“Oh, there’s a light on back here. Do you want this?” Robert De Niro asked. Photographer Chris Buck couldn’t see it in his viewfinder, so he walked up the marble steps toward the tub and peered around the corner to survey the situation. There he had one of his teenage heroes — Travis Bickle, Vito Corleone — stuffed into a space, carefully hiding so the camera doesn’t catch sight of him, not a toe or a sleeve.
While the Canadian-born Buck shoots celebrities for the glossy pages of GQ and Esquire, his new project, "Presence," puts A-listers front and center by hiding them away.
“The celebrity is hidden in the shot, their full body or most of it at least,” Buck says. “There’s Photoshopping, but not to remove the person. I can’t remove a knee or a foot or something. Also, I won’t tell anybody where the celebrity is hiding.”
Some pictures take place at the subject’s home or office. Others during chance meetings.
“The celebrities are hidden in obvious places,” Buck says. “It’s not meant to be Where’s Waldo?”
The photo titled Russell Brand, for instance, features a folding screen pulled across a doorway at the Plaza Hotel. If we’re to believe the contracts signed by the sitting subject and a witness that are published adjacent to the photo, Brand is indeed hiding somewhere in the frame — most probably behind that pillar or the partition.
“There’s a natural instinct to try and find them,” Buck says, “but then a third of the way through, you give up and just let who it is influence the way you read the picture.”
Buck’s David Lynch captures the corner of a concrete structure, the weighty shadows it casts and a manicured boxwood hedge that grows overhead. “Yeah, a mix of man-made and organic, but even the organic is influenced by man,” Buck notes.
The lighting on the background grass is reminiscent of the way Lynch envisioned Americana in Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. But Buck demystifies the concept: “This is Lynch’s office, so it makes sense that it feels like him.”
Some pictures bear overt connections to their subject. In David Byrne a giant cardboard box labelled “The Big Suit” — referencing the oversized suit the Talking Heads frontman made famous in Stop Making Sense — sits in the centre of what is presumably Byrne’s studio.
Other photos are more discreet. Seth Rogen depicts the back entranceway of what appears to be a Mexican hacienda, two stands of cacti growing against the corners of the walls. “The connection is perhaps tenuous, but it’s real,” Buck says. The exercise is ultimately to examine what we know about the subject.
While some were on board with "Presence" quickly, others took some coaxing. A few sentences into the explanation of the project, “Lynch was immediately like, ‘I get it’ and climbed into the shot,” Buck says. Meanwhile, golfer Jack Nicklaus said, “If I’m not visible, why do I have to be in it?” Buck had to argue with Nicklaus, letting him in on the history of conceptual art, before the Golden Bear agreed to sit.
Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion, depending on your preference) was puzzled by the hiding, too, leading Buck to explain the project via the ideas of experimental composer John Cage. “People like Cage were definitely an influence on this project,” Buck says of the experimental composer, whom he saw talk at the University of Toronto some years back. “Cage told the audience about how he played frozen fish against the inside piano strings, and people laughed when he talked about it, but Cage said, ‘It wasn’t meant to be funny, I was doing it for the sound.’ ”
Buck feels similar. “I do like that people think these pictures are funny, but I also like that they exist on a totally serious level. … It’s a challenge to the celebrities and the public, to say, ‘Can you handle this? Is this still interesting? Will this make you angry?’ ”
Celebrated U.S. photographer Cindy Sherman once told Buck, “The whole point of having your portrait taken is to promote your commodity — your face — and I love how this series is the exact opposite of that.”
In noting this subversion, Sherman was conscious of the other, more pervasive commodity that Presence explores: the celebrity’s brand.
“People always consider the fascination with celebrities to be very superficial,” Buck says. “But I think that’s not exactly true. Part of it is a glamour idolization thing, but part of it is that [celebrities] are people that we feel we know.
“We bring that baggage to each one. You’ll look at each of these pictures differently knowing that it’s Russell Brand or Michael Stipe.”