Tod Seelie’s Bright Nights
If there is a photographer out there that thoroughly embodies modern-day New York City’s DIY ethos more than Tod Seelie,...
If there is a photographer out there that thoroughly embodies modern-day New York City’s DIY ethos more than Tod Seelie, I have not met them. I recently sat down with Tod to discuss his new book, Bright Nights, [one of our 2013: Photobooks of the Year] in addition to such topics as future funding models for the arts, the challenges of photographing naked people, tall bike jousting and the joys of stumbling upon really really flat road kill. Tod is truly a genuine individual, so it’s no wonder his book is filled will all sorts of fascinatingly intimate moments.
What was the process like for laying out Bright Nights? I literally sat at a computer for over three solid months and didn’t do much else, I would get up in the morning, make some breakfast, sit at the computer until it was time to go to bed, and occasionally go out to shoot an event. It was taxing but worth it. The process was simple: the theme is New York, so anything that happened in New York is fair game. I’ve been here since 1997, so I started with every single digital photo I’ve taken, then I went back into the negatives and started making my scan piles.
Knowing that the theme was New York doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. It’s a very broad starting point. So I literally was just filtering through thousands and thousands of photos to try and see what would work as a book. And then there was a moment that greatly complicated everything, but also helped a lot. I realized that there had been a miscommunication between my editor and I about the differences between pages and spreads. I had been talking about doing a single image per spread, she has been talking about a single image per page, which means: facing images. So not only did I have to edit them and sequence them, I had to pair them too. And I was a little freaked out by how much more complicated it was, but the pairing process greatly helped the whole editing process. There are photos in the book that might not have made it in if they weren’t in a pair, and there are photos not in the that book that might have made it in if they didn’t need to be in a pair. So it became not only about the images, but about the relationships between them. And then it became about the sequencing of the pairs, and by that point; I was kind of going blind.
I know some of the images were shot for assignments, others are personal work, give me a run down of where everything in this book is coming from.
Everything roughly falls into one of six categories: DIY music shows, weird parties, intimate portraits of friends, monster bike stuff (tall bike jousting), events in abandoned buildings and then random street scenes in NYC.
Some of the photos in the book feature people doing questionable things. Did that create any problems?
It didn’t really create any problems. In the past I have definitely gotten requests from people who ask, “Hey I was at this party and I was wasted and I did this thing and now its on your website, can you take it down?” And I always tell them, “Of course!” That’s one of the beautiful things about the Internet. You can go back and be like, poof it’s gone. But with a book, not so much. Which is why pretty much anybody I know that’s in the book, that was in any form of undress, I ran it past them. There are a few people in here that I have no idea who they are. There is a shot of a guy in a mesh G-string and a bow-tie and nothing else, but his face isn’t visible. I don’t know that guy, but I also can’t recognize him from that photo. I do try to be considerate about these things. Most of the people I contacted about their photo being in the book were psyched.
Bright Nights did a really good job of making me feel like I was missing out on all sorts of fun stuff. Do you ever put pressure on yourself to come up with the next really interesting, or cool thing to shoot?
No, but there are two aspects to that. I definitely do not feel pressure as in, “Oh, I’ve got to go find something else interesting to photograph”, I just wait to see what will come across my path. On the other side of that coin, I live in NYC because there is so much stuff happening here that you can afford to just hang out and just see what you see. There is also the Nonsense NYC I have the luxury of shooting a lot of people I know; it’s easier, it’s less stressful.) email list, which is really good for fringe type events.
There is literally just so much going on in this city, any night of the week you can find more than one thing to do. People often ask me what my favorite bar to hang out at is. Hang out in a bar? There’s stuff to go see and do, why would you sit around in a bar?
Have you received any negative reactions to any of the images in Bright Nights? There’s a dead cat photo in there, and a lot of people are not happy about it. I put it in for two reasons: The image it is paired with is like a mirrored version of it, with my friend lying on the floor screaming. The other thing is, I know people don’t like dead kitties, but at the same time, I see a lot of them in NYC. When you ride your bike around, you see a lot of road kill, it’s just part of the landscape, like it or not.
