These Pictures of Celebrities Have No Celebrities in Them

February 20, 2013 | Samer Kalaf

Chris Buck is a great photographer; that’s not an arguable statement. But Presence, Buck’s new exhibition at the Foley Gallery, is… different. Presence comprises photographs of celebrities in which the celebrities are not visible. Buck has signed witness statements that the celebrities were actually there at the time of shooting, so it’s not some hoax. It’s a project where every picture is like the walking stick exhibit at the zoo.

The concept is humorous for a second, but publishing it as a book and expecting people to hand over money to slap a collection of pictures of celebrities where you can’t see the celebrities onto their coffee table? It’s hard to feign understanding of Presence when there’s nothing to understand.

Define “nothing.” What tells you more, Samer: A sleek, airbrushed portrait of well-sedated Britney Spears on a magazine cover or… a photograph of a trail of amphetamine bottles leading uphill to a vandalized car, a broken umbrella and strands of freshly shaven blonde? These photographs are not quite as dramatic, but you can feel the auras a bit, perhaps more than from the castrated standard of glossy celebrity portraiture. 

And speaking of nothing, this is Nam June Paik’s Zen For Film (1962-64). It is 8 minutes of silent nothingness, or is it? Over time and multiple screenings, the clear film deteriorates,  accumulating dust and scratches. Fuck “subject” and “form” — this is a portrait of time itself, of actual time passing. DAMN. ed. note Marina Galperina

The concept of “nothing” is understandable. John Cage’s 4’33’ is ingenious. But telling me there’s a picture of a celebrity in a room when there visibly isn’t is silly. Buck takes fantastic portraits as vaguely mentioned before, but here’s the thing: your idea of an alternate Britney Spears portrait is interesting and would be captivating, but Buck isn’t doing that. Aside from maybe the Jack Nicklaus portait seen in the Slate article (Nicklaus’s nickname is the Golden Bear, and there’s a taxidermy bear in the photo), there is nothing indicative of the actual celebrities’ traits in the photos. What does a beautiful bathroom have to do with Robert De Niro, or a pool with Chuck Close? – Samer

Ooh, Cage.

Yes, Buck’s shots aren’t that compelling and are rather sterile compared to my Spears fantasy, but… They’re more revealing than they appear. Just those grey cement structures of David Lynch’s David Lynch-designed house is rather loaded imagery to his cult of fans, who recognize, nay, fetishize them from Lost Highway. Maybe that’s what Buck is capturing in his photographs — not the void of a celebrity, but the adoration, obsession and projection of significance that fills that void.

Here’s a better example. This is Andy Warhol’s fairly known Invisible Sculpture. He once stood on it in 1985 at some New York nightclub where he was a Very Important Artist and a Very Important Famous Person in general, you know, back when artists could be celebrities? And so, he christened with his presence alone, like some sort of super-bullshit-alchemist. You read the caption and you’re like, yeah, woah, I feel those Warhol vibes, man. I FEEL ‘EM! You know?  – ed. note Marina

If the portraits such as Lynch’s evoke reactions from those familiar with his work, what about the rest? Is it intended to be esoteric if it’s dealing with notable, famous people? This still doesn’t answer the question about the majority of these portraits. Is the rack of towels representative of the cinema legend De Niro and his distinctive mole? Is this picture of a bathroom intended to elicit disarming feelings of celebrity or themes of obsession? There are clever easter eggs in ones like Nicklaus’s and Lynch’s, but it seems like a forced concept overall, and not one that needed to be a book. – Samer

Holy shit, you’re right. We can stroke Buck’s concept all we want — and I still think it’s rather clever — but when it comes to his actual subjects, especially the seasoned (old), non-eccentric (sane), composed (rich) celebrities… Well, there are a few good ones in there, but on the whole they are pretty boring up in their boring big houses, I imagine. But to our society of pedestrian voyeurs, stalkers, complacent venerators and miscellaneous famous-used-panty-sniffers, that towel rack must be pretty exciting, even if nothing cool or horrifying happened there. I mean, De Niro was there. Whatever. –ed. note Marina

“Presence,” Chris Buck, Jan 16 – Feb 24, Foley Gallery, NYC