Perhaps it was inevitable that a collection of idiosyncratic portraits of movie and music celebrities would become a book -- and Seliger's series has, a beautifully reproduced 15¼x12-inch slipcased volume titled Mark Seliger: In My Stairwell (Rizzoli, $75). But the agenda, as Seliger points out, was never about the kind of celebrityhood he examines in most of his com-mer-cial work. He has also created a series of platinum prints of the images, the sale of which will benefit the renowned Brooklyn Academy of Music. And among the famous faces are less well known artists and performers associated with B.A.M. His subjects ranged from Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson to composer Philip Glass, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "It was interesting to think about people I'd never worked with before, and to create a connection between arts and entertainment," Seliger says.
The work, he notes in the new book, "documents a particular period of time" when "something took place." In that sense, the images may represent a mid-career moment -- the time when some photographers look back and others look deeper into the meaning of their work and the joy of their craft. But if the book is about a moment in time, it is also about that space itself, the stairwell, and what it symbolized: not the glittering realm of the big studio downstairs but the retreat from all the glamour of the world outside, a stage in which the photographer and his subjects could play out new roles.
The great thing about the project was watching how everybody reacted in the space," says Seliger. "The performers seemed to sum up the stairwell, so the movements and the ideas that came out of the sessions were really symbols of what this place meant to them." Whereas Jerry Seinfeld showed off the slap-stick possibilities of the stairwell (page 60), artist Cindy Sherman used its anonymous brick walls to withdraw into another of her characters. For Mel Brooks, the stairwell became a backdrop for his own shtick. For the photo at right, actress and activist Susan Sarandon sprawled across a corner of the stairwell, forcing Seliger to shoot one of the project's few horizontal images. Seliger says the lacy party dress, contrasting with the worn texture of the walls and wood floor, suggests Sarandon's unique combination of femininity and fierceness.
Art of the Portrait
It isn't unusual to hear a portraitist say that after a long day's work it turned out that the best shot came from the first roll of film, or from the last. The energy level of the person in front of the camera and understanding of the person behind the camera come in peaks and valleys, like an ocean rolling through time. That's the way it went when Seliger photographed actor and clown Bill Irwin in the stairwell. It ended when Seliger felt he had "nailed it -- what I consider to be a quintessential photograph of someone." That is to say, on the last roll.
"We started working with a 4x5 setup, and then I started using 8x10," says Seliger. "But then I switched to 35mm, because Bill's physicality wasn't coming across. I wanted to try something to capture that feeling of, What's going to happen in here next?" As a commercial photographer who gets paid for executing demanding visual ideas, taking such a wait-and-see attitude was a novel, but, Seliger says, liberating experience: "Watching Bill come up with ideas of his own, that was as surprising and unique and interesting as taking the actual picture. I'm usually the one doing the cre-ative problem solving, but here I had to let someone else take the lead."