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Tribute: MARK SELIGER

by Monica Camozzi

Written by Monica Camozzi

Only one man can capture Barack Obama’s soul by shooting his skullcap in reverse perspective. This man is called Mark Seliger. They call him an ‘iconographer’, i.e. a talent capable of transforming any living being into an archetypal representation of itself, but Marc is much more than that.  He succeeds in making us cross the veil of Maya, in making us foretell the tenderness of Keith Richards, in gathering in Mandela’s iris the smile, the hope and the weeping, in catching the look of innocent surprise, a little mocking, of a Lady Gaga laid bare in her chair with the spontaneity of a college girl. 

He manages to bring out the novelist that inhabits Ethan Hawke, just like that, with a closed-eyed snapshot that digs into the etheric body. 

Mark manifests the unexpected,

which is usually hidden behind the layers used by an individual to deal with the -magnificent and edgy- world of show biz. An iconographer indeed, for all intents and purposes, because anyone who has imprinted a mark on the phenomenology of the 20th century, the history of cinema, music and the sediments of civil society must have passed at least once in front of his lens. 

Being able to ask him a few questions is a great honour. You understand how history can be written with so many tools, which together help to trace the pattern on the tapestry of humanity.

Leonardo Di Caprio, MARC SELIGER

Rubens was the most requested portrait painter of the 17th century, you are the iconographer of today’s ‘royalty’, of the most followed and known people around the globe: what do you think it means today, compared to the past, to bare yourself in front of a lens in a world where social media shorten distances enormously?
It doesn’t really concern me to be a part of the change in technology.

I take pictures for myself and for my subjects.

The idea is to find that one moment where you are able to take away something special. I like to think that the artists of old had a similar approach. I work with a camera, and they work with a brush. We are working toward the same end goal: to share something new with the world – often, a new vantage point on something you’ve seen countless times.

As far as “royalty” is concerned, I don’t really see it like that. I’ve photographed world leaders and celebrities for years, and I treat and respect them as I do the street sweeper or corner busker. I appreciate the individual for their contribution to their craft and the world. That means how I show up for a photo session is the same version of me, regardless of status in the world, I like people and I like their stories. It makes no difference to me… all are people trying to figure out the world, just like me.

Willem Dafoe, MARC SELIGER

In ’87 your first assignments for Rolling Stone: did you ever imagine all this? Was it part of your youthful dreams?
Even as a young student, I always put the work first.

I’m my best and worst critic.

I don’t think I actually ever envisioned working in the space I ultimately came to, but once I was in there, there was no turning back. It opened up a space for me creatively that felt right.

Photographer, in your case, also implies director, scriptwriter, creator of a complete story: what aptitudes do you need to have?
The most important element in my work is observation. The tools of photography help me to define those specific moments. But at the end of the day, I’m a highly curious human that is deeply connected to my subjects and/or subject matter. It’s about caring, and that’s the most important thing to me. Caring for the story and making it the best possible version of itself that I can do.  I’ve taken this curiosity to filmmaking and by aligning with incredible cinematographers I continue to evolve my craft and learn.  It’s invigorating. 

Jennifer Lawrence, MARC SELIGER

Your images are never stereotyped, it is as if each character traces a different path: is it empathy? Do you connect with them? Do they trust you?
Every assignment, whether assigned or personal, always has a set of challenges. I veiw photography as a paintbrush – I look at the story or the subject and I break it down into what it can be. Sometimes it relates to the subject, and sometimes it’s the exact opposite, but regardless, I work to tell the story through my own eyes. Paint a canvas. And that’s a curious place to reside – oftentimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Hope gets you to the place of taking the leap to create – disappointment is inevitable.  But when it works there’s nothing sweeter.

It seems that you are now the one putting the seal of celebrity; those who matter must have taken a little tour of your studio: is that so?
I think of the studio as a creative hub. When a client or artist comes through the front door, they feel a presence. This is a place to create. It’s more of a home than a studio. It’s a place to imagine and create without judgment or fear.

Johnny Depp, MARC SELIGER

Have you ever been in awe of history, intended precisely as the experience of humanity, that some individuals carry with them? I am referring to people like Mandela.
Of course, there is a moment of awe when you meet someone who has inspired so many people with their ideas, philosophies, spirit, and work. I’m grateful for these moments as they continue to push me as an artist and carry me to this next chapter.  I’m a vehicle for expression – and I’m nothing without my subjects.  

Do you have memories of sets that will stick with you forever? I am referring to anecdotes that affected you in a particular way.
For the finale of Seinfeld, we pulled off a shoot with Rolling Stone that was based on the Wizard of Oz within a series of multiple sets. The entire concept took approximately 2 months to conceive and brought in the incredible Colleen Atwood to create each character of Seinfeld into a Wizard of Oz character. What transpired felt more like a movie than a photoshoot.  I could not have been more pleased with how it all turned out . . . it was a big risk but when you align with the right team it almost always works out.  It’s important that I acknowledge that nearly every project is a collaborative effort of many different talented people. Photography is a unique medium – it’s like Jazz – we assemble teams to riff and in the end we have a piece of work to look at that is the result of a collective effort of incredibly talented people.  

Eminem, MARC SELIGER

Is there anyone you would like behind your lens that you haven’t photographed yet?
That’s easy. I’ve always been obsessed with process. In particular, other artists working with a blank canvas. One of my favorite artists whom I’ve never worked with is David Hockney. I’d love to work with him.

People see celebrities as unreachable, almost part of a parallel reality. Do you manage to capture every human aspect including frailties, weaknesses? What is the relationship you establish?
Most of the work I do comes long before the shoot. I do extensive research with each subject before photographing them. When I walk on set and meet them for the first time, it’s like meeting an old friend. Having them feel comfortable allows space for vulnerability that may not always be comfortable for them but it’s essential for authentic storytelling.

Joaquin Phoenix, MARC SELIGER

How would you like to end your career? (Or maybe you would never want to end it…)
The great editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter, once said to me that the great photographers don’t retire, they just die. In a way, that’s comforting.  I guess I know my path – and that’s to keep creating until they bury me with my camera.

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