Chris Buck: Presence

The Celebrity Photographer Subverts His Medium to Obscure the Likes of David Lynch and Gnarls Barkley

Do you see Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in this image? No? That’s because Chris Buck’s intriguing series, Presence, brings a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” approach to famous sitters. Renowned for his witty celebrity portraits in such magazines as GQ, Esquire and Newsweek, Toronto-born Buck initiated this project in 2006, often using spare moments during commissioned sessions to instruct subjects to conceal themselves in the environment so they are present, yet invisible. “In my celebrity photography I’m looking to make something different and a little surprising, working on parts of them that are not so well known,” says the Arnold Newman award recipient. “So in a way this project is taking that approach a couple of steps further—it’s still Robert de Niro, but it’s Robert de Niro without the interference of seeing him.” Prior to the opening of Presence at New York’s Foley Gallery on January 16, Buck takes us behind the scenes of his covert missions. 

Which of the people you photographed were the most game?
David Lynch stood out early on. Everyone I talked to needed me to say a few things about the project, because people get confused. With Lynch, I started to explain and he cut me off and said, “I get it,” then walked out and stepped into the shot perfectly. 

What is the impact of having the subject concealed in the shot, instead of just photographing the space itself?
It’s huge. Presence is really about what someone’s story brings to an image. If I show you a bunch of photographs and then tell you they were taken by Robert Frank, you can’t help but look at them through the prism of Robert Frankness. You have a context placed on it—one can’t help but be swayed by the name attached to it. 

Was there anyone you would have loved to have photographed, but couldn't?
There were a number of people I wrote letters to or who had sat for me who would not do it. I tried to contact Irving Penn—he was well known for not liking to be photographed and I thought he’d love this. But I got a polite note back from his studio. I wrote to George W. Bush and Stephen Sondheim. Ian McEwan, the British writer, said you’re welcome to come photograph me at my event and then frame the outside of where I am. I found it a bit odd when people said no. It takes 30 seconds and you’re not even visible—what’s there to say no to?

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    Gerhard Richter Painting

    A New Film Captures the German Impasto Master at Work with His Squeegee

    The notoriously secretive creative process of reclusive German artist Gerhard Richter is exposed in filmmaker Corinna Belz’s new fly-on-the-wall documentary, Gerhard Richter Painting. Belz spent three years as an observer in Richter’s Cologne studio capturing mesmerizing footage of the artist producing his radical abstract works. As we witness him mixing layer upon layer of bold primary colors, smearing the wet paint with a giant squeegee and scraping at the surfaces of the canvases, Richter’s masterpieces appear before our eyes. “You get the feeling the paintings are staring at you,” says Belz, who met the painter while filming his vibrant pixelated stained glass window for the Cologne Cathedral. “There’s a physicality to Richter’s paintings. I wanted the viewer to become immersed in the subtly suspenseful cycle of the process.” Belz’s poetic film coincides with Richter’s 80th birthday and a major retrospective at London’s Tate Modern spanning five decades of his varied work.

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    Lightning People: NYC Lore

    Kirsten Dunst, Chloë Sevigny and Others Illuminate Christopher Bollen's Debut Novel

    Interview Magazine Editor-at-Large Christopher Bollen’s striking portrait of thirty-somethings wandering New York in the aftermath of 9/11, is hauntingly rendered in this collage of readings by the author’s illustrious circle of peers. Filmmakers Jauretsi and Crystal have woven together the voices of Chlöe Sevigny, Nate Lowman, Leelee Sobieski, Rufus Wainwright, Waris Ahluwalia, Kalup Linzy, Natasha Lyonne and Kirsten Dunst into a kind of tone poem, paired with a montage depicting a band of young brothers exploring Washington Square Park and the rooftops of their native city. The result captures the vibrancy and diffuse energies that make Manhattan so unique, much as Lightning People does: at once sprawling and intimate, the book explores the bipolarities of the Ohioan writer’s adopted home. “Some of my friends say this is not a Valentine, but an F-you to New York City,” Bollen admits. “I think they’re both in there—the underside and the place of endless dreams.” Written with the deftness you’d expect from a longtime editor of tastemaking magazines V and Interview, Bollen's novel pops with descriptive gems, the poignant characterization tuned by over a decade of profiling cultural icons, from Norman Mailer to Mary-Kate Olsen. NOWNESS caught up with Bollen to talk literary idols and downtown fauna.

    Has interviewing your idols influenced your work?
    When I was at V, I’d never interviewed anyone and was suddenly interviewing Joan Didion and Norman Mailer. Those were my first interviews, talking to the heroes of my childhood. I do wonder if, at a certain moment, it becomes time to stop talking to the people you admire and start living your own life.

    Are you still turning your harsh editorial eye on every word and comma?
    Well, yes. There is an impulse to never stop editing. I think it was Robert Penn Warren who said a poem is never finished, it has to be yanked from the poet.

    In the second half, the book really lets loose.
    At first I worried that it was a little over the top and outrageous—and part of me thinks it is. But in the last ten years everything in New York has been outrageous and over the top. The most extreme things happening seem just as likely as the most sane and somber.

    Do you think the book has an artistic ancestry?
    Well, it’s funny that novelist and literary Brat-Packer Jay McInerney interviewed me for the current issue of Interview. I would have liked to have written a book about people in their 20s in New York—the characters would have been much cooler, it would have glamorized youth. The scenes of going out in the novel are not glamorous. You never get anywhere. You just lose the more you go. 

    The original title of the book was Animal. You are something of an expert on the fauna of downtown New York. What are the most prevalent species you see out there?
    There are very few herbivores in New York. Everyone is pretty carnivorous. There are very few loner animals. And very few who mate for life I bet. Not a lot of penguins.

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