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.
Former Rolling Stone photo editor Laurie Kratochvil, who has been teaching a course for young photographers at the International Center of Photography school for several years, uses Seliger's career to describe to students just how much dedication is needed in this line of work. She tells them about his first celebrity assignment for the magazine: "He was so determined not to screw up. A week before he shot the assignment for us, he shot a fake job -- a test run." When the time for the actual shoot came, Seliger was able to do the picture four different ways, just to make sure the magazine would get something usable.
Seliger left Rolling Stone at the end of 2001 and went to work for Condé Nast and its stable of magazines, a change that roughly coincided with build-ing the new studio on the west side of Manhattan and the beginning of the stairwell project. "I was new to this environment and new to the idea of what I was approaching," he says. That freshness played out in his photographs, both the commercial jobs and his personal work. "It all absolutely changed," he says. "I think that, compared to the way I once shot, I'm allowing myself now to be less formulaic. In the days of Rolling Stone, when I had an opportunity to shoot a legend -- that was an impressive day. I didn't want to screw it up. I'd be photographing Neil Young, knowing that he's been photographed by so many people in the past 25 years, and wondering how I was going to bring my own spin to it. I'd make things complicated. With the stair-well work, it was just the opposite -- it was all about strip-ping the idea down and making it simple in terms of getting people to this place and just seeing where the whole thing went. If I did something conceptual, I had no idea whether it would work or not. That was very new to me."
Here's another way to look at it: At one time, Seliger says, he approached every assignment "as if it would be the last time I ever took a picture of that particular person -- to try to be gentle and considerate but also to see if I couldn't connect hard enough and strong enough to create a lasting image. I figured that even if my subject's career didn't last, the picture would." He connected in some remarkable ways, particularly with actress Drew Barrymore, with whom he created some of his best and most memorable images. There were many others: Brad Pitt, Johnny Cash, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Liam Gallagher of Oasis, the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Jones, even Siegfried and Roy. But what he calls the "planned obsolescence of the entertainment industry" has changed the nature of his work. Legends simply aren't what they used to be, so he's taken them off the grand stage and placed them in a smaller, well-lit place, where he can explore their public images in a more private way.
VIEW SELIGER'S PHOTO GALLERY