In Part 2 of our discussion with Chris Buck, he shares his memories of shoots with 50 Cent, Chuck D, Nas and Missy Elliott. Which includes meditations on African-American manhood, the history of slavery in America, and why he was kicked out of a New York restaurant.
Chris Buck: When we did that shoot with him, he was promoting his new record—I guess he was kinda promoting the movie, too—the movie based on his life. The movie I think had more sensitivities to his vulnerabilities and his background, so I think that was one reason he was open to doing something that was less tough-looking. But also his new single, I think it was actually called “Lollipop” [ed note: “Candy Shop”], so that’s why we suggested this picture, ’cause it was a way to show him being a little more vulnerable, a little more playful, but also it would tie into something of his work, so we knew he’d be kinda cool with it.
I find it a little bit limiting that especially African-American men are shown as being tough and threatening all the time. Obviously they have a whole range of emotions and experiences and I want to show more of that in my work. I find it much more interesting. When I deal with African-American men, I don’t find them threatening. I find them all kinds of things: I find them friendly or vulnerable or curious or whatever—all kinds of emotions and experiences with them, so I want to show that in my work. As an artist, I feel like that’s kind of important.
Chris Buck: This was taken in 1991. I’d actually photographed Public Enemy twice before that. I was a big fan; I was a pretty obsessed fan when they broke. I had their album Yo! Bum Rush The Show, and then their second album came out which was It Takes a Nation of Millions [to Hold Us Back], which I was so surprised to have the subsequent album to be so much better even than their first album. I was super-excited and I became a totally obsessed fan. In fact, I did a photo session with the band at the time in ’88 when they played in Toronto and it was a super privilege and I was super excited about it. I photographed them a couple of times after and the third time was in Washington, DC and we’re shooting in the hotel room. There was a line about “they crucified me like Jesus” in one of the songs [Ed. note: “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction/ So called chosen frozen/ Apology made to who ever pleases/ Still they got me like Jesus” from “Welcome to the Terrordome,” 1990] and I was like We should go and shoot at the White House. Flavor Flav said, “It should be the Black House!” And Chuck was like, Nah, this actually a good idea. Let’s do this. So we all walked over, the whole group and me. It was only a couple of blocks from where we shooting so we all walked over and we were on, I guess that’s the South Lawn, I’m not sure. We went to shoot there and we shot the whole band first and I say “Chuck, I want to shoot you alone as if you’re being crucified on the fence.” He kinda looked at me and he was like, Okay. He started posing there and he started counting because he was like, I’ll give you 15 seconds. He started counting and as I’m shooting the frames, I had to shoot when his mouth was closed because he was actually counting out loud. It was pretty funny. As we were shooting, I was giving him direction like, Put your head down a little more—’cause obviously I’m trying to make him look like Jesus, how Jesus would have his head down on the cross. I’m giving him more direction like, Raise your left hand a bit. Literally, he counted off 15 seconds and then he was done.
I guess because it was pre-9/11 that probably made it a little easier. People are walking around the White House and taking pictures all the time. As along as you’re not trying to climb the fence or break the security zone, I think you’re totally fine. The police might have come by, but I think there’s an aspect of free speech that even the police understand—you’re allowed to make a statement and they’re okay with that.
I went home and I had to print it really, really carefully because I had to burn down the background a lot to get the rich tones to match the tones on him and everything. And the funny thing is that he was kind of giving me a hard time when we were shooting it but he loved it and he actually used this picture on the back cover of his biography so I was really pleased that he liked it. And I was really proud of it. Often times people take pictures of hip-hop artists that are just very straight forward but I like to do something that a little more conceptual and obviously I like it to be appropriate and I thought this really was in terms of the politics of Public Enemy and what they’re all about. I was really excited that he kinda felt that I understood what they’re doing.
I tell the story of how impatient he was, but the fact is they’re actually very respectful and they’re really a lot of fun to work with. The irony is the person who was the most fun and most relaxed to shoot with was Professor Griff—and he was course the one that got into all that trouble. The first time I shot them was before they got into trouble for the anti-semitic comments. He was actually the most relaxed guy and it’s unfortunate he had to be pushed out of the band. I think they were quite right to push him out of the band. I’m a great friend to Jewish people so I think he really misspoke in that sense. But it’s a shame because I think maybe he didn’t know enough about that stuff—you know Jewish people have often been very friendly to Blacks and Civil Rights, so it’s kind of a shame he didn’t know more about that. There was a full story about the Jews and Black people but anyway he was a very nice guy and I was saddened when he had to be kick out of the band. Obviously these things are very complex.