Yeah, I have a bit of an obsession with photographing dead animals myself. Road pizzas! I think the thing with the road kill is that there is just a very clear divide between the people who see the aesthetics in it and the people who don’t. Some people are just purely focused on the subject matter and can’t see the aesthetic beauty. The rats, they get squished and their guts go out in a rainbow pattern. If you can’t see the rainbow pattern, and you can’t see how it looks like a weird abstract painting, if that doesn’t register, then yeah, it’s a totally gross, worthless thing. But, if you can see it, it’s bizarre and amazing.
New York City is one of the few places where the road kill gets so flat. I see tons of road kill on the long distance bike tours I do, but it never gets that flat. That’s why I call it road pizza.
So what brought you to New York City in the first place, I know you were a sculpture major and switched your senior year to photography.
I actually switched my junior year. I moved to NYC to go to Pratt Institute. I liked the fine arts in general, but was mostly interested in a very specific type of sculpture. It was very much in line with early James Turrell and Robert Irwin, which is interesting because they both use light to make work. I still did photography for fun, it was a hobby. I eventually had a professor who stumbled on my snapshots in my studio and was like, “So this is interesting, are these yours?” I was a bit dismissive, “Yeah, I just do it for fun.” His response was, “Well, your sculpture is smart, it’s academic, it’s art about art and the viewer, but your photography is very personal and has a vision. That is actually much harder to do.” And he’s a sculpture professor, so this is interesting. His assignment was to take a color photography class the next semester as an elective. I did that and got a very similar reaction from that professor as well.
With all that encouragement, I realized something that I enjoyed doing as a hobby, that was fun, but that I didn’t think I was any good at, I could take more seriously. So I switched majors.
Your images can sometimes be vulgar in their candidness, but there are rarely references to alcohol or drug-use, is that intentional? It would be intentional in that those things are probably not things that interest me that much as a subject to photograph.
Has the culture of drugs or alcohol use, often associated with say, the party or music scene, ever gotten in the way of you shooting?
You mean gotten in the way for me personally? Well, no because I’ve been straight edge most of my life. I started drinking sort of in 2010. But now, even though I have “broken my edge,” it certainly has not been a heavy throwing of the switch to the other extreme. It’s funny, that’s a question most people never ask.
A lot of these photos are intimate moments, and it seems like you have this very calming sort of way about you. Is that something you’ve had to work at?
I have the luxury of shooting a lot of people I know. Most of the photos are of friends, or friends of friends, or people with a lot of shared interests and then we become friends. A lot of the bands I’ve toured with I met shooting shows, and its like “Oh you know so and so,” and the next you thing you know you’re driving their tour van for a month.
I mean there are definitely shots in the book where I showed up and I knew no one, and everyone was like, who is the guy with the camera? The Harlem basement parties, even some of the random crazy art things, or the weird naked parties, sometimes I don’t know anyone, I’m just showing up. I sort of have my own ethos about how photographers should be when they are documenting an event. It’s basically just being as unobtrusive as possible. Be as invisible as possible be as much a fly on the wall as possible. The event is not happening for you and you should not act like it is. It is happening for the people that are participating, or the audience. You do have to be in certain places to get the shot but at the same time, you should be as out of the way as possible. I feel like by doing that in a place where I don’t know anyone, people pick up on that and they appreciate it. And you get a little bit more respect because of it. If you’re some jackass constantly jamming your fisheye in everyone’s face and popping the flash, that would annoy the hell out of me too.
Shooting in a respectful manner, I think that is also how you can get unguarded moments. I don’t really want the shot of everyone mugging for the camera anyway.
Have you ever had any instances of broken gear, or stuff stolen while on a shoot?
Oh definitely yeah.
Got a good story in particular about that?
I think the last significant piece of equipment that was broken was at SXSW during Odd Future’s set. One of the guys in the band comes out and yells, “Fuck all these photographers!” We were all crammed in the photo pit, and he was just yelling, “Fuck you guys, I hate you guys,” and then he did a flying elbow into the pit. He cut my head open and he broke my lens. I talked to their manager later, and he said, “Just take it to the label and they’ll pay for the repair.” And so I took it to the label and they basically told me to go fuck myself. That was an expensive little encounter.
