© MARK SELIGER
IRON MAN: Robert Downey Jr. cozies up to Mark Seliger’s camera during a cover shoot for Rolling Stone’s May 9, 2010 issue.
Mark Seliger Faces Down the Bad and the Beautiful
Mark Seliger has made a highly visible career out of photographing the famous, the beautiful and the talented, capturing their likenesses for such high-end publications as Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. But leaving aside his images of the lovely, the bad and the bold, there’s something wonderfully incongruous about hearing him say that of the hundreds of thousands of photos he’s shot in his lifetime, among the most meaningful for him is an unpublished picture he took of his father.
The picture was shot without lights, without an army of assistants and stylists, and without input from publicists and art directors. “My dad and I were in Montauk, just walking and goofing around taking pictures at the beach,” says Seliger. “It was his 80th birthday, and in the picture, he doesn’t have a shirt on, and he looks like this graying tough guy, an aging movie star. And the photograph just says everything to me.”
That the photographer would have an emotional connection to an 80th-birthday picture of his dad is obvious. But that Seliger would also have a strong attraction to the picture’s spontaneity and outright simplicity is not at all out of character for him. Although known primarily for his meticulously lit and exquisitely crafted portraits, he traces his initial interest in photography back to a fascination with the work of the now legendary Farm Security Administration and the Depression-era photographs taken by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, among others. He counts Aaron Siskind, Edward Weston and Arnold Newman as serious early influences as well.
Down-home, Documentary Roots
Seliger began his photographic studies at East Texas State University (now part of the Texas A&M system), where he became interested in social documentary photography, along with other approaches to the medium. “The professor I was studying with emphasized creating a body of work, as opposed to a single image, and I became very involved in documentary photography.”
One of his major school projects involved an extended portrait series shot in and around the college’s hometown of Commerce, Texas. “I photographed people at work and at home,” he explains. “Because the college had a very active photography department, the townsfolk were pretty used to having their pictures taken, and everyone was very willing and really lovely about it.”
Although Seliger’s work is quite different now, the kernel of these early experiences is still evident in his photographs. He describes his work as “environmental portraiture,” saying that perhaps only 10 percent is shot in a studio, with the rest done on location. “I’m still basically using environments as a main focus,” he says, “but [now] it’s much more about controlling that environment, changing it, developing it and re-imagining it. I don’t take a journalistic approach to shooting anymore, but there’s still an inclination in the back of my head to take that as a starting point. Although the work has grown in a number of different ways, there’s still a strong link to that type of storytelling.”
Seliger went to New York City in 1984 and began assisting for John Madere, a photographer who, coincidentally, had been a senior at East Texas State when Seliger was a freshman. The work gave him a solid introduction to editorial photography. “John photographed for tons of magazines, Time, Geo, Fortune and Esquire, among them. He shot very stylized, carefully lit portraits and had a really good eye for taking a location and deconstructing it down to what he needed for the photograph. It was also great experience for me in terms of running a business.” After leaving Madere’s employ, he assisted for another year and a half before heading out on his own.
Seliger’s early photo credits included assignments forbusiness magazines such as Fortune, Forbes and the now-defunct Manhattan Inc. The exposure eventually led to assignments for Rolling Stone in the later 1980s and a quantum career leap. There Seliger worked closely with photo editor Laurie Kratochvil and art and creative director Fred Woodward, two people he describes as important mentors. Seliger and Woodward also became close friends.
At Rolling Stone, he and Woodward “developed a collaborative way of working on photos and covers, and he became a second pair of eyes for me,” Seliger says. “We constantly discussed ideas and worked very closely on ways to develop a story and make the photographs memorable.” In 1992, after being on retainer since around 1988, Seliger was named the magazine’s chief photographer. During his tenure at the magazine, he shot more than 100 covers before, in 2002, both he and Woodward moved to Conde Nast Publications and GQ magazine, where they now continue to work together.
A key challenge Seliger faces in almost every image arises from the fact that the majority of his subjects have been photographed hundreds of times previously. With each photograph, “I feel an obligation to shoot the subject in a completely new way and to try and create a very strong relationship between the person in the photograph and the viewer who’ll be looking at him or her.”
Doing this successfully involves a lot of homework. He describes a dual-track process of visualizing the image and then organizing the necessary forces—stylists, location scouts, set builders and assistants—needed to bring that vision to life. At the same time, Seliger tries to work collaboratively with his subjects, to help them bring out the aspects of their personalities that fit with the overall idea behind the photograph and that will add to the uniqueness of the image. Knowing enough of a subject’s background to understand the part of the persona that will fit with a certain type of photograph is integral to Seliger’s approach and to his success.
