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 20×30-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.”
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 4×5 setup, and then I started using 8×10,” 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.”
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.
Seliger began to notice parallels between pic-tures. “For a lot of the artists we shot, like Richard Serra, it was all about representing their own work in some way, whether it was a posture they took or a character they slipped into,” he says. Johnny Knoxville, masochistic star of MTV’s infamous show Jackass, visited the studio in April of 2005 so hungover that he threw up seven times during the shoot, even though he wasn’t really hanging by hooks. (That was created by special-effects expert Gabe Bartalos.) As a photographer, Seliger could only go with the flow.
The Seliger Vision
Perhaps the stairwell simply represents the artistic maturing of a photographer. Seliger’s fearful sick-ness during shoots in his early years as a celeb-rity portraitist has turned into calm self-assurance. “Now my creativity is like a big old grab bag,” he says. “Tech-nically I’ve figured out that there are absolute, foolproof things I can use that are easy and that I can count on, whereas before I’d be so caught up in figuring out how to control everything that I could lose sight of who my sub-ject was. Now I can focus on understanding how to create a relationship with subjects a little better.” Hand in hand with technical expertise comes a confidence in one’s own vision. “When you’re young you look at the work of a lot of photographic masters, you study that stuff, and it influences your own work,” Seliger says. “Later, that influence becomes much more of an unconscious appreci-ation. And when that happens I think your work becomes less contrived. You always want it to have a cerebral motivation, but you want it to come out on a subconscious level — that kind of pleasing way, rather than trying too hard.”
As far back as 1989, when American Photographer first profiled Seliger as an up-and-coming editorial photog-rapher, he was being described as “well ordered” and “directed” in his career. Born and raised in Amarillo, Texas, he took an art degree from East Texas State Univer-sity and came to New York, where he spent three years assisting photographers like Deborah Feingold, Jan Groover, and even George Hurrell. His first editorial jobs were for back-of-the-book magazine sections — record review sections, reference images for travel guides — but eventu-ally he worked his way to Rolling Stone, and he became, for almost a decade, the magazine’s chief photographer, producing memorable cover after memorable cover, including what is probably his best-known image — a soulful black-and-white portrait of the late rocker Kurt Cobain.
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.
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