Mark Seliger: He Always Gets His Picture

Mark Seliger: He Always Gets His Picture

A few weeks back at the Lucie Awards at Alice Tully Hall, the Lucie Foundation celebrated photographer Mark Seliger with their award for Achievement in Portraiture. Presenting the award to Seliger was his longtime collaborator and friend, Fred Woodward. We're honored to share Fred's presentation here:
I should probably start by apologizing for all the great photographs I didn't have the good sense to run, and for all the ones I should have fought harder for....and then there are all the ones I wrecked with type....

I met Mark for the first time in 1987, shortly after I had moved to New York to be the art director at Rolling Stone. Mark had just shot his first cover--it was for Paul Simon's Graceland album and it consisted of Mr. Simon surrounded by all 10 members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The cover was bigger then.

I said after those first few assignments--still say in fact--that Mark always brings it back alive. Whatever the circumstances, he always got his picture.

I remember Mark proudly announcing to Jann Wenner that he had just shot his 25th cover, to which Jann replied dryly, "That's great, Mark. Now get back to work."

Well, he did, and has now shot over 225 covers (and counting) for magazines as diverse as GQ, Vanity Fair, Interview and L'Uomo Vogue.


• Mark's a portrait photographer. It's not like he's working in a war zone every day, but that doesn't mean it's not sometimes a hostile environment--especially after he tells them his idea.

• He tells a great bad joke, and with more relish than anyone since Henny Youngman

• Mark is always at least 20 minutes late. I call this "Eastern Daylight Seliger-Time."

• Drew Barrymore is his once and forever muse.

• Unless it's Brad Pitt.

• He attended Houston's High School for Performing & Visual Arts.

• He wanted to be an art major but his portfolio was rejected. Photography didn't require a portfolio. He became a photography major.

• He claims to have been too shy in the beginning to shoot people.

• Until the day he shot some photos of Michelle Matalon, a dance major.

• I've seen the pictures, and they're not that good. But it wasn't Michelle's fault.

• I've also seen pictures of Mark from this period. His hair hangs straight and nearly to his waist. With bangs. He looks like Nico from the Velvet Underground, just not quite as masculine.

• In college, he was introduced to Weston and Cartier-Bresson, but when Mark first saw Arnold Newman's portrait of Stravinsky...well, that was his 'eureka moment'.

• He drove a 1974 chartreuse Volkswagen Rabbit around campus, and says today that it was no 'babe magnet.' To which I say, "A good craftsman doesn't blame his tools."

• These days, in his wallet you'll find an American Airlines 'Five Millionaire' frequent flyer card.

• Last year Mark spent 394 hours in the air, and that doesn't include time spent sitting on the tarmac, changing planes, or all those buttock massages in the Admiral's Lounge.  

• He was born in the Texas Panhandle fifty years ago, the third child to Maurice and Carol Lee.

• Mark and I are fond of saying that we're 'brothers from different mothers'.

• If that's the case, Mark's long-time producer, Ruth Levy, is his 'sister from another mister.'

• Maurice and Carol Lee kept all of Mark's magazines in the trunk of their car and would happily pop it and make a little time to brag to the neighbors about their boy.

• Some of my favorite pictures of Mark's are portraits of his dad. He may well have been his best subject.

• In the beginning Mark took 'funny' pictures, and that got him noticed, got him in the door, but I think he was always wary of that label.

• He began shooting very formal 4" X 5" black and white portraits--practically daguerreotypes--usually in addition to his 'master' shot.

• For instance, he shot Nirvana as a color 'band' picture--one for the cover and one inside. He also shot the members individually, but because the story was happy and the portraits weren't, we didn't publish them.

• That is, until only four months later, when the Kurt Cobain portrait graced the cover--with only his birth and death dates.

• We used to direct music videos together. Our best was probably for Courtney Love's band, Hole.

• Throughout the shoot, for two days and two nights--and even though Mark had already shot her a few times--she called him 'Selinger'.

• As in (serious volume) SELLLLLINGERRRR!!!!

• As in (louder) ASSSSSHTRAAAAAY!!!!!

• Anyway, sometime during the second day of the 2-day shoot, Mark starts getting sick. We think it's just a cold but it quickly shows itself to be something far worse. The boy was SICK--fever so high I know he's never been quite the same since. He never left the set though, never lost his humor, never felt sorry for himself--and believe me, at 3:30 in the morning, EVERYONE was feeling pretty goddamn sorry for themselves.

• I always thought that experience showed his true character.   

• Tonight Mark joins the ranks of the great ones, the photographers who have turned magazine portrait assignments into their art--photographers so renowned that we recognize them by one name. Steiglitz, Steichen, Horst, Penn, Avedon, Arbus, Newman, Newton, Snowden, Bailey, Weber, Leibovitz,.....Seliger.

• Sounds pretty good....but tonight is not only a coronation. It's the sweetest act of encouragement--to stay curious, to stay stay humble.

• To someday make us all look back on this night and say, "Good God! He was only just getting started."

Let's take a look at some of the work.

I had no idea the guy was so good....Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with great pleasure, Mr. Mark Seliger. -- Fred Woodward


IMAGES COURTESY OF: Rolling Stone Covers Archive for Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Kurt Cobain; PBase Galleries for Arnold Newman's Igor Stravinsky photo. Mark Seliger's photo of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie is from his own, The Music Book

  • Anjan Das

    This is really a fantastic post. Mr Seliger will always be an inspiration for people out there. Thank you so very much Mr Woodward for a great write-up. More power to your hands.

  • NicoMack

    Mr Seliger is one of MY heroes.

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