Celebrity portraits with a twist

A photographer works with some of the biggest names in pop culture — and shares his stories from behind the scenes Photographs by Chris Buck
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN

Over the last 30 years, Chris Buck has photographed some of the world’s most famous people: politicians, musicians, A-list actors.

Each shoot has a story, and Buck shares many of them in his retrospective book “Uneasy.”

The book’s title reflects Buck’s personal anxieties, he said, and he often tries to bring that discomfort to the set.

“Without really intending to, I developed a style around that kind of awkwardness,” he said. “And very soon, I was putting that onto my subjects and having them live out my unease.”

The result? Fun, unpredictable portraits that grab your attention in a crowded media landscape.

Buck comes to each shoot prepared with around a half-dozen ideas: about the environment, the lighting, the props, the poses. “And then we might only do three of them,” he said. “And of those three, maybe only one really works well.”

“I really want a picture that's going to be a little surprising and delightful for the viewer.”
Photographer Chris Buck

It always helps to have a willing subject like Seth MacFarlane, seen in the astronaut suit above.

“When you're photographing someone who's in the public eye, they always have something they're promoting,” Buck said. “And if you can hook the ideas, even tangentially, to what they're promoting, they're more likely to do it.”

In this case, MacFarlane was promoting the documentary series “Cosmos” in 2014. He was an executive producer for the show.

“We didn’t have the budget for a prop stylist, so not only was I doing the pickups and drop-offs, I was also to be dressing Mr. MacFarlane,” Buck says in his book. “I anticipated an awkward moment or two as I slipped one of the wealthiest people in show business into an ill-fitting costume, but grew to expect real tension when the rental house told me that it would take 20 minutes to put on the suit.”

In the end, Buck said, MacFarlane was cool with the spacesuit and all the work it entailed. And it paid off in the end.

“I really want a picture that's going to be a little surprising and delightful for the viewer,” Buck said. “At the same time, if I can squeeze in something that's a little bit psychological or intriguing that might go a little deeper, then I'd be so pleased if that could happen, too.”

The following first-person anecdotes come straight from Buck’s book:

Jimmy Fallon, 2013

Mickey Rourke, 2002

On Fallon: “Where possible, I try to pull photo ideas from the subject’s life. Jimmy and his wife had a newborn girl, so I thought it would be fun to have him holding a baby. By coincidence, a couple that my wife and I are friendly with had just had their second child, and it was a girl.

“Jimmy’s PR people agreed to this setup beforehand but were a little weirded out with this young baby on set (she was seven weeks old, just a bit older than Jimmy’s child). I was excited about getting this shot, so I wanted to jump right into it, but the PR team suggested we do other things first, since an ‘accident’ could end the shoot pretty quick. This seemed reasonable, so we shot some nonbaby poses first. And it was good, but not great — let’s get that baby in here!

“I had the mother remove the baby’s clothes, then her diaper, and pass her to Jimmy. His people seemed to be surprised that she was naked, but isn’t that why they wanted me to wait? Jimmy was clearly nervous about holding someone else’s baby, but nervousness quickly turned to panic as the baby almost immediately peed all over his shirt and down his pants. He made a gesture of passing her back, but I stopped him and directed him to smile. He lasted another four frames and then insisted on giving back the baby.”

On Rourke: “After researching Mickey Rourke in preparation for the shoot, I swore that I would not photograph him with his little dog. It seemed like it was all I ever saw of him, and frankly, it was just too cute for my taste. But then he walked in with the dog inside his long-sleeved T-shirt, with its little head peeking out. ‘Okay, I submit!’ ”

Ice-T, 1989

On Ice-T: “I approached Ice-T as he was exiting the venue after a sound check. I knew I’d only have a moment to make something happen, and when I saw his handgun necklace, I asked him to pose with it clenched in his teeth. I took three frames and then thanked him for the portrait.”

Steve Carell, 2005

On Carell: “When mapping out a session with a comedian, it’s normal for us to have a detailed conversation about concepts — this happens with their publicists, but also with the subjects themselves. Steve Carell was professional and easy to work with, but he struck me as being on a higher level of sophistication than most. Even when discussing silly and ridiculous ideas, he’d do so with an almost dry intellect, carefully thinking through the meaning of the gag before agreeing to it.

“But I always like to do some shots that are quieter and less conceptual as well. This is a good example of this — I had him in this half-outdoor space connected to the studio. I asked him to lie down and put his head on the table.

“Interestingly, when people turn to this picture in my portfolio, they often laugh, and I think that’s because when people see a comedian, they react viscerally, like there is a reservoir of humor from their previous work.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1999

Lena Dunham, 2014

On Hoffman: “Running errands on a spring Saturday, I popped into a hot-dog joint. ... A minute after I placed my order at the counter, Philip Seymour Hoffman came in. The place was almost empty, so I went up and said hello. We had done three sittings together, so he recognized me right away and was friendly, if low-key.

“We sat down and ate. He had a cheeseburger, and I had two hot dogs wrapped in bacon, with hot sauce.

