In Search Of The Perfect Portrait – Exclusive Interview With Mark Seliger

Mark Seliger is one of the top portrait photographers in the world. His career spans thirty years and in this time he has photographed some of the biggest names in music, politics, business and entertainment. Interviewing him was fascinating. Who has inspired him? What would he say to his younger self if he could go back to when he was just starting out, and which photographer would he choose to take his portrait, if given the chance?

Mark Seliger doesn’t often provide interviews, and isn’t a big name in the education circuit, making the opportunity to speak to him absolutely fascinating. If you are wondering who he is, here is a quick run down…

He was Chief Photographer for Rolling Stone Magazine from 1992 to 2002, where he shot over 150 covers. He works for Conde Nast Publications, is regularly published and provides covers for some of the biggest names in the magazine and editorial world. He has photographed subjects that span the spectrum of global leaders, influencers, celebrities and artists alike. He’s directed music videos, published several books, shot for some of the largest global commercial brands in the world, and is the host of the award winning “Capture” photography interview show on the Ovation Network.

A busy guy indeed, and somewhere amongst all this even managed to squeeze in time to shoot this fellow…

Like so many other accomplished photographers before him, Mark is much more than just a portrait photographer. Although he is probably most known for his portraiture, his work continues to cross genres including landscapes, still life, fashion, documentary and nudes (his book “Listen” covers much of this ground).

Next month, Mark he will be making a very rare appearance at the Stand Out Photographic Forum in LA on October 15th where he will be talking about his career and approach. (For a limited time, use the code FSTOPPERS to gain free entry to the Forum talks)

Ahead of this event, I had the unique opportunity to tackle a few questions with Mark. The focus of this interview was to cover as much of what makes Mark the photographer he is today, to enable an understanding of the ingredients that have made up his success story, and provide us something small to take away from his experiences to apply to our own careers.

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Fstoppers: Can you describe the essence of what portrait photography is to you?

Mark: Its 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. 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.

Fstoppers: How do you get your subjects to trust you and to relax?

Mark: Trust comes from being able to instruct them in what you want them to do. 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.

Fstoppers: How do you find “the moment” when the photo is as you see it in your head, and how do you keep pushing towards it when you haven’t quite got there yet?

Mark: There is this interesting intersection where everything is aligned – the emotion in the photography and the beauty of body language.  It’s important to try not to push things where it becomes tedious. For [the cover shot of] “Listen”, part of the journey was that these images were not laborious, or time consuming, they came from a place of letting the photo come to me and just finding it in that way.

Fstoppers: If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were just starting out, what would you advise yourself to do differently?

Mark: That world has changed so much – probably my advice would be to have a sense of tactile experience with photography, don’t be afraid of the process and what makes it interesting. Don’t be afraid of the evolution of the technology. Photograph what you are interested in. Find your own way of saying what you want to say. Push yourself to find that voice and allow that freedom to come about without expectation of what other people are doing. To me, that’s a really healthy way of having your own personal style and being able to communicate what you want to say in your images.
When you [make] a photo that is memorable, it also becomes apparent to you as a photographer that you have done something original. You have to really practice being original and not being influenced by the millions of images we see.

Fstoppers: Which photographer(s) do you feel has provided the biggest source of your own inspiration, and if you could have one photographer take a portrait of you, who would that be?

Mark: I had a great teacher by the name of James Newberry, who helped cement the history of photography early on for me, so my influences are grown from a variety of different areas. I was really inspired from my humble beginnings by a mix of people; Arnold Newman, Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston and Paul Caponigro.

I actually went into magazine photography as a way to allow me find the balance between having a voice, and being a conceptual photographer, to come up with my own ideas, and this was really my introduction to being a working photographer. Some of my heroes have not necessarily gone down a commercial path, a lot simply took photos for themselves. I really try to balance two things – working in an applied way and working in a way so that the photos are mine.

If I had the opportunity to have my own portrait done by anyone, it would be Robert Frank.

Fstoppers: What are your thoughts on personal projects, and the importance of them?

Mark: I’m always working on personal work, be it a book or series of photographs. Being a photographer, and I know many of my friends who are like this feel the same, it’s kind of like an obsessive lifestyle, you really have to accept the fact that it’s not just a job. It’s hard to get away from it. Most people I know in this world are like this.

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