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Celebrity Photographer Mark Seliger on the Stories behind 8 of His Iconic Portraits by Molly Gottschalk (Arsty)

In 1987, on one of his first assignments for Rolling Stone, photographer Mark Seliger arrived at the Queens home of LL Cool J to find a startled grandmother waving a broom, while the rapper himself was still asleep inside. This is but one of the countless anecdotes Seliger would amass over the next three decades, during which time editorial assignments and personal projects led him to photograph everyone from President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama to New York’s transgender community and the last remaining Holocaust survivors. His images document actors and musicians as they defined popular culture, as well as human rights activists and political and spiritual leaders who have shaped history.

A new book, Mark Seliger Photographs (released on May 1st through Abrams Books), brings together the photographer’s most iconic works of the last 30 years, a selection of which is on view at Chase Contemporary Galleries in New York through July 4th. We recently spoke to Seliger about the stories behind some of his most significant and moving images from this collection. Below, we share his recollections of eight of these photographs.

LL Cool J, Queens, New York, 1987

“That was probably my first music picture that I ever took for Rolling Stone. I remember going to photograph him in Hollis, Queens, and when I went out there to photograph him, his grandmother answered the door and she had no idea what we were doing and why we were on her doorstep. She came out armed with a broom ready to take us down. But we convinced her that we were there on assignment and she acquiesced, letting us work with her grandson. Much to our surprise, he was still in bed asleep. It was completely raw and unexpected.”

Kurt Cobain, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1993

“This image of Kurt Cobain is from a session that was taken two months before he passed. It was for an article in Rolling Stone about the making of In Utero. This particular image feels more or less like a portrait but in a still life situation, with these antiquated doll heads on a shelf behind this cascading wall of red roses. I was doing a cover and multiple images and it was just an idea I had—a stream of consciousness for the most part.

“It was the second time I’d photographed Nirvana. The first time we photographed them had been for the record Never Mind. We were in Australia and they were very reluctant. One of my suggestions was for them not to wear T-shirts with writing on them—they had a tendency to support bands from the Seattle scene—because it could conflict with the writing on the actual magazine. So Kurt showed up with a T-shirt that said ‘Corporate Magazines Still Suck.’

“We didn’t change that, we just ran it on the cover, and I think that he appreciated that we didn’t edit him at all. So when I photographed him the second time, he was actually very easygoing and had a lot of fun with it and seemed to be in great spirits. Two months later he was gone.” 

Jerry Seinfeld, Los Angeles, California, 1998

“I have worked with Jerry probably since the beginning of Seinfeld. This image is part of a series of photographs we did for the farewell of Seinfeld. Jerry had this great idea for the characters on Seinfeld to each play a character from the Wizard of Oz, which makes a lot of sense if you look at the characters and their personalities.

“On this day, which was an amazing day of shooting, Jerry came in with laryngitis. He couldn’t really say very much. The great costume designer Colleen Atwood was helping us with the wardrobe and we put this spout on Jerry’s [Tin Man] head, so that, while he was sitting amongst the forest, a little burst of smoke would come out. We had my set builder rig the funnel to be able to mechanically shoot smoke, because I like to do everything in-camera, but we were having technical difficulties. He was just sitting there while we were futzing around with it, and I knew he wasn’t feeling 100 percent, but he was a great sport about it. Finally, as we were just getting it rigged up, he wiggled his little finger at me and asked me to come over. I got really close and put my ear next to him and he said, in his little raspy whisper, ‘Do you really think it was this difficult 50 years ago?’”

Bill Irwin, New York, New York, 2002

“This image is from my book In My Stairwell, which is set in an elevator shaft in my studio that we uncovered when we were dismantling the original elevator, which had been used as part of a horse stable. It exposed this beautiful, top-lit area, almost like an old artist atelier.

“One of my favorite images of all time that I took—not necessarily for the image but because I loved his performance—is a photograph of Bill Irwin. I invited him to come and do this portrait, and while I was working with him, after we had photographed for about an hour and a half and done pretty interesting studies of him, he said he could do this one little trick with this ladder in the stairwell. You know Bill Irwin is this incredible, old-world vaudevillian who has this sort of rubber physicality to him. He made this absolutely perfect ‘L’ shape which is basically impossible for any other human to do and that was this incredible moment. I think that’s one of the more powerful photographs in the stairwell series that I’m personally connected to.”

Cindy Sherman, New York, New York, 2009

“I had the opportunity to photograph Cindy Sherman for the men’s fashion magazine L’Uomo Vogue, in celebration of the Venice Biennale. Cindy very generously invited us to shoot in her studio, where she has an incredible archive of prosthetics and makeup and props for her work. In this particular shot, she’s wearing a beautiful blue suit open in front, and she and I picked out a prosthetic breastplate for her to wear. What was amazing was that she had an entire archive of different body parts. So we picked those out, as well. It was obviously an honor to be able to work with somebody who typically only shoots her own pictures. She was completely open to whatever I wanted to do and just really respected the process of somebody else working.”

