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Masters Showcase: Mark Seliger


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BY PhotoVideoEDU staff September 10, 2014 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Mark Seliger talks to PhotoVideoEDU about how he developed a career that led him to becoming Rolling Stone's chief photographer, his approach to photographing icons of the music world, and the importance of persistence.


Mark Seliger has what must be one of the most envied jobs in all of editorial photography: he is the chief photographer for Rolling Stone magazine. Only the third photographer in the magazine’s history to hold that position (the first was Annie Leibovitz), there is hardly a face in pop culture that he hasn’t photographed. From Neil Young to Bob Dylan to Sean Penn, Drew Barrymore, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Clinton, and literally hundreds of others, Seliger’s subjects cover the entire realm of modern celebrity.

Born in the Texas Panhandle, in an area of small towns and big oil fields, Seliger would seem an unlikely candidate to have helped reveal and define the nature of Generation-X celebrity. Yet in the dozen or so years that he’s been shooting for the magazine he has shot more than 100 covers and has succeed in creating images that have themselves transcended mere journalism to become icons of an era.

Conceptually driven and technically elegant, Seliger’s images range from the utterly simple (his stunning portrait of singer/songwriter Neil Young was made using only a plain gray background and a fan to blow his hair) to the impossibly involved, such as the portraits he made of the cast of "Seinfeld" as Wizard of Oz characters. "The 'Seinfeld' shoot was probably the most complex shoot I ever did—it was a really massive shoot," he says. "We built four big sets and we shot four portraits and a cover in six hours. It was pretty intoxicating working at that level."

Seliger’s images are marked by a brilliant mix of color and light, intense (sometimes shockingly so) gestures, and a quirky, almost vaudevillian sense of humor. Perhaps the greatest quality of his portraits, though, is the feeling that they were fun to make—for subject and photographer. Using his own child-like perception of the world and a genuinely gentle and generous spirit, Seliger seems able to disarm subjects and create images that penetrate past the facade of celebrity.

Seliger moved to New York from Houston in 1983 and assisted editorial shooters for two years before he began shopping his own portfolio. Within a short time had begun shooting for several name magazines, including Fortune, Forbes, Esquire and Manhattan, Inc. In 1987, however, his career was accelerated when Rolling Stone photo director Laurie Kratochvil noticed his work and gave him his first assignment and, not long after, his first cover.

By 1990 Seliger was put on retainer by the magazine and shortly after that was offered the position of chief photographer—an offer that he admits shocked even him. "I thought they were kidding—I wanted to give them time to change their minds," he said. Today Seliger is on the road as much as he is in his Manhattan studio and, though he says that keeping up with the lifestyle and pace of such high-profile assignments can be wearying, he welcomes every challenge. "I like the idea of being able to do things that are unexpected," he says. "For me that has always been the catalyst for doing this. For whatever reason, I was given this opportunity, and it continues to be interesting to me because I get to do new things each and every day—and you get to meet some pretty interesting people."

PhotoVideoEDU: Your first serious involvement with photography came while you were in school in Texas, correct?

Mark Seliger: Yes, I went to college at East Texas State University during the late 1970s. I studied graphic arts along with photography, and I just found an immediacy about photography that I loved. Also, I was a poor hand artist and graphic artist. Photography was much more social, it was much more collaborative, and that attracted me to it. I basically switched from graphic arts and still life photography to doing portraits.

While I was there I met a pretty interesting guy named Jim Newberry who became my professor. He was extremely knowledgeable about the history of photography; he approached photography from a very different place than most teachers at the school. His strength was documentary photography and print making and so we were forced to become well versed in the history of photography and also to improve our print making quite a bit. I had about two years with him where I studied environmental portraiture and documentary photography.

PhotoVideoEDU: Did you have a specific ambition in photography—was there some place that you wanted it to take you?