“During our conversation I congratulated him on his Best Actor Oscar for ‘Capote,’ which he had received only days before. I told him that he couldn’t now go off and do stupid big-budget action movies (a common misstep made by past winners). He chewed his sandwich for a couple of seconds and then told me that his next picture was ‘Mission: Impossible III.’ ”

On Dunham: “Lena Dunham arrived promptly for our Guardian Weekend shoot at a Brooklyn studio, and she announced that she’d be needing some underwear. As we moved forward with the shots that we could do sans undergarment, there remained unanswered questions: Would the underwear arrive? When would it arrive? And how might it alter the shoot? Though she has a media reputation for being self-involved, it would be hard to imagine her being more gracious. For instance, complimenting people, asking them questions (celebrities aren’t usually this nice). She was also generous where it really counted — with the photography. Her genuine embrace of all that is odd and creative made working with her a photographer’s dream; playful, dirty, and weird — everything I look for in a collaborator.”

Donald Trump, 2006

On Trump: “I had shot with Donald Trump before, and although he’d 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 11x14-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, ‘OK,’ and this is how I got the portrait that’s in this book.”

Billy Joel, 2001

On Joel: “I had seen this sign on display while picking out a couch at a prop house for another job about six months earlier. I’d scrawled ‘applause sign’ in my notebook.

“I was told I would be shooting Billy Joel for half an hour in a hotel. On a whim, I rented the sign on the way to the shoot (not bothering to consult the magazine about the $275 fee).

“It all happened in a hotel suite: the reporter interviewed him in the living room area, while we set up in the bedroom. We pulled the drapes mostly shut, plugged in the sign, and then shot a few Polaroids to find the right light balance.”

Eminem, 1999

Steve Martin, 2005

On Eminem: “Especially with hip-hop, the way people tend to pose is pretty predictable, and I wanted something that was outside of that. This was just something I could do that would be a little surprising.

“I basically just told him, ‘I want you to stick your head into the fish tank,’ and he was like, ‘OK, you mean like this?’ The funny thing was that he put his two cents in and asked that we put a bottle of tequila in the shot. If you look through the fish tank, you can see it.”

On Martin: “Premiere magazine photo editor Linda Liang came to me with the idea to do an homage to Robert Doisneau’s 1952 Picasso portrait. She said: ‘I was in yoga class, and I looked down at my hands. I thought: Bread hands!’

“In the original, Picasso is wearing the classic horizontal striped shirt, and I obviously wasn’t going to dress Steve Martin like that — I wanted Steve Martin to look like Steve Martin. At some point with an homage, it’s best to throw away the reference photograph — it’s meant to be a standalone picture. If you recognize the reference, that’s great; if you don’t, it will still be a curious image.”

David Cross, 2010

On Cross: “We started shooting it live, throwing the taxidermied dog to make it look like David was kicking it, and then we realized it was just too chaotic to shoot. So we had him pose like he was kicking, and then the dog was thrown between two people. We put it all together later in Photoshop.

“For the shoot, we had a taxidermied dog shipped from Los Angeles. It’s quite common for people to have their pets stuffed after they die, as they’re in mourning and are having a hard time moving on. Then, by the time the piece is ready, they have come to their senses and don’t go to pick up their order.”

Tina Fey, 2001

Steve-O, 2002

On Fey: “I think I’d known that Tina Fey had a scar on her face before I met, her but I didn’t realize how prominent it was. I was a total fan of her as a ‘Saturday Night Live’ Weekend Update host. Smart, sharp, funny, and very cute in those black-rimmed glasses. I thought the scar was super cool too, and sexy, so I wanted to show it in the portrait.

“As my assistant was setting up the lighting, Tina was getting her makeup done, so I dropped by to exchange a few words, as I will typically do. After a couple of minutes, I couldn’t resist and asked about the scar. She told me about how, as a little girl, she had answered the front door of her home, and a stranger cut her face with a knife. I couldn’t tell if she was being funny, or trying to shock me. She didn’t laugh or smile after she told me this, so I just took it at face value.”

On Steve-O: “As we were prepping for the shoot with the ‘Jackass’ boys, their publicist tipped me off as to how to approach them. She said that they wouldn’t do anything unless they thought that it was their idea. So, once they arrived on set, I mentioned that we’d brought some Fourth of July sparklers, and then just let it hang there. Right away they took the bait, scoffing with, ‘Pfff, not unless we stick them in our butts ...’

“The shot shown here is actually the Polaroid. We lit the sparkler, and Steve immediately pulled his underwear away, because he could smell it being burned. We shot a couple of rolls of film, and when it was all done, I spontaneously went over to him and said, ‘Steve-O, you rock!’ He smiled and pointed to his back, where that phrase was tattooed across it.”

Public Enemy, 1988

On Public Enemy: “After graduating college I worked for a year as a photo editor for a Canadian music and pop-culture magazine called Graffiti. It was just part time, and it paid terribly, but it was a great way to put off the scary proposition of being a full-time photographer.

“I was pretty good about not taking all of the best assignments, but occasionally I would pull rank and give myself something special. We had played the first Public Enemy album often in the Graffiti office, so when the second one came out there was a ready audience for this masterpiece. It got repeated play at the office and on my Walkman, so I couldn’t have been more excited when they went on tour that summer.

“I shot this picture in a narrow hallway in the backstage area of the venue, with my Metz flash shooting through an umbrella on a modest stand. An early and simple attempt at ‘lighting.’ Amazingly, it worked.”

Chris Buck is a photographer based in New York and Los Angeles. His second book, "Uneasy," is now available. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Photo editor: Brett Roegiers