Louis was transitioning from his persona as a comedian who told dad jokes to an angsty divorced guy. He had just moved to Manhattan. In one of his comedy specials, he told a story about being on a beach in Mexico with his daughter, and there were wild horses. It stuck in my mind. I said, ‘What if he’s in a backyard and it’s a six-year-old’s birthday party, and there’s sad-looking miniature horse?’ We floated it by him, and he was like, ‘No kid stuff, no suburbia.’ But he was still okay with the horse. We shot it on West 53rd Street and found a simple spot against the wall. At that point, he’d decided the horse was ridiculous, but he begrudgingly did a shot with it. The horse was a professional. He had a better temperament than Louis CK.”
“This was one of those cases where I threw stuff at the wall to see what sticks. We were shooting in Brooklyn, and I had found this playground. I have a young daughter, so playgrounds are very familiar spaces for me. For some reason, the baby swing looked like an S&M dungeon device. I said to Lena, ‘I want you to put your arms in it like it’s an S&M device.’ She said, ‘Cool!’”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Chris Buck launches his book Uneasy: Chris Buck Portraits 1986–2016 on February 22 at Type Books. On February 23, he’ll speak at the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education.
Are you an American thinking about moving to Canada? If you’re contemplating relocating across the border for political reasons, we want to hear from you. Click the button below to get in touch.