Photographer Mark Seliger on Shooting Barack Obama, Cindy Sherman, Kurt Cobain, and More

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Mark Seliger made a name for himself in the nineties with his now iconic portraiture work for Rolling Stone magazine. From that memorable shot of the nude Red Hot Chili Peppers to one of the last portraits of Kurt Cobain, Seliger quickly cemented his status as one of the leading portrait photographers of his time. The photographer has since shot a diverse array of fashion work for Vogue Italia, Vanity Fair, and Details.

When shooting, he likens the process to riding "a roller coaster wherever it will take me." He continues, "Sometimes everybody understands you [and] gets out of your way but sometimes you have to adapt." We sat down with Seliger in his West Village studio to chat about what he looks for in subjects, his struggles with being satisfied with his work, and the difficulty of shooting a timeless fashion picture. Plus, in the slideshow ahead, we asked Seliger to explain some of his most marquee works, including portraits of Cobain, Barack Obama, and Cindy Sherman. 

What do you look for when shooting a subject?
It depends on the idea, but for the most part, it's a connection. There's usually a process, an attitude; some sense of essence, connectedness, and even humor. I think there's always a really nice place for the subtlest and simplest amount of humor. There's a real kind of palette of ideas that go into taking a picture.

What has been on that palette for you in the past?
There's nothing more seductive than someone looking right at you. That's a process I try to get to, as often as possible. Whether it's a sense of who that person is, their essence, or whether it's telling you something with their eyes, leading you to a different place. I think that's probably the craft of being a good portrait photographer. 

So you're adaptable when you're shooting.
Portraiture usually takes you on its own ride. Usually, the sitting experience for a subject lasts as long as you want it to be. Or it can be just a couple of frames, depending on who you're photographing.

Like when you're shooting an actor on a two-hour time constraint versus a two-day fashion portfolio?
It depends what kind of celebrity you're shooting. If it's an actor, I always say that you're giving them a role to play. I try to give them a stor yline and help them along that process. When you're shooting a fashion editorial, you're really telling a story through your hired guns; the models, you're teaching them what you want to say [in the photograph]. You're giving [the models] the same kind of role, but usually they don't have much of a say [in the role], they just play the role. A great model, though, is really going to amp up what the story is. That's what's mostly fun about fashion. It gets theatrical very fast.

Is it more limiting shooting celebrities?
You have less room to control [the role] because they're going to weigh in. [But] you also have the advantage of instant recognition. The viewer is going to recognize who they are very quickly. That's very much a benefit to how a photograph is being responded to. I think it's much more difficult to take a timeless fashion picture. 

Norman Jean Roy touched on a similar idea about fashion imagery these days.
We're saturated with those kind of images. What really divides those worlds from something that is memorable to something that is serviceable is that a great fashion picture takes a lot of personal attitude and support from all sides. Great story, great clothing, great model, great hair and makeup. All those stars have to align in order for [the image] to became an interesting photograph, even though you think it's going to represent a certain timelessness, usually it won't. That's an even quicker reinvention, in terms of what looks up to date and what looks dated.

What do you make of your success?
I started pretty young, shooting for magazines when I was 26. I think it's really about persistence and doing it a lot; it helps tremendously. I also think opportunity has helped, being at the right place at the right time. The golden age of magazines is a time I hope is not over, I hope it continues, but it's a different experience than what it was fifteen years ago. Everything was a big, splashy layout [then]. But I still feel like one great photograph is enough; it's not the quantity you leave, it's about the pieces you're really satisfied with. At the end of day, when you're cycling through all [your] material, there's a short list of images that I'm really happy with. 

Any struggles?
My own struggle with being satisfied is probably my best friend. I'm never really satisfied with what I'm doing. I always feel as if I could have found a better way to approach it or a missed opportunity. I guess now I feel there are certain images that I'm excited about still, but, you know, it's your work, so you tend not to necessarily present it to yourself. It's usually just there in the archives.

How are you able to create images that allow the viewer to connect with the photograph?
I think the most important thing for a photographer to understand is observation. You can read somebody pretty quickly if you spend a second and you walk slightly in front. Even if you're engaged in a conversation, be aware of what's going on with them. Sometimes someone will just gesticulate or they'll cock their heads a certain way, which is a great starting point of the way you want them to react in a photograph. Making a great portrait sometimes is about picking up on those idiosyncrasies and personality traits that people have. You can also create more of that into a hyperbole by simply allowing those observations to be turned up. But you need to have a starting point.

The portrait photographers that we tend to idolize have a great sense of design and compassion. I think the marriage of compassion and design is really what makes, in my opinion, a really wonderful moment. 

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