AMM conversation with Vogue photographer, Mark Seliger
Mark Seliger was born in Amarillo Texas in 1959, where he lived with his parents, Maurice and Carol Lee, and his two older brothers and younger sister, until 1964, when they moved to Houston. He attended Houston’s High School for Performing & Visual Arts and, from there, went on to attend East Texas State University, where his education began in earnest, as he studied graphic art and photography. He moved to New York City in 1984.
In 1987, he began shooting for Rolling Stone. He was signed as their chief photographer in 1992. During his time at Rolling Stone, Seliger shot over 125 covers and began a long-term collaborative relationship with Design Director, Fred Woodward, which continued into their work with GQ. They have co-directed numerous music videos for artists such as Hole, Lenny Kravitz, Gillian Welch and Elvis Costello. In 2001, Seliger moved from Rolling Stone to Condé Nast. He shoots frequently for Vanity Fair, Elle, GQ, Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and German Vogue.
In 2011, he founded a non-profit exhibition space for photography called 401 Projects, which has featured shows for James Nachtwey, Eugene Richards, Albert Watson, Platon, among others. He also hosted the Emmy-nominated show “Capture” on You Tube’s Reserve Channel, which focuses on candid conversations between established photographers such as Platon, Mary Ellen Mark, Martin Schoeller, Bob Gruen, etc and celebrities who are interested in photography (Dylan McDermott, Helena Christensen, Judd Apatow). Seliger continues his love of the darkroom by using the platinum palladium process to create large-scale, 30”x40” prints, and his photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries.
He has published numerous books, including: Mark Seliger Photographs (Abrams, 2018), On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories (Rizzoli, 2016), Listen (Rizzoli, 2010), Mark Seliger: The Music Book (teNeues, 2008), In My Stairwell (Rizzoli, 2005), Lenny Kravitz/Mark Seliger (Arena, 2001), Physiognomy (Bullfinch, 1999) and When They Came to Take My Father – Voices from the Holocaust (Arcade, 1996).
Seliger is the recipient of such esteemed awards as: Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, Lucie Award, Clio Grand Prix, Cannes Lions Grand Prix, ASME’s and most recently the 2019 Texas Medal of Arts Award. His photographs are part of the permanent collection of the Houston Fine Art Museum, as well as the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Liza Jones: How was your transition from the music industry at Rolling Stone to lifestyle and fashion photography at Conde Nast?
Mark Seliger: It has been pretty easy because I did all kinds of things back up until 2002 working with Rolling Stone, not just music. I photographed tons of stories on different types of artists, from writers, musicians, actors and artists in general. It’s just a different kind of approach – there you’re telling their story, for the most part. With fashion you’re making up your own story. You’re hiring people to play a role and in fashion the clothing is really the hero.
LJ: Do you prefer black-and-white photos over color photos?
MS: Pretty much everything is determined from whether it’s self-assigned or it’s an assignment. So, it’s not like I prefer one over the other it just depends on what’s right for the project. For myself I tend to shoot more black-and-white than color though.
LJ: How has the rise of social media affected your career?
MS: Social media is really the abundance of imagery. In some ways it makes you more accessible than before. In terms of your audience, your audience is much bigger than if you were just in a magazine. The main problem with online is that people become more accustomed to reading and looking at stuff on their phones now, or their computers, than they did 10-15 years ago. So, what’s happening is that magazines are just struggling in terms of being able to compete with that.
LJ: I’m sad for the younger generation that is so in to social media that don’t see how things are printed physically. You look at a picture on your phone and then you look at a picture that is beautifully printed and it’s such a different connection to the photo.
MS: Absolutely. That is the downfall, I think, for the way we’re receiving information now that it has kind of taken the beauty out of process. So, there’s no longer a sense of process that people engage in. With photography that was always the 50% partner, it was the theme of process. It makes traditional photography, in some ways, more valuable, but it is somewhat of a disappointment.
LJ: How do you decide how to approach a personality that already has a well-known image or brand?
MS: Mainly what we do is talk with the magazine about what their ambition is, what their idea is. Typically, I will control that myself in terms of what I want to do. But in some instances, they have preconceived ideas and so we just elaborate on that and embellish that. If I get an assignment where I can do anything I want to do, then the process is very planned out. I’ll figure out who the person is, what the story is, how to create an idea – that is all the work that I do on the front end. It depends, sometimes it’s very simple and sometimes it’s a big concept, it just depends on the personality.
LJ: For something like the Oscars Studio where you have a prearranged set, is there a way that you approach each personality that comes in to the same space to try to highlight their unique individuality?
MS: We really just create a lighting situation that we know is going to look very photogenic, then we work with our subjects to make those pictures. I give them a lot of direction usually but most of the people I work with, whatever type of artist they are, we try to keep a sense of who they are within that context. So that really shows, even if we are controlling it quite a bit.
LJ: Let’s talk about the Kendrick Lamar photo.
MS: Kendrick Lamar was for Rolling Stone. That was really wonderful because I didn’t know very much about him, I knew a little bit about the music and I just found him to be a great subject, completely willing and trusting. He worked hard, he came in at 8:30 in the morning after playing a show the night before and then working all night in the studio. I found him delightful. He’s a very generous subject, he’s also a nice person. I remember after the shoot was over, we were going through the pictures and I think he just wanted to see what we had created, and he liked it. He was very open to looking at stuff and not in critiquing it. It was more of just knowing about it, just curious. His music, you can tell when you listen to the lyrics, that he has a really deep and intelligent mind.
LJ: Extremely, yes. Well that’s why he won the Pulitzer.
MS: Yes. There you go.
LJ: You have photographed so many icons. Scrolling through your Instagram earlier today, there really is nobody that has been left off the list. Are there any that you have not photographed that you would like to? Sometimes I like to add, dead or alive.
MS: There are two people: one is dead, one is alive. One person that would be interesting that I never photographed would be Prince and I think the other person I would love to work with just because I love his art is David Hockney, the painter. With artists, I think it’s always great to understand who they are and their process, being in their space and seeing their train of thought. It’s always inspirational.
Additional work can be viewed at markseliger.com and on Instagram @markseliger