Renowned portrait photographer Mark Seliger has shot countless public figures (Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, Cindy Sherman) and celebrities (Will Ferrell, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Emma Stone) over his long career, which spans more than three decades. Appointed Rolling Stone’s chief photographer in 1992, Seliger shot over 125 covers before moving to Condé Nast in 2001, where he now regularly shoots for Vanity Fair, Elle, and Italian Vogue, among others.
However, Seliger’s current show at Von Lintel Gallery, On Christopher Street [Editors’ note: the show has since closed], features subjects who are a departure from the famous names he regularly shoots—the people of New York’s transgender community. On Christopher Street started out as a portrait of the street itself. Christopher Street, home of the Stonewall Inn, has been known for decades as a haven for the LGBTQ community and an international symbol of gay pride.
As the West Village started to change, Seliger (a resident of Manhattan) conceived a project that would serve as a sort of elegy for the street’s character. Once he spent a few days on the street, however, the project quickly transitioned to images of the transgender people who make their home in this rapidly transforming neighborhood.
Below, Seliger talks to LensCulture about the process behind shooting On Christopher Street, the ins-and-outs of creating glossy magazine covers and his advice to young photographers hoping to make their way into the world of portraiture.
LC: Did you make a conscious choice to become a portrait photographer rather than, say, a photojournalist? Or is it a genre that you found yourself in, felt driven by, and ultimately stuck with?
MS: I’ve always been enamored with portraiture and felt connected to the process, but I considered my work a mixture of documentary and ‘illustrative’ portraiture. Portraiture struck me as having very, very deep roots, and yet you can use the genre to do so many different things.
The ability to photograph in different ways, using different mediums, has always been something I wanted to pursue. I’m not interested in doing just one thing. And yet, portraiture has been the one constant. I’ve experimented a fair amount—still lifes and landscapes and other styles as well—but I always come back to making portraits.
LC: I always imagined that magazine cover portraits are just the best image from a shoot, but they also have to act as advertisements for the publication. How does that affect your work?
MS: There’s always a set of rules to everything. To quote Helmut Newton, you’re a gun for hire when you do applied photography. You have to be accommodating to the newspaper or magazine that hired you. That’s a certainty.
Another aspect to consider is dealing with somebody putting text on your photographs or seeing your covers as possessing “set agendas.” It’s all part of the rules. You either tolerate it or you don’t do magazine work. For me, I’ve always loved working with creative directors. Brainstorming and coming up with an interesting way to take an idea and put it on the page is enjoyable for me. Part of the process is being able to accommodate what a magazine’s requirements are.
There’s nothing nicer than having a clean experience, where the photography feels very pure. Working with great creative directors can give you that experience. With some of the amazing fashion magazines, there’s a real commitment to and respect for photography, which is what I look for in any collaborator.
LC: Could you walk us through a shoot? Do you always work with creative directors? How does that whole process work?
MS: Let’s take the Emma Stone cover I just shot for Rolling Stone. With this image, I’m essentially designing the shot myself.
To start, I saw the screening of La La Land. I tried to get inside the character in order to figure out how we could shoot Emma in the way that she would look the most striking. Emma is very feminine, very elegant. When I saw the movie, I came away with a number of thoughts about the character: she’s an empowered person—very confident—and at the same time, vulnerable.
So, I wrote down certain aspects of her character and then thought about how I wanted to portray her. I wanted to take her out of the Hollywood scene and bring her into a dreamland. We workshopped her hair and beauty—but kept it all very natural. One of my friends supervises a location at a beautiful ranch in California, so we built off that and created the setting. We weren’t really able to control our light because we were shooting in the late morning/middle of the day. Yet the way that the sunlight came through the trees and dappled the whole scene was very impressionistic, which was exactly what we were going for.
Other times, I go for a big concept—like the recent Vanity Fair cover with Chris Pratt. We created this sense of adventure. He was in a pool, then in a desert-y landscape…all over the place. Everything that we wanted to do, Chris was totally game for. He enjoyed the process, which is always a relief. It never feels good when you’re photographing someone who just instinctively does not want to be photographed. When somebody’s an equal partner and celebrates a vision and helps push it along, it goes so much easier.
LC: You’ve photographed everyone from Barack Obama to Bob Dylan to Will Ferrell, and yet your recent project, On Christopher Street, focuses on transgender people—many of whom are not public figures. As a portrait photographer, what is it like transitioning between subjects with such different lives, motivations, desires, etc?
MS: On Christopher Street is about photographing something that was vanishing. I live in the neighborhood, and over the years I’ve watched it change and evolve into a mainstream, gentrified area. I initially set out to do just a handful of portraits—photograph the activities down there, people who were hanging around or working the street. I found it fascinating and sad that this world was evaporating, so I decided to go out and document it.
After I spent a couple of days—I’d taken probably about a dozen portraits—it evolved into a story about the transgender people who lived there. Initially it wasn’t at all focused on that aspect of Christopher Street—the concept really evolved as I went.
