Mark Seliger: Room At The Top
By Brett McKenzie Posted on Jan 11, 2019
Five questions with the legendary portrait photographer
Mark Seliger. If you don't know the name, then you know the work. But can you call yourself a creative if you don't know the name!? Mark is one of the most renowned portrait photographers of the past-quarter century, a West Texas boy who came to the Big Apple, and strapped himself onto a skyrocket. Over the years in his roles at Rolling Stone, GQ, Vanity Fair and beyond, Mark has captured everyone from the Dalai Lama to President Obama, but is just as well known for documenting the lives of the not-rich-and-famous (his book On Christopher Street has been particularly well received).
On the heels of the launch of Photographs, his latest publication, and ahead of the ADC 98th Annual Awards Call For Entries Deadline — of which Photography is a major component — we were fortunate to have Mark for a sold-out talk last night at The One Club For Creativity Gallery. Afterwards, we sat down with him for five fast questions about his stellar career.
Almost every artist lies awake at night thinking about a "finished" project, wondering if there was something that they could have done to make it better. What's your experience with this? Have there been any shoots where you wanted to call up your subject for a re-do?
I believe there's always a slight pang of regret after every shoot, but I've learned to let it go. That's the great thing about photography: once a project is over, it really is over. We learn to accept that it is what it is, and you're onto the next thing.
That said, while there aren't any people that I wish I could go back and shoot again to make things better, there are indeed some places where I'd love to go back and shoot. I'd love to go back to Havana and Israel, because there are so many things I'd love to capture that I didn't get a chance to do on previous trips.
How has the fact that everybody has megapixel cameras and Instagram filters in their pockets changed the game for professional photographers? Has it changed the game for you?
(laughs) It has certainly changed the economy of the business. I am grateful to have lived through the Golden Age of magazine photography. That was my stomping grounds, and it will probably never be like that ever again.
But you have to remember that photography is technology. It's a tool, much like a paintbrush is, and these advancements are just new ways of doing things.
You've certainly worked with a lot of celebrities, and those projects are often the ones that people "ooh" and "aah" over, but which of your more personal projects resonate strongly with you, even if they don't get the lion's share of the public's attention?
I have a lot of images that mean a lot to me that don't necessarily gain the attention of some of my other work. I think this is best represented by the work in my book Listen, which was about not going out to take pictures, but rather watching things happen in front of me and then documenting them. It was very reductive in the way that I was able to connect with things, and it taught me how to see things better. It is probably the project that is closest to me, in terms of what I learned along the way.
Which photographers are inspiring you these days?
I have to be honest, I don't study new photographers that closely, I'm more of a student of the history of photography from the early 20th century up until that magazine age. I study documentary and fine art photography from earlier eras, but as far as new things go, I'm sorry that I haven't had much time. I really need to change that.
One photographer who I never tire of following is my dear friend Ed Keating. I've been looking at his work for the past 25 years, and to see him take years and years of photos and to finally put them into a book last year — the amazing MAIN STREET: The Lost Dream of Route 66 — made me very happy.
After a career that spans more than 30 years, has there been anything you learned early on along your path that has stuck with you over the decades? Conversely, what have you learned over the years that you wish that a young Mark Seliger knew?
Very early on I decided to be more in line with doing the things that I wanted to do, and what challenged me, and less about what's popular or trendy. That might not have been the best business decision early on, but it led to an incredible career, and one that even 30 years later I feel has a lot to teach me. Art is infinite, so I'll never run out of things to challenge me and keep me going.
One lesson that I've learned that I often quote to young photographers who come through my studio is, "There's very little room in the middle, but there's plenty of room at the top." If you want to place yourself into our world, you have to go for the highest level you possibly can. You can't settle for being mediocre.
I've also learned over the years — and try to impress upon young photographers today — that it's not about the equipment. It's about your ideas and the way you see things that make a great photograph. And you must, must have humility and empathy. If you take the time to try to understand what you're doing and who you're doing it with, that will transfer into an experience with the photograph.
The ADC 98th Annual Awards is now accepting entries across a wide variety of creative disciplines, including photography. The deadline for submissions is January 31, 2019.