Mark Seliger: I wanted to go into editorial photography, but I really was not aware of what was available, so after I graduated I went to Houston and went to work for different corporate photographers. Once I got to Houston I found myself pretty disenchanted and bored with corporate photography and after a couple of years of assisting I decided to leave Texas and move to New York.

A friend of mine, a guy that I had known in college and who had graduated about three years earlier, was there and he was doing very well in editorial photography. He took me on as his assistant. His name was John Medere and he became a really good friend of mine. That kind of rekindled photography for me.

I worked with John and I freelanced for a couple of people that happened to be shooting for Rolling Stone and other magazines like Esquire and GQ and it just blossomed—I really began enjoying this kind of work.

PhotoVideoEDU: How did you begin to get your own assignments?

Mark Seliger: I was in New York for two years and I decided that I was going to go out on my own—I think I was about 25 or 26 years old. I started working for business magazines on my own because I just felt that it was time for me to go, to move on.

I started putting my book out there and I would always include a note with it that said, "If you have any questions or comments or any kind of criticism, it would be helpful." I was pretty sincere about that but, of course, then the reality set in that not all the feedback was going to be good. The very first time I sent my book out I got a note back from Michael Schnearson at Avenue magazine that said, "Dear Mark, Thanks for sending me your work. I really appreciate you sending it, but I just want to tell you that I think you have no real personal style and your work seems to be stiff and rigid. . . . and good luck in the future." And I was like, "AHHH!" I was terrified! But then the next day I sent my book over to Forbes magazine and this woman gave me a job!

I realized from that experience that it’s all pretty subjective and that in order to get involved with the editorial world, you have to have a pretty strong sense of yourself—otherwise your feelings just get hurt all the time. I’ve learned to deal with that, I think I am a pretty sensitive person, but you learn to let those sorts of things roll off of you.

I worked for business magazines for awhile; I worked for Forbes and Fortune and Business Week—just about anyone that I could possibly work for. I was shooting everything from postage-stamp-size photographs to full-page assignments, and eventually I got a couple of covers for different business magazines.

PhotoVideoEDU: Were there any major breaks during this period that helped your career along?

Mark Seliger: About this time I started working for a publication called Manhattan, Inc. and Jane Clark, the photo editor there gave me a break. It was a pretty well seen magazine and it got a lot of attention from photo editors and a lot of the people that were working for that publication were also doing work for Rolling Stone. I spent about six months or a year doing work for Manhattan, Inc. I was also shooting other freelance stuff, but I was really concentrating on doing work for them because they had the highest visibility editorially outside of a magazine like Rolling Stone.

PhotoVideoEDU: How did you attract the attention of Rolling Stone?

Mark Seliger: Laurie Kratochvil, the photo director of Rolling Stone, saw my work in Manhattan, Inc. and she called my book in once and nothing happened, but the second time she called my book in she gave me an assignment to photograph NYU film students for the "Hot" issue. I went out and did the shot for her—which was basically a catastrophe—but she loved the picture and she promised me many more assignments and it sort of snow-balled from there.

PhotoVideoEDU: Why was the shoot a catastrophe?

Mark Seliger:
Well, I was photographing these NYU students and I’d pretty much procrastinated the shoot until the very last minute because I was terrified of falling on my face. I just waited it out until Laurie called me and said, "When am I going to get film?" I said, "Oh, I’m working on it right now!"

The following day I had to shoot the picture because I realized it was the last possible day and it was bitter cold—a storm front came through and it had turned to like minus 10 degrees. I borrowed a car, went out, and did the shoot with these three students. Afterwards, I was putting all my equipment into the car and I had the front door open and a bus came by and ripped the door off. It went flying into the middle of the street. There I was, sitting there with the door laying in the road, and I went running after the bus trying to get a license plate number, and every time I would get kind of close to it my eyes were so watery and I was so out of breath that I couldn’t read the number.

I came back and taped the door on and I had to take the car back to my buddy and apologize and I had to pay him for the car repairs. But I did get the picture and everything worked out fine. The shoot only cost me about $1,500.

