We often talk of photographs capturing a moment in time, but in Mark
Seliger's new work it is a place that is captured -- a stairwell in an
abandoned elevator shaft in his Manhattan studio.
Some subjects preferred to let the photographer simply do his usual magic. "The people who were not as tuned in with how to deal with the space, that's when I got involved," Seliger says. "I would talk about their world, their life, their art form, and what it meant to them, and slowly I would get into a relationship with them, and things would start to unfold." Singers Diana Krall and Elvis Costello had just announced their engagement when they came to Seliger's studio in May 2003. "We were shooting the two of them for Vanity Fair, and as we were deciding how we were going to shoot them I decided to do a stairwell portrait," says Seliger. "I wanted to have them embrace in some kind of dance, so we had a tango instructor come in, and she gave them some basic steps. In the photo, that's their interpretation of a tango."
In his new book, Seliger writes that "One of the great challenges of the [project] was tailoring each photo in order to accommodate the great range of individuals I worked with." To understand how challenging, you need to know the level of sincerity with which Seliger has approached his work for magazines, the need for success (and the fear of failure) that has driven him over the course of his career. In a feature about Seliger and two other up-and-coming photographers (Chip Simons and Karen Kuehn) from the July 1989 issue of American Photographer magazine, Seliger stressed the fear. "I get intense, I get happy, I get very anxious when I shoot," he said. "I often have this feeling after I do a picture that I want to throw up. I remember these moments of finishing a shoot and it's like, YES! That's it! YES! Whoops, I'm gonna be sick...."
Seliger's commercial work has a range of styles, and often, in the past, it has been so conceptually funny that it has verged on sight gags. (The cast of Seinfeld as the characters in The Wizard of Oz.) For the stairwell project, he had to stretch himself, or open himself up as a photographer, in order to see "how the subjects view themselves rather than how I viewed them."
The stairwell became the "common denominator" providing a sense of familiarity for viewers. Seliger also found a visual consistency by sticking to black and white, shoot-ing mostly with Ilford Delta 3200 film rated at E.I. 1600. "The light situation in the stairwell is always low, so we were shooting at, like, 1/125 second if we had full sun," Seliger says.