But Public Enemy were very cool to deal with and I shot them many times because I was such a fan. I really enjoy working with hip-hop artists in general because they of course, I’m fan of them music and the culture, but also I also think that more than rock musicians they understand the show business aspect of having your picture taken. Rock bands often will just show up just regular clothes and just stand there, whereas hip-hop artists—not all of them but oftentimes they understand that there’s an as aspect to, as Frank Sinatra said, “You’re not just an artist, you’re also a star.” I think that hip-hop artists understand that aspect.
Chris Buck: Shooting with Nas was definitely a little challenging. He’s a very nice guy but him and I just thought differently about how we would do things. One of the things I like in pictures is vulnerability. For me I wanted show vulnerability with him, and this picture I feel shows it, but most pictures we had didn’t really have that. The fact is he worked with me and we got great shots. I’m very proud of this picture. It’s interesting because the “N” is supposed to represent the name of his album that he was putting out, but what’s nice is it also represents his name, so it has that kind of longevity that can go beyond that particular album.
If you don’t mind me saying so, I actually had a problem with him naming the album that. Obviously I believe in free speech, and I believe in genuine intellectual discussion, but when I read different interviews with him, he said different things about his reasons for calling it that in every interview. If you’re gonna use a word like that that has such historical complexity, I think that you have to have clarity about why you’re doing it. In the end, I got the impression that he was using it for reasons that were provocative in the commercial sense rather than in the intellectual sense. And I’m disappointed because he’s obviously a smart guy and I actually enjoy his music. I love his song “Black Republican”—I think it’s an awesome song. I’m more politically conservative myself so i think it was cool he did a song called “Black Republican,” but I was disappointed that he couldn’t really justify why he was using that word. Even when he did the Hip-Hop is Dead stuff, that again was a very interesting concept, but in a similar way, in the end, he couldn’t really talk about it in ways that were that interesting.
I like to leave [the chain] open-ended. You can take it for what you want. Because it was supposed to be connected to the word “nigger,” I think that’s where I was thinking of it, like the idea of the burden of the history, which I do think is legitimate. I think that’s one of the great reasons, even though I don’t particularly support Barack Obama’s policies, I do think there’s a value of having an African-American President, because if it can help to ease some of the historical pain of slavery. As a Canadian, I come into the United States and I see that the history of slavery is something that’s not really talked about [and] race in general. Obviously it’s changed since Barack Obama came on the scene but race in general really wasn’t talked about much and I thought it was kind of a shame. Certainly the history of slavery wasn’t talked about and I think that’s one of the reasons why Black people felt like racism was still a very strong element of the culture. I think the election of Barack Obama showed that racism isn’t as powerful—I’m trying to get the right word—isn’t as overwhelming in the culture as people assumed it was. Obviously he was mostly voted for by white people or he wouldn’t become President otherwise. But I do think the lack of discussion on slavery is something that is a problem. There’s more discussion on the Jewish Holocaust in the country than there is on slavery. I think the reason why is the Jewish Holocaust was perpetrated by Europeans, not by Americans. It’s much harder for Americans to talk about something that they did. I don’t know if you want to get in this kind of political discussion. I’m sorry, I just find this stuff interesting.
In the context of the story, that’s what it was in my mind: the burden of the history of African-Americans in slavery. In the larger context I don’t mind it being ambiguous. Maybe it’s the persona of Nas on Nas, maybe holding him down or being a burden on him.
Chris Buck: I had this idea for a long time—and Missy Elliott, for some reason, I guess because of her interesting kind of futuristic ideas and concepts, I thought she might be into this—to take someone and put silver makeup on them. What we did was we put silver make up on her and then we photographed her in black & white so that the silver aspect is very subtle. It gives a certain feel to her skin and to the texture in the picture but because it’s in black & white it’s not that obvious. It’s not like you’re seeing a colored background or her eyebrows are different color or something like that. When the magazine ran it, it was super cool.They ran it with silver ink, silver and black. You can’t see that here, but it was really cool when we did it.
She had her own makeup artist and he was really into it; he was the one that did the bejeweling on her eyebrows and stuff. She loved it, she was super into it. The crazy part about that shoot was we did at a restaurant in New York just because we wanted a certain background, and the guy at the restaurant who I got the permission from didn’t get permission from his boss, so halfway through the shoot, the boss came in and freaked out a totally made a huge scene and kicked us out. Missy was very cool and we just looked at each other and kinda laughed and we’re like “let’s just wrap this up now.” It was very funny. It’s one my favorite stories about a shoot because of the chaos that happened. Everyone on the set was very cool but it was just kinda funny because we ended up being thrown out of the place halfway through the shoot.
PREVIOUSLY: Chris Buck x RESPECT. Mag | Part 1