PhotoVideoEDU: When did you get your first cover for Rolling Stone?

Mark Seliger: After that shot Laurie gave me lots of little portraits and small assignments here and there, and then finally, about a year into it, I got my first cover assignment to shoot Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon. That was a really scary assignment because it needed to be done that day and I had never actually shot on a white background before. They called me the day of the shoot and said, "If you really want to do this we can work it out, but you have to do it at four this afternoon."

I had to run down and get a studio and set up this white huge white cyc wall. It was a huge set because there were like 15 guys in the shot and all the guys in Ladysmith were these really huge guys and then Paul Simon walks in and he’s this little guy and I had to figure out where to put him. I figured out the best place was in the middle. It worked out great and we got the cover. Laurie thought it was wonderful and things just kept on going after that.

PhotoVideoEDU: It must have been a pretty exciting time—only a dozen years or so after leaving school to be named chief photographer at Rolling Stone?

Mark Seliger: At that point I was still pretty shocked and I was thinking, "Are you sure you guys want this? Come on, you can change your mind right now!" But I’ve signed for a couple of years and now I’m going into my fourth contract with them—every two years I renew my contract with them. It’s just been great. It’s been a really good relationship and they’ve given me great assignments, and I’ve been able to secure some of the better stories in the magazine.

PhotoVideoEDU: When you were back in school in Texas, could you have ever envisioned being a staff shooter at Rolling Stone?

Mark Seliger: No, that was a real fantasy. Rolling Stone always seemed to me one of those places that was for royalty or that there was a hierarchy or family that you could never really enter. I loved looking at the magazine as a kid, but it wasn’t until about two years before I left Texas that I really started looking at the photographs and thinking, "Well, somebody has to be doing these—it looks like somebody has a job."

I started thinking that that was the pinnacle and it seemed unreachable, but when I went to New York and started working for other photographers I was kind of shocked because it didn’t seem unreachable. It seemed like if you worked hard enough and you had a plan, that you could do it.

Also, I think Rolling Stone went through a period too, in the 1980s, where it had a lot of different looks and I think that was a little bit unsettling for Jann Wenner, the publisher. As much as he liked a lot of the people that were shooting for the magazine, he was still trying to figure out stylistically how to approach it, how to make the next step. He had to build an edge to it and to keep it cool looking.

PhotoVideoEDU: Things have changed a lot as the music industry matured. Has that altered your shooting style?

Mark Seliger: Oh, yes. In this day and age people are really super guarded and publicists are at a different level than they ever were. A lot of photographers in the 1970s used to go and spend a lot of time with their subjects—they would go and hang out with them for a couple days. That type of luxury gave you a depth and an intimacy that tends to be lost now, but I’ve tried to borrow from that formula and I try to take people out of context.

PhotoVideoEDU: What do you mean by take them out of context?

Mark Seliger: I try to get away from the three- or four-hour shoot and try to take people into a situation where they have no option but to let down their guard. There is something very productive about going away with somebody or being apart from the whole Hollywood or New York scene. For me that started with my cover of Brad Pitt, the first cover that I did with him where he came up with an idea of shooting in a barrio somewhere and I gave it a little bit of an extension and thought of going to Mexicali, Mexico. Originally we were going to have two days to work with him, but I talked him into staying an extra day.

PhotoVideoEDU: What changes about a subject emotionally when you start spending longer periods of time with them—when you get them away from Hollywood or their normal background?

Mark Seliger: I think that it frees them up a little and also a lot of subjects are just as happy to be away from it all for a few days. It doesn’t mean that they can completely avoid phone calls or things like that, but you can just see that when you get them away you’re going to have a better shoot.

PhotoVideoEDU: Photographers like Arnold Newman were masters at creating conceptual and environmental portraits. Was he one of your influences?

Mark Seliger: Definitely. He was one of the people that I studied in college. I learned from studying his work that these kinds of portraits were really thought out pieces. It wasn’t just setting up a camera in front of a person; there were subtleties and meaning behind them. Having that type of relationship with a subject and with a photograph was very new to me.

