When former U.S. President George H.W. Bush died last week on November 30, 2018, it wasn’t long before all the channels on social media were crammed with images of him, in the Oval Office, during the first Gulf War, as President Reagan’s vice president and with his family, including another Commander-in-chief, his son, President George W. Bush. Seeing those photos made me wonder: How difficult is it to capture a portrait of a U.S. president?
To find out, I interviewed veteran portrait photographer and celebrity shooter Chris Buck, who has not only captured photos of the late President Bush but also his son, as well as President Barack Obama and our current Commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump. I asked him what are some of the challenges he’s faced when capturing images of such prominent politicians and how that differs from capturing other types of portraits.
Photographing President George H.W. Bush
The major challenge that Buck has found with capturing portraits of U.S. Presidents, either during or after their presidency, is that they often have very little time to spend with you. For instance, when Esquire hired Buck on October 27, 2010 to photograph President Bush, with his wife, the former First Lady, Barbara Bush, he said he had just 45 minutes for the entire shoot. And that included all the set up and shooting: “That’s 25 minutes of setup and then 20 minutes or so to do the shoot,” Buck says. For such an important portrait, that’s not really reasonable.
“If you look at the pictures with President George H.W. Bush,” he says, “You’ll see they are all available light. The reason why is we had no time to set up.” Buck even suggested to his editor that he drop by the previous day to scope out the location and put together a game plan for lighting. If that was an option, Buck said he could have been able to “map out what we might set up. When I get to a location, I need to look around and absorb it, come up with a game plan and do lighting and load in, and then shoot.” But that wasn’t possible for this portrait.
So, just before the shoot, Buck jotted down ideas on a page of notes, listing out possible portrait poses, including “classic” (such as “tight and looking away, profile”, and one with a “shiny front light”) and “in chair” (“corner, lit from above”, and “at the breakfast table in available light”). At the bottom of the page, Buck includes additional notes, including what appears to be ways to break the ice with the President, like how he’d photographed his two sons, former governor Jeb Bush and former President George W. Bush, who are also famous politicians.
In the end, with so little time, Buck decided to go with a natural-light scenario. Ideally, Buck says, he likes to have at least two lighting setups, for options. But for this shoot, he opted to shoot President Bush in natural light, which had an additional benefit: They were able to capture behind-the-scenes video of Buck working with the former President.
But making that kind of decision on the fly can be nerve-wracking.
“A huge part of this job, or any job,” says Buck, “is having the experience and frankly the confidence to say we’re going to do ‘X’. You have to have the confidence to say, ‘No, we’re going to go against convention and we’re going to do it like this.’ ”
To see Buck interacting with the late President Bush, click here.
On Capturing Other U.S. Presidents And Politicians
In 2013, when Buck went to the White House to capture an image of then President Barack Obama, he had even less time to shoot a portrait than he did when he’d taken President George H.W. Bush’s photo. However, what made this shot a better shot, in Buck’s eyes, is that he had hours to set up and experiment with lighting.
Buck found President Obama to be a fascinating subject to shoot and was all-business on the day of the shoot. “President Obama was very present,” says Buck. “in the sense that he didn’t have a lot of time blocked off with us, but once he came in, he shook everyone’s hand, said hello…and then we got to work. There wasn’t a lot of chit-chat.”
But as with his shoot with President Bush, Buck created detailed notes on what he might talk to President Obama about, in case he needed it. “We only had a few minutes. But we did three setups in four-and-a-half minutes.”
Unlike some types of photo shoots—for example, a still life or perhaps a street shooter— a portrait really is a collaboration between the photographer and the sitter. But for Buck, thorough preparation, of what lighting to use and even what to chat with the subject about, can be crucial to the success of the portrait. Because although the photo was important to Buck, “It wasn’t really that important to [[Obama]].”
In this shoot, the hard work and preparation paid off. “In the Obama portrait, it really feels like a Chris Buck picture!” says Buck. “And I was very happy about that. I feel like the Obama portrait may be my best presidential portrait because it has a sense of me and the in the sitter.”
But it’s important to know that as a professional photographer, who often works for editorial outlets, like Newsweek, the Guardian and Esquire, to name just a few, he’s not there to make a politician or celebrity look good or appear in a flattering light. He’s there to hopefully make a powerful and even provocative photo, like the Newsweek cover image he took of Michele Bachmann, during her 2012 failed presidential campaign.
Advice For Photographers: Just Ask
In his experience, politicians tend to be more guarded for photo shoots. It’s not surprising to see why. “The role of the media and the press is to criticize them and hold their feet to the fire,” Buck says. “That’s part of our job, even with politicians you might admire. So they tend to be much more guarded.”
So, what does Buck look for when creating a portrait?
“To me, an interesting portrait, whether it’s someone in politics or not, has to deal with a kind of vulnerability and humanity. So I look for that in any subject, whether it’s a politician or not. My job is to deliver the best picture for the audience and for my client. And it’s really not about the subject. I don’t want to be unfair to them, but my job is to critique on some level. That’s what I do. That’s our job as photographers.”
Which, in a way, makes the photo he captured of former senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern wearing just a skimpy Speedo bathing suit all the more remarkable. And it’s a photo Buck nearly missed getting.
Here’s how Buck recalls that shoot from 1996:
“I had shot him at a summer cottage with his family,” says Buck. “When I met him, he was walking up from the beach and was in a Speedo bathing suit and looked amazing. He was in his seventies.” Buck says then McGovern went in and changed into regular clothes for the shoot. But just after the session, Buck mentioned to his assistant that he wished he could have shot him in the bathing suit.
His assistant replied, “You should ask him.”
So, Buck asked him, “Would you pose in a bathing as you were when we first met you?” At first, McGovern said no. But when Buck said that he wouldn’t hand it into Newsweek but wanted it for his portfolio, McGovern agreed!
“So, he put his bathing suit back on,” says Buck. “And we shot him against a seamless in the cottage. And it’s just amazing. Even now, 20 years later, people look at it and ask ‘how on earth did you get it?’”
For pro photographers, the takeaway is simple: If you have an experimental idea for a shot, it’s generally best to simply ask your subject and see what he or she says.
“I think the way you get someone to do something like this is,” says Buck, “like my assistant said, you ask. I think when you really believe in your idea, if you ask it in a way that doesn’t undermine your narrative, a lot of times it will work.”
For more on Chris Buck and his portraits, check out his book Uneasy: Portraits 1986-2016, a 30-year retrospective of his work, which includes many of these photos as well as dozens of behind-the-scenes stories. Available on Amazon.
You can also follow him on Instagram at @the_chris_buck.