In a recent Vanity Fair article on Seliger’s work, contributing editor Ingrid Sischy described his pictures as “cinematic,” saying they “seem to freeze a moment while implying a much bigger story. His pictures give you the feeling that you’re not looking up at the subjects, not looking down at them, but right there with them.”
Showcase for Stories That Need to Be Told
Though Seliger’s current assignment work may represent a stylistic break with his past, his ongoing interest in social documentary photography helped lead him to cofound the 401 Projects, a non-profit gallery space, together with Brent Langton, a fellow Texan and lighting designer, and artist and author Periel Aschenbrand. Now in its fifth year, the gallery aims to “support photographers who are going out and photographing in difficult, turbulent situations,” he says, “some of them risking their lives in order to tell a story that needs to be told.”
Located in a building adjacent to Seliger’s Manhattan studio, 401 Projects has produced shows by photojournalists such as James Nachtwey and Eugene Richards and fashion photographer Albert Watson and shows by others not necessarily known as photographers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and a first show of photographic work by Fred Woodward.
The gallery recently mounted its third show of work by Nachtwey, this one a collection of pictures shot in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. “I’m in awe of Jim,” says Seliger. “Our first show of his photographs was a series he’d shot in an operating room at a military hospital in Iraq. It was our first exhibition of that kind of work, and it meant a great deal for everyone involved that these pictures were being seen, because they told a side of the Iraq war that we all felt needed to get more attention.”
Originally commissioned for National Geographic, the military hospital story needed as much public exposure on as many platforms as possible, Nachtwey felt. Although the Geographic article was widely published, he explains that the 401 show “was an opportunity to have a visual dialogue with another audience, people interested enough in the subject and in photography to go out of their way to see the pictures on the wall. A small, focused, passionate group of people can have influence in inverse proportion to the group’s size.”
Wounded military personnel, medics and the helicopter crews Nachtwey had flown with in Iraq were invited to the opening. “Their presence was powerful,” he says. “It gave meaning to the event that took it to a whole different level. I don’t think anyone walked out of there quite the same.”
This fall, an upcoming exhibit by Eugene Richards will show another side of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, that of veterans reentering and readjusting to civilian life.
“We’re trying to provide a home for stories that galleries and museums may tend to shy away from,” he says. In its next five years, 401 Projects is also aiming to promote the work of younger, relatively unknown photographers, scouting talent partly through word of mouth and partly through associations with organizations such as the Center for Photography at Woodstock, in upstate New York. “Trying to promote younger and lesser-known photographers has always been one of our goals, and I think that over the next five years, we’re going to be focusing more on trying to develop younger talent and on helping them build their careers.”
Reinventing Yourself and Your Goals
Defraying the costs of curating and mounting an exhibition, however, can be problematic, says Seliger. “We try to find a sponsor for each show, and we’ve had sponsors like Conde Nast and DKNY, but it’s getting difficult,” he adds, particularly considering the current state of the economy. One way the gallery can bring in sponsors, however, is by approaching nonprofit organizations that have an association with the photographs on exhibit and seeking sponsorship from companies that support the nonprofit. For example, a 2007 exhibition of photographs by photographers from Magnum benefited the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which funds research on Parkinson’s disease. Sponsored by Claiborne, the show comprised Magnum photographs of Muhammad Ali, who suffers from the disease.
In spite of current difficulties for photographers at all levels and for print journalism across the board, Seliger is guardedly optimistic about the opportunities available for young photographers just beginning their careers. However, “it’s evolution, not revolution,” he says.
“As a photographer, the challenge will always be to reinvent yourself and to reinvent your goals along the way,” Seliger points out. “What’s important is [to understand] that the camera is a tool for creating something memorable, unique and personal. And part of the process is continually learning how best to use and master that tool to create photographs that have meaning for you and for other people. That’s a journey that will last a lifetime. There’s no single way of doing it, and it’s bound to be the most interesting part of your career.”
CAMERA: Nikon D3, D3s, D3x
LENSES: AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm, f/2.8G-ED AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED, AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
LIGHTING: Profoto Acute B 600R packs and heads, Dynalite 2040 Strobe Heads, Dynalite M2000DR Strobe Packs, Pocket wizard transmitters/ receivers
DIFFUSION: Elinchrome Octa Bank, various sizes, Profoto Magnum Dish, Assorted Photek Umbrellas
COMPUTERS: 17” Macbook Pros, Mac Pro Towers