I remember in a still life class I had to do a picture of a box, and so I took an animal cracker box and I poured out the animals over a little pile of hay and then I took little chocolate chips and I put them in the straw next to the little animal crackers—I like sort of funny, stupid things. I’m like an eight-year-old that way. My teacher gave me a D. He said, "It’s a great concept but the technique kind of sucks." But everyone in the class thought it was really funny and I realized that there is something in a concept.

I really see photography as a source of entertainment. There is a purpose to it and it’s basically entertainment. You’re entertaining people that are not photo educated and you’re giving them a little bit of fantasy and a little bit of reality in revealing their idols.

PhotoVideoEDU: Bob Dylan certainly has to be one of the more famous—and infamous—people you’ve photographed. What was it like photographing him?

Mark Seliger:
It was great; it was very mysterious. He was the man and he came up to my apartment. I was living on Grand Street at the time and I had a little studio there and I lived in there too. He actually was very normal. He came up and he walked around my apartment and he looked at my books and he looked at my art and he looked at my refrigerator—just kind of sized me up a little bit. I had photographed his son Jacob and I gave him a print of that.

He was just really easy going—didn’t like having his picture taken, which is not surprising. Most people don’t. We had a good time. We spent about an hour and a half working and then we went outside to a bar and shot maybe 10 minutes over there. He walked over there with me. There wasn’t any limousine with him or anything. He wears a big parka and kind of hides himself pretty well. He is very recognizable, so it would be easy to spot him.

I just had another opportunity this year to photograph him, which was quite a pleasure. I got to stand on stage for a couple of songs, right to the side while he was playing, and that was really fun. It was during the Bob Dylan/Van Morrison tour. Those kind of experiences are incredible and unique.

PhotoVideoEDU: It takes a certain kind of a personality to photograph celebrities. What does it take to be around them and have them relax in front of your camera?

Mark Seliger:
You just have to treat them like people; you can’t overdo it. For example, the Rolling Stones really don’t like a lot of production. They don’t want it to be too overdone or too overproduced. They want it to be very simplified, and that is more important to them than anything. If things seem like a big production it kind of makes them nervous.

I think that if you simplify what you do and you don’t make it into a huge entourage-type scene with a bunch of assistants, I think it really is helpful. Even if it’s an elaborate shoot, the fewer people the better.

Of course, it helps to know a little bit about the subject, like a good reporter. It’s important to have some understanding of who you’re photographing and what they’re about. That will give you an incredible amount of information walking into it. You have to do that research.

PhotoVideoEDU: Do you ever set up a shot and have someone walk onto the set and tell you they are just not into what you’ve set up?

Mark Seliger: Yeah, that happens all the time, but I think that that’s part of the challenge, to see if you can’t talk somebody through it. Several times I’ve asked people to do things that they didn’t want to do and then after a while they get to know me and we talk about things and they go for it.

PhotoVideoEDU: Let’s talk about the Neil Young shot—it’s really become a defining portrait of him.

Mark Seliger: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite pictures, mostly because I’m just such a Neil Young fan. As a kid his music was my introduction to rock and roll. My brother gave me a copy of "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," so it’s kind of funny that I had an opportunity to photograph him.

Basically what I did was to set up two different pictures for Neil because we only had him for about an hour. I set up one picture as a cover where his hand was kind of above his head on white and it was shot on black and white. Then we did another shot, just on a really simple gray background where I took a fan and blew his hair.

PhotoVideoEDU: Why did you choose to blow his hair that way—was there a meaning behind it?

Mark Seliger: I was trying to envision very simply how I could sum up Neil Young without taking a picture of him in the desert or in the redwood forest—or something that wasn’t stereotypically rock and roll. The one thing that I think is so incredible about this voice is that it’s so airy and light and it’s very high—there’s a certain natural quality to who he is.

