Chris Buck And The Politics Of Taking U.S. Presidential Portraits

Chris Buck And The Politics Of Taking U.S. Presidential Portraits

Chris Buck’s photo of former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush.

A key element of making successful portraits is that they not only capture someone’s likeness but also convey the sitter’s personality or perhaps even some surprising hidden quality. But if doing this for celebrity portraiture isn’t challenging enough, since so much is known about the star, how do you handle capturing portraits of some of the most well-known and recognized people on the planet—namely, U.S. presidents? I recently asked New York- and Los Angeles-based photographer and director Chris Buck, who has for decades photographed celebrities as well as U.S. presidents, that question, along with other inquiries about shooting such famous politicians and how he captures such compelling images.

Getting Up Close And Personal With Politicians

One key for Buck is that he builds a rapport with his subjects, which depends on the right timing. For example, Buck recalls how he connected with President George W. Bush, who, in 1999, had just announced he was running for president.

Before the shoot, Buck didn’t know much about Bush but had heard he was friendly and had something of a frat-boy sense of humor. But Bush surprised Buck in private. For instance, Bush took Buck’s casual, off-the-cuff political questions very seriously. “He answered them as if I was a reporter doing a story,” Buck says. “And his answers were on point, quite articulate and clear in his viewpoint.” It’s something that would puzzle Buck later when he saw Bush speak publicly, where he often seemed awkward.

What stands out for Buck on this presidential portrait is the point in time during the shoot when he shot it. “This shot was done for me [for my portfolio]…but I only had a couple of minutes,” says Buck, who took the picture at the end of the shoot.

To get the shot, he brought the president to an adjacent room in the governor’s mansion, positioned him, backed up to the window and shot. But it was tight, and Buck had just one roll of film. “You can actually see…I’m casting a shadow on him,” he says. “I just bracketed exposure because I didn’t have time to work up the exact exposure. That’s how fast it was.”

Saving this tight shot for the end of the session was important in terms of timing and having Bush feel comfortable. During a shoot, if it goes well, Buck says, “There’s a sense of connection that you build with a subject.”

But it’s not there at the beginning and, “it can be socially jarring to be shoving a camera in someone’s face,” says Buck. “Whereas, at the end, after spending time together and talking a lot, he just seemed at peace and grounded in that image.”

Chris Buck And The Politics Of Taking U.S. Presidential Portraits
Portrait of former President George W. Bush.

There’s another element that’s intriguing about the portrait of President George W. Bush: People read the image in different ways. “At different times of the administration, people responded differently to the picture,” Buck says. “There’s an empty vessel quality that viewers bring to the image. You instill into it what you want.”

For instance, when Bush was first elected, some might have found him looking confident in the image. And then after the attacks of 9/11, Buck says, viewers might have suggested he looked, “like a strong leader.” But after the Iraq War started, “a lot of Americans were dissatisfied and frustrated,” says Buck, and people would view the same portrait, “and they see weakness. I find that fascinating because I got to watch it over time.”

The Value Of Recognizing Opportunities

Time has had an interesting effect on another of Buck’s photographs: His enigmatic shot of President Donald Trump by a mirror, which Buck photographed more than a dozen years ago, well before Trump became president.

Buck says, “The meaning of the picture has changed from when I first shot it.” For instance, today, Buck says many people often describe this image as “the many faces of Donald Trump and talk about how he kind of has different personas” in his current role as president. Yet it was shot years before he became a politician.

While he can’t control how people interpret such images, Buck says he can make the most of an opportunity. For example, when Buck noticed the mirror in the conference room, he realized it could be an interesting image, although not in the way people read into it today. “I wasn’t trying to make a big statement,” says Buck. It was more of a universal statement in that we all have “many faces” and “internal struggles and conflicts.”

Instead, here’s what Buck says photographers should focus on: Take advantage of an opportunity, even when you’re dealing with a celebrity or politician.

Chris Buck And The Politics Of Taking U.S. Presidential Portraits
Chris Buck’s portrait of former President Barack Obama.

“If I see the potential for creating a surreal image,” says Buck, “I’m just going to go for it…. In doing so, I made an image of our current president that’s very unique. It takes a kind of social courage. But I’m willing to ask people who are prominent and far more successful than I am to do things that are risky…But I ask the question and ask people to do things that are a bit brazen.” Of course, many subjects decline.

However, Buck says that when a politician or celebrity does agree, as Trump did, “it can result in fantastic images.”

Learning To Make Decisions On The Fly

Last winter, former President George H.W. Bush died at the age of 94. Years earlier, in 2010, Buck had the chance to photograph the 41st president for Esquire magazine. The former president hadn’t been in office since the early 1990s, but his schedule seemed just as full.

For the shoot, President Bush, along with his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush, had just 45 minutes, including set up and shooting time: “That’s 25 minutes of setup and then 20 minutes or so to do the shoot,” Buck says. For an important portrait, that’s not reasonable. That’s why “if you look at the pictures…you’ll see they are all available light.”

To prepare, Buck jotted down notes before the shoot, 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”). Buck even wrote down ways to break the ice with the president. (Buck let Bush know that he had photographed his two sons, former governor Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush.)

In the end, Buck went with a natural-light scenario, which also allowed his crew to film behind-the-scenes video of the photographer working with the former president.

Making those kinds of decisions on the fly can be nerve-wracking. However, it’s essential. “A huge part of this job,” says Buck, “is having the experience and, frankly, the confidence to say, ‘We’re going to do X.’ And 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.’”

Chris Buck And The Politics Of Taking U.S. Presidential Portraits
Buck took this photo of President Donald Trump in 2006 before he ran for president.

Using Time Wisely

In 2013, Buck got a chance to photograph another U.S. president, President Barack Obama, this time at the White House. But he had even less time to shoot this portrait than he did of President George H.W. Bush. However, what made this image a better shot, in Buck’s eyes, was having hours to set up and experiment with lighting.

Although he was all business on the day of the shoot, President Obama was a fascinating subject, says Buck. “President Obama was very present, 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. We only had a few minutes. But we did three setups in four-and-a-half minutes.”

With so little time, there wasn’t an opportunity to build a rapport with the subject. So, in this shoot, preparation and lighting became even more crucial. But the hard work 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.”

Just Ask Your Subject To Give You A Great Pose

Buck says politicians are more guarded in photoshoots for obvious reasons. “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, how does Buck get them to open up? It depends. “To me, an interesting portrait, whether it’s someone in politics or not, has to deal with a kind of vulnerability and humanity,” says Buck. “I look for that in any subject. 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.” Yet to actually get politicians to expose that vulnerable side to the world is a supreme challenge.

Or at least it is in most cases.

For one photo, though, it was surprisingly simple to get a memorable shot. It’s the photo Buck captured of former senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern wearing a skimpy Speedo bathing suit. The image is remarkable, but Buck nearly missed getting it.

Chris Buck And The Politics Of Taking U.S. Presidential Portraits
Buck nearly missed getting this photo of former senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. Luckily, Buck asked a question.

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 70s!” 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 McGovern, “Would you pose in a bathing suit as you were when we first met you?”

At first, McGovern said no. But when Buck said that he wouldn’t hand it in to 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, just ask your subject and see what he or she says. “I think when you really believe in your idea,” Buck says, “and 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, check out his book Uneasy: Portraits 1986-2016 and be sure to visit his website, chrisbuck.com. He also plans to have a new book published next year, called Gentleman’s Club, which includes photographs of and interviews with the partners, boyfriends and husbands of exotic dancers. Follow him on Instagram at @the_chris_buck.

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