Mark Seliger’s ‘Listen’ at the Steven Kasher Gallery
On New Year’s Day, 2007, photographer Mark Seliger got in his truck with his toyo four by five and headed south down the West Side highway. It was already three o’clock, only an hour left of light. Inspired by a great fog that hung low over the Hudson River, Mark drove in search “something interesting” to photograph.
It wasn’t long before he noticed the Piers on Canal Street, the way they stepped into the fog. So he set up his camera with a wide lens, composing what would later become the first in a sequence of ninety images compiled into a book called Listen: Mark Seliger. Now an exhibition of same title is on view at the Steven Kasher Gallery, in the form of thirty large-scale platinum palladium prints. Both the photographs in the show and the process used to achieve them suggest a small shift within Mark Seliger, a name most frequently associated with the terms “famed photographer” and “iconic celebrity portraiture.” (There’s a reason; he has shot close to 200 magazine covers for Rolling Stone magazine, where he was chief photographer for ten years. In 2002, he moved to Condé Nast, where he is now and continues to be a very big deal.)
Many of Mark’s photographs are as famous as the people in them: the eerie black and white of headshot of Kurt Cobain, Fleetwood Mac’s “wedding portrait”, the fact that when you say “Red Hot Chili Peppers” the image that pops into your mind is likely copyright Mark Seliger (and/or Rolling Stone). The photographs in Listen do not focus on celebrities (except for that one double exposure of Baryshnikov, which Mark initially hesitated to include). Most of his subjects are anonymous, many of them headless.
Take Nude, New York (Plate11), a cordiform of back and butt boxed in by frame. The nude is very much treated like a still life here. The play of shadow and light against skin is much more emphasized than the model’s personality. In Sam, New York, we see a woman in the form of a shoe or football. We do not see her face, just her hair, which has been put up in a “do”. If she wears a corset, it matches the tone of her skin, because all we see is her back split by vertebrallaces.
The subject matter spans beyond people. Listen can be divided into four parts: nudes, still lifes, portraits, and New York cityscapes. A thin slope of the Brooklyn Bridge remains crisp until it vanishes into fog. In George Washington Bridge, the river blurs as it rushes against the fixed pylons. Many of Mark’s cityscapes reflect the technical style of group f.64, the 1930s movement formed in on the west coast by seven photographers including Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. The group hoped to promote a new, modernist style, and to trade the “soft focus” habit—established in the earlier part of the century—for a sharper, straighter, photographic image. This was achieved by opening up the lenses the smallest aperture available for their cameras.
Mark also incorporated some earlier influences in his work, some of which those f64-ers set out to exhaust. New York City, East 49th Street is a Stieglitz-y window view of a rainy day. Through a sweating window—the kind you could write your name all over—we see a dark street, which remains in focus until it is swallowed by a thick blanket of white fog. This scene is framed by the tone and shape of surrounding skyscrapers, the closest of which is dark and headless.
In an interview, Mark Seliger cited the Hungarian photographer André Kertész as an influence. “One of the things Kertész really considered was the emotional state of the photograph,” said Mark. “How it makes you feel, how it makes other people feel. So much of the time I work out my own emotional stability from taking a picture.” Kertész, the Hungarian photographer who once declared, “I write with light”, saw the oddities in everyday life. He had a rather fractured identity, and often his photographs revealed it. For Mark Seliger, to take a photograph is to Listen to a sad song, “it’s like listening to a song you know is sad, but it makes you feel good,” he says. Mark Seliger, now 50, has been reflecting on some heavy things. “Everything vanishes,” he said. “Not just visually, but in terms of your own mortality.”
Mark Seliger was born in Amarillo, Texas. At 13, he enrolled in a darkroom class where he fell in love with printing photographs, perhaps more than taking them. “It didn’t really matter what the pictures looked like,” he said.“I was more interested in making images.” Mark created a darkroom for himselfout of his family bathroom. When his parents would leave for trips—instead of getting a keg and filling his empty home with a bunch of drunken teenagers (something that seems to happen too often in this country)—Mark would spend the whole weekend printing alone in his darkroom. And there have been many darkrooms since, the last of which served a major role in Listen. Seliger and Sarandon at the opening. Photo by Michael Weber. Four years ago, Mark called up his platinum palladium printer and asked him one question, “What’s the biggest we can do?” Daniel Belknap, a chemical engineer from Minneapolis who moved to new york in the 80s to take up the job as Irving Penn’s photo assistant, had enough experience to figure out the answer: 30×40. But, said Belknap, there would be a slight problem: space. Mark’s darkroom was not big enough for the task, which, according to Belknap, would require 15 feet of counter space, four trays big enough to soak 30 x 40 inch watercolor paper, and a kind of crazy sink that he says “just didn’t exit.” So, Mark built a darkroom large enough to produce the prints. Belknap, who had learned the platinum palladium process from Irving Penn, was pleased with the results “there’s something about the handmade print. There are no two alike,” he said.
The opening reception drew in a big crowd of big names. Actress Susan Sarandon, who happens to be a friend of Mark Seliger’s, appeared looking better than ever. “I came not knowing what a spectacular, unusual show it would be,” she said. Sarandon said that a few images stood out in her mind, the nudes and cityscapes. “Being a native New Yorker, when you live here and you wander around it’s great to see how somebody views the West Side Highway.” When asked if she was a regular at the Chelsea Galleries, she admitted she doesn’t know much about Art. “But,” said Sarandon, “I know what moves me.”
Other celebrities at the opening included actor John Slattery, actress Mary Louise Parker, and author Tom Folsom, who said, “the nude with the stitching on her back is ready made for surrealism. Like a Man Ray without the special effects.” Liesel Soderberg, a guest at the opening and a long-time fan of Mark’s work, made a keen observation. “When I think of Mark’s earlier work, I see the Rolling Stone covers and the stairwell series in my head. Listen is a quieter body of work. Instead of directing people, it seems like he approached it in an observant manner.”
In some ways Listen could be seen (or heard) as Mark’s solo debut, not as a photographer, but as an artist. “The way that I see the next ten years are not dissimilar as the way I saw the last ten years,” said Mark Seliger. “Just finding that voice, and letting that voice continue.” And perhaps for that reason, he asks us to Listen.
This Thursday, check out Mark’s book signing and slideshow presentation at Clic Gallery from 6 – 8pm, with the presentation scheduled to begin at 7pm.