Because we were stuck in a studio in Chicago, I thought the best way to create some type of natural environment was by showing motion. Also, since he’s sort of infamous for his different facial growths and hair lengths—they kind of change and sideburns come and go—it was a great opportunity to use his hair for that. That’s really what I was thinking, that there would be this sense of lightness and movement and something natural.

I also wanted to use the power of his face. He is such a recognizable person because he’s been doing it for so long and he’s one of the few musicians also who hasn’t changed that much. He kind of looks the same and he’s well into his fifties.

PhotoVideoEDU: Was he a fun subject?

Mark Seliger: He was incredibly generous; he was just great. I had the best time. We hung out and saw a show the night before and I met him on his bus right after the show just to say hi, which was great. He said, "I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I know you’re a very good photographer, so let’s just go and have a good time doing it."

PhotoVideoEDU: Is it a strange thing to be photographing some of these people that in your lifetime have become legends or icons of the entertainment world?

Mark Seliger: It’s just incredible. It just blows me away sometimes because it’s an honor to be able to do it. These very busy people are giving you their time without being paid. So you walk in with a great deal of respect and you want to make sure that they are happy with the results because they’re giving you so much of their own effort.

It’s pretty startling sometimes how hard they’ll work for you. When I worked with Neil, that was probably the pinnacle for me—he was as big as they got. I approached it with the idea that I wasn’t going to style him; I wasn’t going to do anything. I wanted to let it just be a photo session, just take pictures of him and let it be stripped down and raw and real and do it in black and white.

PhotoVideoEDU: I’ve read that you study the portraits that other photographers have shot of your subjects. Why is that?

Mark Seliger: Actually, that’s something that I’ve kind of stopped doing so much, but at first I used to look at them. I mainly studied them to figure out what to do about lighting, for pre-lighting of people, especially women, because you can tell how they work best, under what kind of lighting they work best. It’s a tricky thing. With some people you can use very complicated lighting, or very dark lighting or moody lighting, and sometimes you have to really blast them out. I worked a lot to try and figure that out and that was part of the process of learning.

PhotoVideoEDU: You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself that much of a technique-oriented photographer, but obviously your technique is flawless. Do you have a lot of assistants helping you?

Mark Seliger: My assistants are really good. They’re technically good and they have a strong foundation, but I like to try and solve the problem differently each time. It’s a neat process because it’s really not about the technique; it’s about making sure that the person looks as interesting as possible.

I don’t think I’m a super tech-head. I don’t go and buy the latest equipment, the newest softboxes or whatever; basically what we do is we follow general formulas in lighting and then we ad lib. It really depends a lot on the timeframe we get. If I get enough time to play with the lighting myself, that’s great. I have an assistant now who is extremely innovative with lighting. He’s very imaginative, but often I change everything once they’ve got it all set up and we start fresh.

PhotoVideoEDU: When you’re working for a magazine like Rolling Stone, where there is this huge visual and social influence from things like MTV, do you feel yourself pressured at all to keep things very hip and creative?

Mark Seliger: No, actually that’s the way I think anyway. I’ve always been told to strip it down rather than add to it, so it’s my nature to go in that direction anyway. I love really classic photography. I love really beautiful, simple portraits. I love Irving Penn and Avedon and all of the great masters that did beautiful, simple types of portraits. But I also like really exciting color; I like hyper color. There is a lot of early color work from the 1970s and the 1960s that I really liked—people like Guy Bourdin and Jean Claude. Their color stuff is just incredible, and my strength has always been my color work, and I’ve always gravitated towards a lot of color.

Early on I started building a lot of color sets for Rolling Stone and doing these weird color pictures outdoors and tapping into costuming and tapping into props, things like that. But the more I did that, the more the magazine didn’t want me to go there. They would push me away from that direction. But if I felt that something really needed to have a din to it, then I would also do one set for myself that I thought was going to be a risk, but might work out great—as long as it wasn’t super expensive.

