When you start working in publishing, no one explains to you exactly what makes a good portrait a good portrait.
It’s a given, and, it’s generally a lesson you learn the hard way. The first step is getting the person with the camera and the person that you want them to photograph in the same room at the same time. Often this is the hard bit. There’s a tendency once you’ve accomplished this feat to think that the battle’s won and it’s time for an editorial cigar. Wrong. Shooting portraits is an art form in every sense, and just because you’ve landed an eager young photog in front of your subject with a slightly cheaper camera made by the same brand as the one that Mark Seliger uses, it has absolutely zero correlation between their ability to capture the time, mood and personality of your subject. If you’re into portraits so perfect they make you genuinely stop and think about the subject, then Mark Seliger’s just brought out a book that you’ll be needing a copy of.
Mark Seliger’s a Texan who got his photographic start shooting smaller assignments for Rolling Stone in the late 80s. He worked his way up the RS ranks, and eventually became their go-to photographer. Now Rolling Stone in the 80s bared little resemblance to the shell of greatness that exists today, in fact, it was one of the predominant cultural forces of the 90s, especially in the States. If you don’t know Seliger by name—in itself a great injustice—then you’ve seen his work. From the iconic concept shoots for Rolling Stone in the 90s, like the Seinfeld crew as the cast of the Wizard of Oz, to his beautiful work with the beautiful ex-prez, Seliger’s paws are all over the significant cultural happenings of the last three decades, much of which is contained within his new coffee table offering, the elegantly titled Mark Seliger Photographs.
Seliger himself is somewhat of an enigma, and rarely teaches or gives interviews. Presumably when you create imagery as beautiful as he does, words tend to sell the art short. A little digging, however, reveals a few nuggets of informative gold, courtesy of the great photographer. “It’s about having an experience with a subject and being able to capture a moment with them, to find some way to illustrate an emotional response to who they are and what they are,” he told Fstoppers of the importance of making your subject feel comfortable. “It’s really a very quick experience, because most people lose interest quickly, and as a photographer, it’s all about how you confront and deal with that.” On the hugely underappreciated skill that you find inherent in all great portrait photgraphers—the ability to make your subject trust in your vision—he says this: “Communicating what it is you want without it getting too esoteric, about how you see the photograph, and see them in it, which helps develop some sense of collaboration. This sense of ease develops over a period of time, as you move into the shoot and the specifics of posing and movement. Then it’s all about communicating, directing and instruction.”
Mark Seliger Photographs is filled with a mixture of his recognisable work, and outtakes and personal work that you’ve never seen before. His subjects range from political figures like Mandela and Obama, through to Cobain, Jagger and Byrne, to a gripping set of portraits of Holocaust survivors. Humans are a diverse bunch, and capturing the intricacies that make up each one is a skill only learned through a lifetime of graft and attention. Mark Seliger is a master.