Canadian celebrity photographer Chris Buck loves luring his subjects and audience into strange places. Loaded with irony and mischief, Buck’s photography leans toward the conceptual, a quality that separates him from more average “glamour” portraitists.

Buck’s new book, Presence, takes this fascination with celebrity and the abstract to the extreme — it’s a collection of celebrity “portraits” without any visible celebrities. For each of the book’s photographs, Buck had Robert De Niro, Anthony Bourdain, and dozens of others walk into frame and then hide from the camera. The portraits come with signed witness statements to prove that the celebrities were present. We talk to Buck about arguing with Chevy Chase, why Canadians are amazing portraitists, and photographing one of the most controversial Presidents in American history.

It must have been hard to convince celebrities to pose for a photo in which they do not appear. Did you use any outrageous tactics of persuasion?

You can’t ask celebrities to do very much. They’re busy and taking their picture is a lot to ask. In a way, Presence is one of the least offensive ways to have a celebrity pose because they’re guaranteed to look good. That’s the great thing about this series: It only takes 15 seconds to shoot; you’re not going to be visible; don’t be asshole; just do it.

Can you say which celebrities were most resistant?

Chevy Chase argued with me a lot. We showed him a mock-up and he said, “This is all bullshit.” Obviously the project requires leaps of faith — from the viewer, the subject, and me — in order to be successful, but I couldn’t tell if he was just being funny or liked to argue. He was rude in a direct way, but I wasn’t put off by it.

Being beautiful and sexy is important to many celebrities — you have the power to manipulate their appearance. Do you enjoy that responsibility?

I’m taking the picture of you that you don’t know you want yet. Eventually you’ll see that this is your great portrait. You may not like it when you first see it, but on your deathbed you’ll be saying: “Of all those pictures taken of me, Chris Buck’s portrait really hits the nail on the head.”

You have a lot of confidence.

I think it’s very Canadian. It’s not a surprise that many of the best portrait photographers are Canadian or English. We come from another place. We’re used to viewing America as critics and don’t mind playing that role.

Are you ever making fun of your subjects?

I don’t think of it as “making fun.” I’m trying to go somewhere surprising. My intention is not overtly malicious. Even when my pictures are serious, they’re playful. On some level I am using my subjects to do what I want, but I’m trying to make an interesting picture for the audience. It’s not about the celebrity.

For Presence, to what degree would you like the viewer to forget about the celebrity and simply appreciate your composition?

A lot of people are very gracious and they’ll say the picture is great even without knowing that the celebrity was hidden somewhere. And I disagree. If the New Pornographers weren’t in that picture, the picture would just be OK; like a picture anybody could take on the street. The celebrities make the work what it is.

You’ve said that you “have a soft spot for conceptual art that is genuinely funny and clever.” What’s an example of conceptual art that is not clever?

There’s a lot of political art that is neither clever nor funny. You see stuff that’s supposed to be making a statement about the “male-dominated political canon” and it’s pedantic and one-note. I think an artist’s personal political view can undermine what’s really in the work.

Do you have a favourite person to shoot?

William Shatner is up there for me. I’ve shot him a couple of times and he’s an awesome, crazy guy. I love his career. He’s an amazing personality.

Looking at your older portraits, I find that many of them have become more powerful retrospectively — your 1999 picture of George W. Bush, for example. Are you pleased by this delayed impact?

Fully. Since the beginning of my career, I always felt like I was making work for the future. Occasionally subjects become so much more later on. George Bush is the great example. I didn’t think that he’d become President. But to have that picture is amazing. It is really simple but there’s something open in his face — something about him that’s engaging.

I heard that you’re trying to join a gallery in Toronto.

I really shouldn't say who, but I’m talking to a gallery right now and we’re going to try to do a show in the next six months.

Is that gratifying to you, having been born here?

I moved to New York pretty early in my career, so I didn’t really make a mark in Toronto. I come back now to do talks and advertising, and that's great. I’m doing a book launch party in Toronto soon and my friends and family will come out, people who have followed me for a long time. I’m really looking forward to that.

Presence launches in Canada on September 12.

Below: Buck's "portrait" of Cindy Sherman


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