I’ve invested a lot of time and money in my own work making sure that I get something that I’m going to be happy with and not just fill an assignment. I think that’s my main problem that I’m usually having to tone things down rather than adding to them. Those decisions are hard for me because they become very, very connected to my ideas. It becomes a problem—how do you scale down? When do you say no? Usually when I’m working with my photo editors at Rolling Stone, they’re the ones that say, "Look, we love these three ideas, but get away from that one. That sounds like an all-day shoot." They’re usually right, too.

PhotoVideoEDU: Is that mostly a time consideration or do they think you’re going too far afield visually?

Mark Seliger: They think I’m going too far visually and expense-wise, because you’re always working on a budget. A lot of people don’t realize that we have super-tough budgets and it’s not like I’m working for a company that has 40 magazines—it’s three magazines. You have to be really thrifty and you have to be really careful about what you end up spending or you are buying it—you’re buying that landscape that you just made!

There are a lot of photographers that do conceptual work that have a lot more freedom and money, but we do things really inexpensively. We can actually do a fairly high-end concept at a pretty reasonable cost. One of the things that’s really quite comforting to me is that I can do very simplistic yet stylized photographs.

PhotoVideoEDU: Can you think of a picture that you did very simply that you like a lot?

Mark Seliger: I did a picture of Sean Penn—I couldn’t have kept it simpler. It was right after I finished a series of pictures for the book I did on the Holocaust called When They Came to Take My Father. The first assignment I got after finishing the book was to photograph Sean Penn, who I’ve always thought of as one of the Hollywood’s true gifted people. "Dead Man Walking" had just come out, and it was really nice to meet him. I found him to be extremely soulful, which is what I expected.

PhotoVideoEDU: How simple was the shot? Did you keep the lighting very simple?

Mark Seliger: There was no lighting! I basically took a camera to a rooftop and I had a piece of paper stuck to a wall and stood him in front of it and shot it. His face is so powerful, and it was pretty memorable for me, just to go back and realize that I could do that—to keep it stripped down.

PhotoVideoEDU: Let’s discuss your book projects. You published a book of black-and-white portraits of Holocaust survivors called When They Came to Take My Father. Can you talk about how that project came about?

Mark Seliger: I had always wanted to do a project that was devoid of celebrity and pop culture, something that had historic content to it. I grew up Jewish and my background as a Jew was pretty reformed, but I spent a summer in Israel with a group of kids when I was 17. In the interim of traveling to Israel we also stopped over in Poland and went to Auschwitz, and it had a profound effect on me.

When you’re raised in a Jewish family, you’re always reminded of the Holocaust and it’s always incredibly present. I pitched the book idea and brought in a partner, Leora Kahn, who helped me with the writing, and we sold it to a very small publisher (Arcade). We only had about six months to get it out because we wanted it to come out during the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

We really had to hustle and it was a very determined project because of that timeframe. We picked 49 people from various groups—some were from camps, some were survivors of countries where they were marked as Jews, and some had escaped by hiding in the woods. We tried to include a great variety of people so that historically it would capture a broad range of survivors. The idea behind the portraits was to capture the inner strength of people who had overcome near-death experiences. It was designed to serve as a template for people to understand that these survivors were real and that they are still around. We wanted to show that this horrible atrocity which happened to them 50 years ago did not destroy them. Some of them went on to become extremely successful people; some of them were not as fortunate and lived pretty miserable lives and emotionally destroyed lives.

PhotoVideoEDU: Did it change your approach to photography and your thinking about portraits?

Mark Seliger: Yes, it was an interesting project and it defined a certain kind of photography for me that I had really never ventured into. I think it set a new standard in the way that I take pictures. I began to allow certain photographs to be purely emotional and now, even in my celebrity work, I try to integrate that concept. It was a good project for me because it gave me a chance to broaden my sphere as a photographer.

PhotoVideoEDU: It must have been a very emotional experience.