LC: Christopher Street—the physical location—has incredible resonance for the LGBTQ community. Many people recognize it as a symbol of international gay pride. As a long-time New York City resident, how have you seen it change, and did the evolution affect your portrait project in any way?
MS: I live two blocks from Christopher Street. For me, it has always been an interesting, theatrical area. It served as a kind of ‘Ellis Island’ for the LGBT community. But as I said, the street is slowly becoming commercialized. A lot of the people who used to feel very comfortable on that street—people who felt that it was a safe haven—no longer feel that way. That feeling of comfort is disappearing; they’re being pushed out.
We didn’t start to conduct interviews until about halfway through the project because initially it wasn’t about the people. Once I started to focus on the idea of meeting the inhabitants of Christopher Street, though, I encountered some amazing locals. Then we met a few people who served as our ‘guides.’ Even so, it was hard to find trans people to photograph. Most of the time you can’t tell just by looking!
It was when we stumbled into a panel for transgender people at a church that we met a couple of key individuals who then introduced us to a group of guys. As we discovered, Christopher Street had long been a home for many transgender people: a place they could feel accepted, loved, part of a community. Capturing that shift was emotional in many ways.
LC: Can you tell us more about your process? How long do you typically spend with your subjects?
MS: Processes depend a lot on the subject matter. Sometimes the process is incredibly quick—the photograph has to look like this? Okay, bam, done. Sometimes, it’s a blend of processes: researching, writing down ideas, fleshing things out gradually. Photographing, then going back to the drawing board. Taking time to tease the image out, think about where I want to go with it. It’s all about taking the time to capture your subject properly.
For instance, when we shot on Christopher Street, the rule was that we had to stay on the street for the majority of the time. We had to get to know the person in a very instantaneous way; we couldn’t beleaguer the shoot. Maybe I’d get a roll of film. Maybe I’d get five prints. Maybe I’d get 50 frames. But for the most part, each image was a quick study, while the preparatory work of getting to know people was much longer [as mentioned above].
Once we finished a roll, we’d take it back and process the film and I would edit it down to one or two pictures. Those are the photographs that ended up in the book.
LC: Many of the photographers we talk to lament the difficulty of editing. What was the photobook-making process like for you?
MS: For me, making books and exhibitions and working in the printed form has always been a luxury and a gift. I have always felt like it was the golden egg. “You get to make a book!” It’s just the greatest honor. It’s also a wonderful way of documenting and cataloging where you are in your life in terms of your own artistry, craft and creativity. I was really committed to the idea that I would make books early on and keep doing it as long as I possibly could. To me, it’s a gift.
LC: I also love your “In My Stairwell” series. How did that project/setting come about? Is there a story behind it?
MS: The stairwell work is an older project. That was one of the first series that we did with platinum printing—I really started to get to know that process by shooting “Stairwell.” We used the space as a canvas, a blank slate, for everybody. It didn’t matter if the person was mainstream or peripheral: when we brought people into that space, it became their home for the day.
LC: Can you share a formative experience you had as a young photographer that impacted your work?
MS: I’m a big fan of going out and using experiences to explore what kind of pictures you want to make. I also think it’s important to understand the idea of printmaking and making something tactile. It’s essential to know your story. But more than all that, you have to be enthusiastic and optimistic that you have the ability to follow through your work to the end.
These days, we’re so interested in immediacy, and problems are either immediately resolved or forgotten. So many people don’t take the time to make art with substance.
Photography needs to be an experience, a process. The more you become involved with it, the better it will turn out.
LC: What advice would you pass on to young photographers who are hoping to become portrait photographers?
MS: Keep it simple. Don’t ever be afraid to do that. Taking a great portrait doesn’t take a lot of fancy cameras or equipment. You just need to appreciate and study your subject.
Also, take time to think about what you love about portraiture. Why does it appeal to you? When I’m stuck, I always circle back to the simple studies I did when I first started out. Looking back at my old work, I realize that the pictures I make now have come full circle; the same values have always been there.
LC: What values are those?
MS: Well, one of my first cathartic moments in photography was when I started to take environmental portraits. That was when I started to think about every aspect of the photograph: the frame, the content inside the frame, the foreground and background. My teacher, who was my biggest influence, always taught me to use my eyes to differentiate what’s in front of you, behind you, and everything in between. Take time to focus in on your surroundings. Notice the details. Be aware of every aspect.
The Christopher Street project was a return to that idea. When I first started out, I didn’t know what the project was going to be. I certainly didn’t know that it was going to be all environmental, but once we picked the destination, once I started to pay attention to the people walking past and the details on every street corner, the heart of the project made itself known.
LC: So in a way, you’re getting back to what first drew you to photography.
MS: Back to the very beginning.
—Mark Seliger, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like one of these previous features: Question Your Subject: Taking Portraits of Johnny Cash, Obama, and More, an interview with portrait photographer Martin Schoeller; the king of kitsch Martin Parr’s comical self-portraits; and Mectoub, striking portraits of men in the Arab world.