Chris Buck's best photograph: Billy Joel in the dark with an Applause sign

‘Billy said, “I’ll do this – but I’m not one who performs because of an urgent need for approval”’

I had seen the sign about eight months earlier at a prop house. It was just an odd piece that caught my eye and belonged in a daytime TV studio, to flash when the audience should clap.

When I got to the hotel suite with my assistant the journalist was interviewing Billy Joel in another room, so we set up in the bedroom. We stripped off the sheets, plugged the sign in and I pulled the curtains closed until I felt there was the right ratio of light between the sign and the room. I wanted the room to be dark, but with just enough light to see what was going on.

A few minutes later Billy came in and said: “I’ll do this – but those who know me will tell you that I’m not one who performs because of an urgent need for approval.” He understood that we were framing him in a vulnerable way, but at the same time he thought it was a cool idea. We shot a couple of test frames, but when we began to shoot in earnest he asked: “Where are your lights?” I explained that this was it and he said: “You’re fucking crazy, man.”

At a certain level, people get used to a lot of bells and whistles. But there’s no need for that kind of affectation. Some of my favourite photographers, like Robert Frank, shoot in a low-key way with only available light. I get people to do things for the camera, because I believe in my ideas. I’m more likely to tell than to ask. My genuine excitement gets people on board. Of course, it doesn’t work all of the time.

I took this in 2001, for a US music magazine. They’d sold the shoot as just a few minutes in a hotel room. Those low expectations were an invitation for me to reach for the stars and be really creative. I always try to make images, especially of very famous people, that are surprising. By making this picture dark, I’m subverting the portrait – the Billy Joel-ness is secondary to the mood of the room and the message of the sign.

I also did some straighter portraits and shot in colour as well as black and white, because I knew I had to cover myself. The magazine used a vertical, colour version of this image. The sign is tungsten, so in a colour photograph it looks very orange, but in black and white there is more of a sense of the room and the light merging.

I’m not really a fan of Billy Joel’s music. He was a nice guy to photograph, but I’m more likely to change the channel when his music comes on the radio. He said he wanted me to shoot his album cover, but he never got back to me. It is rare that I hear back from someone like him, and it’s not what I’m there for. I believe that photographers are journalists and our role is to critique people who drive culture, so it’s not in my interest to become tight with the people I photograph.

Anyone who has made sacrifices for their profession against such terrible odds of success is clearly looking for some kind of affirmation. They want and need some love from the world. My photographing celebrities is about that, too, and in a way this picture is more about me than it is about Billy Joel. The best portrait photographers brazenly prod and manipulate their subjects into essentially making self-portraits, so Billy is a stand-in for me; I want the approval and I want the applause.

Chris Buck’s CV

Esquire self-portrait, 2004.
Esquire self-portrait, 2004. Photograph: Chris Buck

Born: Toronto, 1964.

Studied: Photography at Ryerson Polytechnic, Toronto.

Influences: Irving Penn.

High point: When Esquire magazine asked me to make a self portrait for their photography-themed issue. I gave myself a big black eye.

Low point: Photographing Barack Obama in 2013 felt like a turning point, but two months later I had no work. I read that as: “Shut up and get back to work.”

Top tip: In portrait photography you have to ask for what you want. Let the subject say yes or no, rather than deciding beforehand that they won’t do something.

  • The book Uneasy, a 30-year retrospective of Chris Buck’s portrait work is available now.

Contributor

Interview by Karin Andreasson

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