When celebrity photographer Mark Seliger acquired the old brick building at the corner of Charles Street and the West Side Highway in 1997, his friends couldn't understand why he wanted a place in such an unfashionable area, across the street from rotting piers on the Hudson River and not far from the infamous meat-packing district, where transvestite hookers roamed by night. The building had been built as a factory in 1852, and Seliger had it gutted and rebuilt -- an immensely expensive job -- but a little over a year after buying it he had it operating as a state-of-the-art studio. Then came a couple of surprises. One was that the neighborhood was suddenly becoming hip, and real estate prices were climbing. Today the meat-packing district is filled with fashion boutiques, chic restaurants, and upscale hotels. Across the street from the studio, a luxury apartment development designed by Richard Meier is going up. "I went from being the stupidest person on earth to being the smartest," shrugs Seliger.
The second surprise happened inside the studio. During the remodeling, an old elevator was disassembled and taken out, leaving an empty shaft that, to the photographer's delight, was topped with a 20x30-foot skylight. Seliger had a wooden platform built into the shaft, creating a private space upstairs from the main studio -- a small, quiet place defined by the texture of its brick walls and flooded with creamy light. Inevitably, he began taking his celebrity subjects into the rebuilt space, now part of a stairwell, to photograph them.
"Every time I had a session where there was time to shoot someone in there, I'd do it," says Seliger. "It became another option -- when I would run out of ideas for what I was going to do with someone in the studio, I would take them upstairs."
The pictures that resulted invariably were black and white -- something about the space, its proportions and uniformity, led Seliger away from color and toward an attitude of quiet circumspection, very different from the vivid and wildly entertaining images he shot as chief photographer of Rolling Stone magazine and later for GQ, Vanity Fair, and other publications. Gradually, it dawned on Seliger that he was creating an entire body of work in the stairwell.
"The breakthrough was when I decided to expand the group of portraits into a book," he says. He invited Bill Irwin, the celebrated actor/dancer/clown, to come to the studio specifically to be shot in the small space. "It wasn't for an assignment, it was just because I admired him and wanted to collaborate with him," says Seliger. "It was the first time I'd ever done anything like that."
Irwin turned the stairwell into a theater. "It seemed like we were transcending the physical idea of the space, that it had become more than just a background," Seliger says. "It became another subject in the image, almost a character in itself."