THE CEMETERY BEHIND OUR HOUSE has held a dawn Remembrance Day ceremony at the Lutyens cenotaph for nearly a century. We try to make it there if we can every year. It seemed particularly imperative this weekend, with the centenary of the end of World War One. There are no more veterans of that war, and veterans of the one that followed seem fewer every year.
I LOVE TO TRAVEL. It was a revelation to learn that I could travel and take pictures and sometimes even get paid to do it. After my gig doing travel writing for the Toronto Star ended last year I went into withdrawal for a few months before biting the bullet and starting my own travel photography blog. There might not be money in it, but it gets me back out on the road with my cameras, and that’s really the point.
My first trip for the blog was a pilgrimage to Rochester, New York; it seemed like a suitable destination to start with for a travel photo blog, and for a Kodak kid like myself, it was even more perfect. Everyone at the city’s tourism bureau were helpful and enthusiastic and I came back with three stories for the blog.
But I’m always shooting when I’m on a trip, and there are always leftover shots that don’t quite fit with the stories I produce. If I’m honest, these leftovers – “my own arty weird shit” as I used to call them when talking to my editor at the Star – are the reason I got into travel journalism. I could try and make these images without leaving Toronto, I suppose, but potentially having access to anywhere in the world to make them just increases the number of potential targets, so to speak.
It’s a travel photographer’s prerogative to ask if you can pull the car or bus over on your way between destinations to get a shot, and I’ve had to learn to find the best way to do that, whether I’m alone or on a group travel junket. Because there’s always something catching your eye, and I don’t know a photographer who doesn’t die a little when a potential shot recedes in the rear view mirror, unphotographed.
Travel photography is a recent addition to my portfolio, but I am always – and will probably always be – a portraitist. Opportunities to do portraits don’t always present themselves on trips, but when they do you have to grab them, as I did at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford NY. (A great family destination, by the way, if you’re in the area.)
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.
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.
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.
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.