What kind of lens was it? It was a 24-70mm f/2.8. It was just one of those frustrating things where you’re already not making any money and you’re spending money to be there. And then these guys go and break your main work lens. I couldn’t get any publicity around the issue to put pressure on the label, no one really cared because they’re all just writing about how awesome Odd Future was and how cool SXSW is.
I’ve read a good bit about your strong feelings toward maintaining authenticity, and how important it is to being able to document the things you like to shoot. How do you find that balance between making a living and supporting yourself? I use to make most of my living as an art handler. I have not made my living primarily as a photographer up until very recently. And It wasn’t a case of, oh I’m making a lot of money as a photogtrapher, I can stop art handling. It was more, I’m getting older, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and see if I can just be a photographer, and not be a photographer with other jobs. I used to photo assist too, but that’s hard to do if you want to be able to take off for three months and work on a project. That’s why art handling was so great because they were more flexible, their response was often, “Oh, your back. Cool, we’ll put you back on the roster.”
Yeah, I think a lot of photographers are in that boat these days where they have to do something else because there isn’t a whole lot of money out there in photography.
Yeah the stuff I shoot, most of it, there is no one who is going to pay me to publish it. I’ve been doing my personal blog for almost 10 years. I think the work on there is interesting, and a lot of people tell me it’s interesting, but at the same time, I’ve never found a publication that is interested in it. The market for people to pay to publish odd stuff just hasn’t existed. And that’s why eventually I decided to do my own book.
You worked a desk job for a little while. Did that get in your way of shooting?
The day job is just a vehicle to be able do other crazy things. You have to have the motivation, the energy and the work ethic, and that’s something I’ve always tried to have. Even when I sat at a desk all day, I would still go out to some party or show, even if it meant I was going to be really tired the next day, it was worth it. As long as you’re passionate about it, you will find the motivation, desk job or no desk job.
So in terms of commercial work, is there stuff you turn down? I mean, has any one ever approached you with a big commercial thing and you were like, no I don’t want to do that?
I haven’t really had the luxury of being able to turn down paying work very much. The more well-paying gigs I could find, the less art handling I had to do. There have definitely been jobs I’ve been a little on the fence about. But a lot of times I didn’t get the job in the end anyway. So I’ve been spared that dilemma.
I believe people should be supported in their creative endeavors, I don’t believe you have to be the starving artist wallowing in a basement apartment until you’re 80 to be recognized. And working a desk job, I don’t think that should be the model either.
What would you say to someone who says, “Hey, you shoot all this cool stuff, how can I get involved in these kinds of thing?” Where would you point them? It kind of depends on what way you want to get involved. If it’s more, “Well, I really want this crazy thing to happen where a band plays in some abandoned building. ” It’s like, great, start organizing it yourself. Lots of people ask me how I choose what I shoot, how do I select what I go to. And I just go to stuff I want to go to. I’m not sitting there measuring on a scale of 1 to 10 what’s going to make the best photo. It’s more like, oh my friends are doing a thing, I’m going to go to that thing too. Or, I really like this band, I’m going to go shoot this band. And I feel that is really important, because you’re going to work harder, you’re going to be more motivated, you’re going to enjoy yourself more and you’re going to help build a better community; if you go to the place you naturally want to be. Go to the thing you want to go to and hang out with the people that you’re going to feel a kinship with. And then eventually you can become a part of helping to make these things happen.
What do you have on the horizon for 2014? Mainly rest of my book tour. Well, I’m going to take some time off in the dead of winter, because while I’m doing the tour, I’m sleeping in my van, and doing that in a place like Minnesota, in February, is a terrible idea. So I will take some time off from that while things warm up. I’ll look for work in New York and do all the tasks it takes to set up your own book tour. Hopefully I will then tour across the northern US and down the West Coast. The problem is that booking these events is really time-consuming, and then promoting what I do get booked in a timely manner is turning out to be a bit of a struggle. But, unless I lose steam, that is the plan.
When’s your next book coming out?
Well, one thing I’m hoping is that I am able to promote and sell enough copies of this book, so when I do want to do another book, it will be easy to get it published. My focus has been making this book as great as I can and up to my own standards, so when I look at it; I’m proud of it. And now that I have accomplished that, I feel like whatever else happens is great, but I have done what I set out to do. Which is a really nice feeling, I have to say.