Mark Seliger
Photo by John Kelsey

Mark Seliger: “Let’s do something special”

Short Profile

Name: Mark Alan Seliger
DOB: 23 May 1959
Place of birth: Amarillo, Texas, United States
Occupation: Photographer

Mr. Seliger, for over a decade you were the chief photographer for Rolling Stone. What exactly does that mean?

I told them, “I want to do half the covers for you, plus 50 assignments a year.” When I was working with Rolling Stone at the height, I was shooting almost 200 days a year! When I first got hired, I actually overshot. All I wanted to do was to work for them and work as much as I could. They were like, “Wait, you want to do more work than we want you to do? More than we expect you to do?” And I said, “Yeah! That’s what you’re getting. You want me to work for the magazine full time, we’re going full time.” That to me was as important than a paycheck.

How could you keep a normal life with that kind of schedule?

I didn’t! I kept a very specific focused life. I’m not married, I don’t have kids, I didn’t have a dog… I had a great group of people in the studio who also loved the process and wanted to work. And It was great! It was really a very special time.

“That was a good change for me because I could create more of a story for myself. I’m not really a guy that enjoys sitting around.”

Is that a feeling you are still chasing today?

If I can have those moments now, which I do… They’re remarkable! It still feels fresh to me. I left Rolling Stone in 2002; I had been their chief photographer for 10 years and I was ready for something different. Later I also moved out of an exclusive relationship with Conde Nast, and I decided to work for anybody, really. That was a good change for me because I could create more of a story for myself, I was able to pick and choose rather than just being assigned and feeling obligated, or just receiving a title rather than going out there and doing the work… That wasn’t really my thing. I’m not really a guy that enjoys sitting around, I like to be actively shooting.

Even when shooting for particular publications, your portraits have always been very conceptual. How did you experience that kind of creative freedom as a young photographer?

I feel like I got my legs that way. My earlier entry into Rolling Stone and some of the other pop culture magazines was really about taking a concept and illustrating it, or taking a portrait and finding a way to do something that’s maybe never been done before, or something unexpected. The way that I approached it was: we’ve got this amazing cover, we’ve got the ability to do whatever we want to do, let’s do something special. I think people really loved the fact that I would go the extra mile to research them, to think about maybe a project or a bit of music that they were involved with that made it feel unique in a sense and unexpected.

You famously got Mick Fleetwood and John McVie to pose as a bride and groom. How difficult is it to get people to say yes to these unique ideas?

I remember I had to call Mick and I told him my idea and he said, “Can I ask you one favor? Can I be the bride?” (Laughs) That’s the ultimate response! So in my opinion and in my history, I don’t think that your batting average necessarily needs to be great — but you have to ask. More often than not, people would say yes to the idea.

Do you usually call your subjects up before the shoot?

If I make an effort to connect with somebody, I can usually get through. It’s always a good practice to warm your subjects up in some way, whatever it is, whether it’s a phone call or sharing ideas with their team… I like those kind of conversations, I find them to be a good starter in terms of creating. You have to kind of share the idea and show them — I like to show them little drawings and talk it over with them. People are great that way! And if they can see it and they can understand it… For instance with a comedian, the biggest hurdle is trying to explain to them that we’re telling the story with one picture.

What do you mean?

As in, there’s not going to be a caption, there’s not going to be a “press here and hear the joke,” the joke is in the photograph. And so of course they’re the funniest person in the room, and you have to take that into account, that there’s going to be some give and take. You have to be ready to ride that wave a little bit. For instance, I just re-photographed Jerry Seinfeld, and we were taking pictures in my studio, and I could tell he wasn’t that excited about it. I was like, “Why don’t we do something where you’re running at the camera?” And he loved it! We must have done it about 20 times, and we found these really wild moments where he was kind of running at you in this hyper hysterical vaudevillian way. It tapped into me. You just have to rework it!

It must help that you had already met and shot him before; the familiarity there worked in your favor.

Of course there’s that moment where both of you kind of reconnect in what you liked about working together… But you always have to have your A-game on. There’s no phoning it in. It’s not like you’re out there with your buddy. They have their own lives, and they have their own connections with people. But there is a creative connection. And there’s a trust. And that is a very, very special relationship. I really love the fact that if I get on the phone with somebody, there’s a sense of memory and a sense of connection of making something… But I do also feel like you’ve got to keep certain things to yourself because there is something very unique about the surprise.

Has that element of surprise become more difficult to achieve because the machinery around celebrity has changed?

A little bit — in the sense that you may only have two minutes with somebody or five minutes with somebody! But you can get a lot done in five minutes if you’re prepped. That should never be a necessarily problematic thing in a session if you’re prepared. Some of my best pictures I’ve done in under two minutes!

Some photographers will actually refuse work if they don’t have as much time as they’d like with their subjects…

If you are prepared and you have an idea, you can pull it off in your own mind. I’m not going to turn down an assignment because somebody says I can only give you five minutes; I’m going to go, “Okay, I’ve got five minutes, I’m going to spend three and a half making sure the magazine gets something they can use, and the rest of the time trying to push the envelope.” I mean, when we photographed Obama, we had five minutes to light him, and then we had five minutes with him. And that was it!

How did you go about preparing for such a quick session?

Well, we knew what the Oval Office looked from pictures, and we talked to his press secretary to find out when the light was best, where did the light come in from; we tried to replicate the lighting situation to prepare ourselves. There was a very specific idea — we had him sitting on a desk — and that’s what we did. There were things I would’ve changed in terms of posing, but the lighting looked great because we were prepped. You have to have that kind of motivation to know what you’re getting yourself into when you have time restrictions.

“If you don’t go in there with the attitude that you’re going to get something for yourself, then that’s your own damn fault.”

In those moments, is it difficult to find the balance between taking the photos you want and the photos you’re assigned to take?

You can’t go in there and say, “I’m just going to do this picture for me, and good luck to whoever you’re shooting for.” They still have needs and expectations that they have, but if you don’t go in there with the attitude that you’re going to get something for yourself, then that’s your own damn fault. “Am I getting something right for the magazine? Am I ever going to be hired by them again? Do they like it? Do they like me?” There’s a certain level of that you can have but at the same time, it’s about pleasing yourself.

What about the thoughts concerning legacy that surely come with taking portraits of important public figures like Barack Obama?

I don’t really think about that. To me, it’s all about my own journey in terms of how I’m going to create something. It’s an opportunity to do something artistic. I try to see it from a place of how it would look in the magazine, or how it would look on a wall, or how it would look just as a printed piece. I don’t think about it as legacy. Of course, if you get an opportunity to photograph the Dalai Lama or somebody like Obama, you know that there’s going to be a million of those pictures out there of these people… My concern is more how can you resolve that where it feels unique?

Do you think you’ve found that resolution over the course of your career?

Photography is really infinite, right? When I think about being a musician, I can’t imagine playing the same songs over and over and over again for 30 years. Playing some of the same songs over, yeah, but I can’t imagine not writing new ones. You look at somebody like Dylan and he doesn’t play the same version of his songs. He reinvents what he does every time. And I think you should be reconnecting and digging deeper into the things that you make! Photography is the perfect example of that because cameras will change, process will change, but the root of a portrait doesn’t change. It’s how you evolve the idea. It’s how you retell that story.