Mark Seliger

On how to take a photograph.

December 2008By Comments

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 literally went through every single musician I’ve ever photographed. There were some real dead pictures in there. The process of finding a lot of bad work was cathartic.

ES: Tell me about one such picture or one such shoot.

MS: Some of the early pictures I did with Jane’s Addiction. I think there’s something to the idea that things can be dated. The shots that have a timeless quality to them are few and far between. As a result, the book that we ended up doing is only 135 pages. Which, I think, is plenty.

ES: It shows the range of your career.

MS: We start out with Chuck Berry, and the last picture we did was Kings of Leon.

ES: Do you know who you’ve shot more times than anyone else over the years?

MS: I’ve worked with Lenny a bunch. I’ve worked with the Stones several times. I’ve worked with Jay-Z a lot. But whoever it is, I always approach it as if I’m going to take the picture and, for whatever the reason, that’s it. There won’t be another chance. I don’t think I’d ever be very successful creatively if I thought that there would be other chances. I live in the moment.

ES: Is there a single photograph you’ve taken that you think of as your favorite?

MS: One of my favorite pictures—it’s not in the book—is of Neil Young. I did it for Rolling Stone when [his album] Harvest Moon came out. It was probably the most unlikely situation you could ever imagine him being in. We were in a studio in Chicago. We had two hours. We went into his bus, which was actually the Buffalo Springfield bus, and we picked out ten flannel shirts, and we photographed him for about an hour and a half doing all kinds of different things. For one shot, we sat him in front of a gray background with a wind machine blowing his hair. If you look at the picture, what you get is this sense of emotion. It was the way I had thought about Neil Young. I had thought about him in this airy, soulful environment—when you listened to him, it just felt good. That was what I wanted to create with this portrait. But if you had seen the whole setup, you would have thought, “How’s that going to work?”

ES: I have to believe that Neil Young’s favorite thing in the world isn’t being photographed for hours on end. You could probably say that about most musicians.

MS: Musicians, for the most part, are a tough wrangle. I approach them a little differently than I do actors.

ES: How come?

MS: An actor will play a role. A musician doesn’t have to. Some of my favorite pictures of musicians are really just simple, unaffected portraiture. Like the photograph I did of Kurt Cobain in a very shallow depth of field. It was darn lucky, because it was a Polaroid. It was bittersweet. I felt like we had this moment where all the walls were down. It revealed a sense of openness, a forlornness that I think a lot of people didn’t want to believe. That was pretty interesting to me. Usually when you’re assigned something, you’re appeasing the magazine that assigned it to you rather than trying to find something new.

ES: As an editor, I would say the best thing you can do is give a photographer the most latitude to do the work he wants to do.

MS: You’re absolutely right. I’m in a perfect situation now, because I work for two magazines that give me that latitude, and Rolling Stone did too.

ES: You were at Rolling Stone for ten years. How did you land there?

MS: I moved from Houston to New York to apprentice as a photographer for six or seven months. I thought I would return home and work as a corporate photographer, because that was what you did. Then I got a taste of editorial [photography]. I’d always been a fan of Rolling Stone. I wasn’t one of those teenagers who sat around reading it every weekend, but I really liked the artwork and the design. A lot of the photographs I saw in the seventies and early eighties were just remarkable—[Richard] Avedon, Annie [Leibovitz], Albert Watson. I felt like, “Wow, that would be the ultimate place for me to end up.” Because I love music and I think of photography as entertainment. I got a job from them about a year into being a freelance photographer.

ES: Do you remember what it was?

MS: It was three students from New York University’s film school. I procrastinated because I was so worried about it. I got the picture done two days before the deadline. After I turned it in, the photography editor, Laurie Kratochvil, left me a message on my machine that said “We are so excited about this picture, and we want to let you know that there will be a hell of a lot more work coming your way.” I was like, “Well, that’s pretty great.”

ES: Couldn’t be a better thing to hear than that.

MS: A little under a year, they called me to do a cover of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon. But they said, “There’s only one thing: If you want to do the cover, you have to do it today at three o’clock.” And it was like nine o’clock. I think I had an assisting job at that time, so I got somebody to take over for me and I booked a studio. Literally, I didn’t even have time to blink. It was a big deal. And then I get a call. It’s Paul Simon. I pick up the phone. “Hi, how are you?” “Hi, Mark, I’m in the car. Are you sure we’re gonna have enough time to do this?” “Um, yeah, I’m here all day.” He came, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo came, and they sang for us for half an hour. It was great. I thought, “I’ll never have to do another cover again.” That was the start of my relationship with Rolling Stone.

ES: What was the last cover you shot for them?

MS: Oh, man, it might have been Britney [Spears].

ES: You’ve been shooting for GQ and Vanity Fair since 2002. How is that different from shooting for Rolling Stone?

MS: The workload. With Rolling Stone I was doing ten covers a year and over one hundred assignments. I was shooting two or three days a week, all kinds of photographs. Wherever they needed me to be, I was there. At GQ and Vanity Fair, it’s a different kind of workload. But it’s also a different time in pop culture, so it’s not nearly as organic. For Rolling Stone, people would just kind of show up, and if they didn’t want to wear what you had brought along, it was whatever they came in. That machine’s just changed drastically.

ES: Everybody has to wear the right clothes?

MS: Well, it’s GQ and Vanity Fair. But I still try to steer people to a place not far from where they’d otherwise be.

ES: That has to be a trick. How do you make people who are used to getting their way—who are these type A, big-ego guys—comfortable enough to do things that result in a photograph more interesting than the standard, straight-ahead shot?

MS: If it feels like it’s going to be bigger than life or it’s going to be a concept, I try to convey to the subject that it’s a collaboration. That it should be fun. That there should be a sense of drama. A sense of shock.

ES: Most of them are willing to go along with you?

MS: Yes and no. The ones who won’t you never know about, because you never see those photographs. They’re not taken. But there are people who I know are going to be willing participants. We just did Jimmy Kimmel for the cover of GQ. I said, “Let me talk to Kimmel and see what I can do with him.” And I said, “You know what I think would be funny? Every president has a bit of dirt. Or they have a funny little story that’s in their closet that you’ve got to pull out and make a reference to.” Nixon—the victory pose. LBJ—he would hold press conferences in the bathroom to intimidate people. Kennedy and Marilyn. And Kimmel was like, “Oh, I love that. That’s great.” It just built from there and became this really funny shoot in which he portrayed all these different characters.

ES: He was totally game?

MS: He was so game that we could have gone for four days.

ES: Give me an example of a celebrity who was unwilling to play in that same way.

MS: Jerry Seinfeld, who’s an incredible collaborator. We wanted him to wear this big fake tongue and paint his face up like he was in KISS. Didn’t like it. But we ended up doing this even more brilliant idea of skinny Elvis and fat Elvis. That’s the way you have to think about it if you are going to do something conceptual. You’ve got to ride that wave.

ES: Okay, one more question—and I’ve saved the best one for last. If I’m a budding photographer, what’s the one bit of advice that you, a famous photographer, can give me that would make me take a better picture?

MS: Focus. And never settle for the ordinary. I’ve always found that the personal journey comes from self-critique. Don’t be afraid. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would erase a lot of the fear that drove how I created my earlier work. I wouldn’t have struggled so much in the early days, and I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It was never the process. It was never the experience. It was never, you know, the intrigue of doing it. Fear was, to me, the hardest demon to overcome.

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