Mark Seliger: Yes, it was, but I think the approach to doing any type of work like that is to allow yourself that separation. To connect to the person you have to empathize with them, but then you have to do what you think is going to be best visually. You have to separate yourself at a certain point. I was connected to these people emotionally, but at the same time my purpose was to record and not judge harshly as far as portraiture, but to be real.

Obviously, we photographed people in extremely vulnerable situations—people that were crying, people that were very sympathetic characters in their 60s and 70s. They are not particularly beautiful people and we didn’t glamorize anything. We just kept it very real and honest. It was a real challenge, too: I had to go in there and make interesting pictures of people that you wouldn’t typically find to be any different from you and me. The great luxury of shooting a celebrity is, of course, recognition. That’s one foot in the door for a photograph.

PhotoVideoEDU: Were you happy with the finished book?

Mark Seliger: I was happy, and I think I touched some people in the making of it and I learned a lot. It’s good to record; that’s the pure voice of photography. It draws you in and it says something without words, and then the bonus was that these people also told their stories. It gave you a good insight into a really, really bad period of time. I think you walk about after looking at the book thinking that there is a lot of strength to the human soul. It was a good philosophical moment for me.

It was hard to walk away from the project, because at the same time I was still shooting pictures for Rolling Stone, so on my days off I would shoot pictures of survivors and then I’d be back on the road shooting pictures of Sean Penn or Red Hot Chili Peppers. I couldn’t really describe it to anybody; it was painful.

PhotoVideoEDU: You have a new book coming out now too, correct?

Mark Seliger: The next book is a comprehensive book of my work, an anthology. I just turned 40, so I wouldn’t say I’m worthy of an anthology, but it’s a look at my best work. The book presents the best of my magazine work, and there are some things in it that never went into the magazines, a couple of never-seen things. There are also a couple of pictures that I did just for the book, pictures of people that I had always wanted to photograph. That was really fun. I shot Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and I did one new picture with Conan O’Brien.

I shot Conan as Bob’s Big Boy—a character with a big red pompadour who stands outside Bob’s Big Boy restaurants holding a hamburger. We actually made a six-foot replica of that character’s outfit and we stuck Conan behind it. Tom Waits was shot in a graveyard digging a grave; it was his idea. And Elvis Costello is someone who I’ve always been a big fan of forever and ever, and I never had a chance to photograph him.

PhotoVideoEDU: What’s the book going to be called?

Mark Seliger:
It’s called Physiognomy. It will be out the first week in September and it’s about 230 pages long, it’s a big book. It’s a book that Fred Woodward designed with an incredible amount of insight and humor; it’s really fun. For me, putting out a book like this is obviously an ego-driven project. The Holocaust book was not about me, but more about capturing something and letting the subjects be the heroes. This book is more of a big, fun promotional piece.

PhotoVideoEDU: Is there a particular way that you would like to be remembered by photography?

Mark Seliger: I’m not really that concerned with the deep implications of where I stand historically in photography, because I never really assumed that that would be important and it’s not important to me now. But if I have to be remembered by something—without sounding too idealistic or pretentious—I’d like it to be about my connecting people to ideas that are a little more important than celebrity. I think celebrity is great fun and I look at it as a way for me to have a great time in my own head, exploring visual ideas that I’ve always wanted to try with people. But I think it’s important to say things too, to be responsible at some point.

PhotoVideoEDU: Do you have any advice that you would give to students—perhaps a student that might be in the position you were in, studying in college and dreaming of a life in photography?

Mark Seliger: Yes. I would say it’s really important to believe that anything is possible and not to give up. And don’t allow yourself too many shortcuts. Photography is a process where you really have to learn it; you have to be comfortable with it. I was not a genius at all, but I was persistent and I have that kind of obsessive disorder that you need to be successful. I think that you really have to be persistent and be passionate about what you do. There are a million different ways to do it, but you have to follow your own voice—you have to be open to what it is that you really want to do. I think people look at what I do and think, "That looks really fun and really easy and that’s what I want to do." But that’s my life; that’s what I do. You have to find your own way.

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With E-mail