* Originally published in LA Canvas magazine.
From the off it should be clearly expressed that this book is not going to be for everyone. You could lean back in your russet recliner and chortle as you shake your head and note that, ‘darling, no art is for everyone’. But Presence, the graceful yet unapologetic new photo book from celebrated pop culture photographer Chris Buck, is one of those things that some people will never, ever see where the appeal lies, like sardines, or Drum ‘n’ Bass.
Presence is a collection of celebrity portraits in which the celebrity himself is hiding somewhere out of sight within the frame. Yeah, I told you.
Each page turn is a taunting carrot and stick ordeal that never ceases mocking you. Yet the statements signed by the subject and by a witness tease you just enough that you start to peel away the layers of the photograph to dive deep into the depth of field. And it’s there that you imagine these familiar faces crouched behind a sofa or standing behind the drapes, giggling.
Underwhelming, yes. Contradictory, yes. Strangely captivating, yes.
Chris Buck has been documenting the evolution of pop culture since the early eighties. Finding his in through documenting the underground punk scene in his hometown of Toronto, he gained his reputation by catching early glimpses of iconic artists such as R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, and hinted at the abstract projects and themes that would later define his work and cement his reputation as one of the genuinely unique photographers in the industry.
After a few years submerged in the music scene in Canada he made the jump to New York City where he immediately found his surreal sense of humor and precise attention to detail in high demand. His portfolio showed someone that was not only technically strong, but had a personality that put subjects at ease and soothed the presence of the intruding camera. And whilst he was amassing his little black book of who’s who of who’s, which includes Louis C.K., Steve Martin and even Barak Obama, he would end many of his shoots by politely asking the subject if they wouldn’t mind hiding behind something for a moment.
Presence casually swats away the inevitable ‘gimmick’ tag by being beautifully composed on every level. The concept, whilst having a breezy air of whimsy and being almost immediately predictable, does carry a hefty weight when examining the notion of celebrity and the objectivity of portrait photography. It is also a wonderful collection of photographs of America, with the draw of a hiding celebrity giving you the ability to see and inspect the details as you probably wouldn’t otherwise.
There is a bold streak of humor as dry as marrow running through Chris Buck’s entire career, and his ability to convince ‘The Talent, darling’ to indulge in his bizarre concepts really comes in as a triumphant after-thought. He clearly places originality high on list of priorities when composing collections of photographs, and while some would write that off as being a hindrance on his unquestionable brilliance as a portrait photographer, it does bring him into a world of fine art that clearly suits his mind as well as his eye.