Other side of the camera: My portrait session with Chris Buck

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Chris Buck in my garage, taking my portrait. Photo by Prachy Mohan.

MY FRIEND CHRIS AND I TALKED FOR HOURS LAST JULY, when he interviewed me for The Photographic Journal, but that’s not the part that made me nervous. I am gregarious by nature – probably too much so – so talking about anything (especially myself) isn’t a chore. Having my picture taken, however, makes me deeply uneasy.

I would have been anxious if anyone was doing a portrait of me, but Chris and I have a long personal history and I know his work as well as anyone could who isn’t him, I suppose. There’s a sometimes pitiless quality to a Chris Buck photo that I’ve found endlessly intriguing and entertaining – when someone else is the subject. I couldn’t help but wonder just what would happen when he turned his camera on me.

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By the concrete banks of Black Creek. Photos by Prachy Mohan.

Chris asked me to suggest some locations, and the first one that came to mind was in the neighbourhood where I grew up – Mount Dennis, by what was once the Kodak Canada plant where both our families worked. I used to come down here in the evenings when I was young, sometimes stoned, sometimes not, and lie on the angled concrete banks encasing Black Creek, still warm from the summer sun, and stare at the sky.

We did quite a few shots where I was lying on the flat concrete next to the water, with Prachy, Chris’ assistant for the day, carefully aiming a silver reflector to bounce the sun behind me back into my face. For another whole series I squatted down in front of Chris’ lens, almost sumo-style, and grimaced at the camera. So far, pretty much what I anticipated from the shoot; Chris taking some cue or detail from my story and turning it into a scenario from his own imagination.

With the light starting to go, we drove back to my house, and set up to shoot in the space between my garage and the wall of my neighbour’s garage, which was covered in nicely weathered wood siding. At one point I pulled out my phone and took a quick shot of what it looks like when you’re a Chris Buck subject:

We kept shooting while the summer evening light slowly dimmed, Prachy working hard to fill in the shadows with the bounce. For one long series of shots, Chris asked me to bend my arm behind my head and lean back – a position he’d seen me fall into during our long interview a few hours previous. At some point during that series he managed to capture a very flattering shot of me – one that would end up featured on the front page of the TPJ site.

Without much of a break, Chris moved me closer to his camera, to where the light wrapped mostly around the back of my head. I was told to face away from the camera and then, when he gave a cue, to turn and look at him. It was a bit of a contortion for a stiff, 54-year-old man, and it didn’t take long until doing it repeatedly became somewhat painful. Once again, I had a bit of an insight into how Chris creates his unique portraits, though I knew Barack Obama didn’t have to do this.

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This would end up being the photo that Chris and Lou Noble of TPJ chose for the top of the interview. It’s a good shot. It’s not totally flattering – I’m grizzled and very obviously a man in late middle age, but that’s not something I want or need to hide. The shadows and the layout obscure my face a bit, which is a good thing for a portrait of a photographer, and especially one like me, who’s never been good at selling himself.

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The McGinnis family, Chris Buck, July 2018.

We did one final, quick, setup at the front of the house with my family. We’d spent a lot of time during the interview talking about family and its importance to both of us, and who we’ve become as we’ve gotten older. I didn’t imagine it would end up getting used in the story, but I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity for a Chris Buck family portrait.

It does a nice job of capturing us as we are today – two people with teenage daughters, our house as the backdrop, as it is in our lives. A hi-res snapshot of domesticity, featuring two ageing hipsters and their very different offspring. The only thing missing is the cat.

I can’t wait to see the outtakes from the shoot, and I know that I walked away from the experience wondering if there was anything in Chris’ working method that I could adapt to my own. Definitely struck by how different it is if you have a willing subject with their attention fully on you, and plenty of time to work. I’d like to thank Chris and Prachy and Lou Noble for the whole experience, and with that I’ll just slink back into the undergrowth where I belong.

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In the bushes. Photo by Prachy Mohan.

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Interview with The Photographic Journal

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MY GOOD FRIEND CHRIS BUCK interviewed and photographed me for The Photographic Journal earlier this summer, and the interview has gone live today. Amazingly enough, the front page image is probably the most flattering picture of me I’ve seen in, well, forever. Thanks, Chris!

(And yes, it’s true when they say that black is slimming.)

Included are exchanges like the following:

How do you think your being Catholic and a believer, in the traditional sense of being a regular churchgoer; how does that play into your photography?

It’s two things. One is the cultural Catholic thing. The other day on Facebook I posted, 10 Books in 10 Days. And the last book I put up was our family Bible. It was an early fifties pre-Vatican II, American Catholic Bible with two or three sections of old masters, Biblical paintings and scenes. El Greco, Fra Angelico, that kind of stuff. That was the only art book we had in the house the whole time I was a kid.

Did you grow up in the Middle Ages?

No, I grew up in a working class Catholic neighborhood (chuckles) there weren’t a lot of books.

It was a long conversation we had in my backyard, and I’m amazed Chris was able to distill it down as much as he did. The interview was inspired by the end of my old blog, the start of this one, and the publication of my trio of photozines, MUSIC, SQUARE and STARS, which are available at my Blurb bookstore.

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I’ll have more to say about the TPJ interview tomorrow, when I talk about the unique and even revelatory experience of doing a portrait session – for the first time in over twenty-five years – with Chris.

Hello, and Books for Sale

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WELCOME TO MY NEW BLOG. I’m guessing you’ve come here after reading my old blog, which was (mostly) about all the work I did between the mid-’80s and the late 2000s. This blog will feature new work, though I may occasionally revisit something old. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.

In the meantime, I have some books I’d like to sell you. Photozines, actually – a set of three, full of some of the best of that old work. I wanted to put together a “greatest hits” collection, which quickly turned into three 32-page softcover books, available for the low price of CAN$14.99 each.

MUSIC features portraits of musicians taken over thirty years, and includes photos of Tony Bennett, Henry Rollins, Björk, Alice Cooper, Fela Kuti, Patti Smith and others. STARS is a collection of portraits of movie stars and other celebrities, and features Mickey Rooney, Jackie Chan, Rachel McAdams, Rudolf Nureyev, John Waters, Anne Hathaway and more.

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SQUARE is the most idiosyncratic volume of the three, and is meant to showcase travel, street photography, landscape and still life work I’ve done over the decades, held together by being shot in my favorite format – the 1:1 square. I imagine it’ll be the book that sells the least, but it’s the most personal of the three, so prove me wrong.

I wanted to publish my photos in a nice, high quality magazine format because I realized while working on my old blog that most of my work – the vast majority, in fact – had been printed on newsprint. I always wanted to be a magazine photographer, so this is my way of re-imagining what that old work would have looked like, published as I imagined it ideally.

The books are available through my Blurb bookstore, which will handle printing, sales and distribution. Click on the button below (or on the right hand side of this blog) and send me a selfie of you with the books when they arrive (if you feel like it.) Please enjoy MUSIC, SQUARE and STARS, and I hope you’ll like the new work I’ll be featuring here as much.

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Soon, very soon…

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STILL BUSY WITH BIG PROJECTS and winding up the old blog. One more month and this thing will be as lively as fuck, but in the meantime here’s an old photo of me taken with my first medium format camera, a Mamiya C330, by my old friend Chris Buck, in my dingy little Maitland Street apartment in around 1987. Rediscovered while laying out one of a trio of photozines I’ll be publishing shortly. But more on that later…