Mark Seliger

On how to take a photograph.

Evan Smith: This is a really busy time for you. In addition to shooting for various glossy magazines, you have a new book out that’s a retrospective of your last twenty years as a photographer. And you have a record out! You’re a true multiplatform guy.

Mark Seliger: The music has been interesting. It came unexpectedly through writing songs on planes while I was traveling a lot for Rolling Stone in the late nineties. I’d probably written three or four songs before I started playing in L.A. I had a 45-minute show with my band, Rusty Truck. I’d been doing a lot of work with Lenny Kravitz—

ES: You did a book with him, right?

MS: Yeah, but this is when we were just starting on a couple of projects, probably in 2000. He heard us play a couple of songs, including one in particular that he liked called “Broken Promises,” and he said, “Man, I love that song. I want you to come to the studio in Miami and let me produce it.” And I was like, “Sure, sounds really fun.”

ES: Most wannabe musicians just talk about it. You actually did it, and you went out and played, and you made a record. You took the big step.

MS: It was quite a commitment. I was leaving Rolling Stone and moving on to Vanity Fair and GQ. In the interim I started to focus on finishing about a dozen songs, and it took the next couple of years to find the right producers for them. People I’d worked with had taken me through Record Making 101. This was going into the studio and saying, “Okay, I’m in Recordland right now,” and relinquishing the control that I usually have.

ES: You put yourself in the hands of people who knew more about this than you did.

MS: Absolutely. Probably one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had was being in Miami with Lenny that first time in the studio and having him say to me, “Look, you can’t get too involved right now. Let me just do what I do.” Or Gillian Welch. Gillian was amazing. I was working on a project with her. I shot the cover of [her 2001 album] Time (the Revelator), and we did a little short film. In the middle of that I let on that I was doing some songwriting, and she was kind of curious. I played her something, and it just came about—not really a barter, but more like, “Look, you’ve been doing great things for us, so let us produce a couple of things for you.” I was not at all shy about it.

ES: You’ve been hanging around people like Gillian Welch for a long time. I have to believe that, at this point, you’re probably not shy about anything.

MS: Well, I love what I do as a photographer. My relationships with people help break down barriers and walls and make connections quickly. Right now, much of pop culture exists in this little window—you don’t have the same luxury that you used to in celebrity photography.

ES: Give me a recent example.

MS: We just worked with Barack Obama. It was pretty spontaneous the way it happened. We were on the road shooting—

ES: For whom?

MS: For GQ. I was with the press corps. I was a regular guy running around. I didn’t have an organized shoot with him. He was way too busy. He was going through Michigan doing rallies, and the last thing he was going to do was take any time off to be photographed by a magazine. At this stage of the game, [his campaign was] really particular. And I said to a couple of his handlers, “Look, I know it’s a long shot, but I can do a portrait of him in two minutes—that’s all I need.” I got the high sign, and we got two minutes.

ES: Part of it is that you’ve been doing this for so long now that you’re a known quantity. They know that you’re not only competent but really good at what you do. They know that if you say it’s going to take two minutes, it will take only two minutes, and they know it’s going to turn out well.

MS: It took only a minute and 45 seconds.

ES: You gave them back fifteen seconds.

MS: I don’t ever want them to call me and say, “What happened?”

ES: Although you shoot politicians and actors, you’re mostly known for the pictures you take of musicians. The new book, in fact, is a collection of your music photography.

MS: It’s all music stuff, but it’s not all portraiture. Some of it is reportage. We went back into the archive and mined the material to find things that had never been seen before. Only 25 percent of it had been previously published.

ES: How is it that Mark Seliger has unpublished work? I don’t imagine that many magazines are turning down what you submit.

MS: It’s a lot of stuff shot either for publicity purposes or for a magazine—you shoot in a couple of different situations or settings that they don’t use, and you find that frame. Or you overlooked something. It’s really common for a magazine not to pick your choice, or maybe you made a bad decision. Through time and experience, the collection becomes a different body of work.

ES: You’ve shot pretty much everybody by now, right? I can’t think of anybody you haven’t shot.

MS: There are still a handful of people I would love to photograph. I’ve never photographed Prince. I’ve never photographed Michael Jackson. In a way, that’s good for me. It allows me to feel humbled by the fact that there’s a lot of stuff still out there. I’m happy not to have done it all.

ES: In pulling together a book like this, do you choose all the pictures yourself?

MS: Oh, yeah. I

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