President Barack Obama, Washington, D.C., 2010

“Obama was a really unique experience. We were doing a few photographs, we had six minutes, and in the back of my mind, the image I wanted to take away—if I have one session with somebody, I always think about what’s the great image for me—was a portrait from the front, side, and then, a photograph of his back.

“The first image that we did was a photograph for the cover of Rolling Stone, of him walking through the rose garden. Within the rose garden we had also set up a white seamless, and after we had finished that shot, I asked the president if he wouldn’t mind doing a diptych. I had made a little sketch of the idea for the photograph which was the front and the back—I figured if I got the side then that was just going to be gravy. And he said in his very Obama voice: ‘Okay, I can do that.’

“Remember, there is a group of people from the White House and a group of people from the magazine that are all observing as I’m doing this, within the six minutes. I know that typically presidents don’t have a lot of time to spend being photographed, so I knew that we had to work pretty quickly. I figured I’d go in and I’d do the back image of him. And I started to give him a little direction. We have this beautiful silhouette of him from the back, with his hands in his pockets and I’m telling him to possibly fan his elbows out a little so we get a little bit better separation, lower his chin, center his body. And after I’d photographed him for maybe 30 to 40 seconds doing the back shot he said, ‘Hey, is this going to make my ears look big?’ And I said, ‘No, Mr. President, absolutely not.’ He stopped for a second as I clipped off the last frame and he goes, ‘Okay Mark, that’s enough art. And he walked off.’”

Dalai Lama, Washington D.C., 2011

“The Dalai Lama was an amazing session. He was speaking and holding a prayer session at a convention center in Washington, and I’d gotten the assignment to photograph him. We were given certain requirements of what to do and what not to do, and we only had 10 minutes: He would come into the session with a group of monks that travel with him and take care of him, and I was told we couldn’t use flash, we had to use available light or continuous light; I was not to ask him to take his watch or glasses off; he did not particularly want to have a posed portrait; and I was not to shake his hand.

“The day before, we had been in New York setting up a pretty focused situation for him to pose in. I knew that I wanted to shoot 4x5 in continuous light, so it was going to be a fairly posed picture. I knew that would be the moment.

“I came in and the first thing he did was he reached out to shake my hand, so already I was like, ‘Oh, okay, the guy does shake hands—His Holiness does shake hands.’ I started to do one particular situation and then the next, which was the portrait we used for the issue, and also the show and the book. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind removing his glasses and his watch, which he did, and he sat for the somewhat posed portrait. The end of the story is I had a bunch of very upset monks with me, but we got a beautiful photograph of the Dalai Lama.

“When I look back at the picture, my idea of removing his glasses and his watch was so that we could really show the beauty and the depth of his eyes, which are almost like black marbles. He is the Dalai Lama so there’s a very euphoric and peaceful sense about him. He was wearing this 13th-century Malas, passed on to him, and I just loved seeing his eyes and the blackness of the beads and how there was a real quality of depth and spirituality to it, and less about modern jewelry and glasses.”

Mahayla Mcelroy, New York, New York, 2015

“I live on Charles Street, and on occasion, I would pass by Christopher Street and see that the theater of that street was being taken over by all the new business coming into the West Village. The far West Village had, for a long time, been a bit of a Wild West, with a lot of nightlife and people running around, and people from outside of New York City that would come and hang out on the piers. I saw it sort of evaporating. I decided I would try to document some of the interesting storytelling on that street, so I would go up to people and ask if I could take their portrait. The first series of portraits touched upon the idea that this was actually more of a story about the transgender community. That led to photographing probably 100 portraits.

“One image, which is interesting in terms of the story, is of a woman I photographed while walking; I would walk the streets from dusk through nighttime from the piers through Christopher Street. We saw this commotion near the piers where a pretty big crowd had assembled. They were all looking over the side of the piers, and the police department and fire department were there, as well as a helicopter. We found out that there was a police crew of scuba divers who were actually pulling somebody out of the water who had jumped off the pier. We pretty much had finished our session that night after we saw this.

“The next day, we went back out, and I met this woman who I photographed. She had been spending time over at the pier and she had this very kind of melancholy world about her. A year later The New Yorker ran a piece ran about the book [On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories] coming out, and I needed to find the subjects within the images that they wanted to publish, so that they could get extra quotes and fact-check. We finally found our subject through Facebook, and when she was looking at the photograph I had taken, she told me how that had been such a hard day; she said her boyfriend had committed suicide the night before by jumping off the pier. It wasn’t until a year later that I found out what the story was.”