Turning the Camera on Mark Seliger

Not just anyone can convince Jerry Seinfeld to don an Elvis outfit, or Mick Fleetwood a bridal gown. Getting celebrities to do outrageous things is just a part of the job for chief Rolling Stone photographer Mark Seliger, who will be returning to Houston for a benefit exhibition. "A good portrait is about telling a story, conveying … an emotion from your subject in the context of who they are, how you perceive them," Seliger says.

These kinds of conceptual photographs require a little research. Seliger reads, studies the work of his subject, and if it is a musician, listens to her songs and watches her videos. He takes careful note of how the person might move, what she does and how she does it. From there, Seliger scribbles everything he knows about the person, and narrows his ideas down. "If you're lucky, you have a chance to talk with the person beforehand. You collaborate if at all a possibility," he says, noting that sometimes people just like to walk in and have a picture taken. "Every time it's something different."

In his portrait of Perry Farrell, the former Jane's Addiction singer holds an umbrella and is masked in a sort of mime whiteface, inspired by a vaudevillian comic Seliger had seen in an old photograph from the 1900s. "I saw Perry Farrell as being this really interesting theatrical character, and I really wanted to make him over into sort of a haunting character," Seliger has said previously. "I didn't think you could really be able to see him. I thought he kind of disguised himself."

Seliger's portraits not only capture the personality of the subject, but also reveal something about the photographer. "I think that my sense of humor … my level of taste -- or tastelessness -- is pretty apparent in a photograph," he says with a laugh. "It's not always about you, and it's not always about them. It's definitely a combination of the two. A collaborative process."

Not that Seliger has to come up with some kooky idea for everyone he shoots. Sometimes he likes to turn to the simplicity of a straight portrait. "I'm interested in doing whatever it takes to make a project interesting or unique to the person we're shooting," he says. Seliger has even tackled rather serious subject matter, specifically the book When They Came to Take My Father, a collection of stories and photographs depicting 47 holocaust survivors.

Seliger was born in Amarillo, a place where Jews like himself were not necessarily in abundance. "The ones who didn't make it into Israel mainly migrated to Amarillo," Seliger says dryly. When he was five years old, his family moved to Houston, where he attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. After graduating from East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Texarkana), he worked for a couple of years as an assistant for a Houston photographer who, as Seliger puts it, snapped "a mixture of everything from lifestyle pictures for leasing brochures to annual report corporate portraits of CEOs," all of which Seliger found "kind of scary." A desire to do more interesting and eccentric work led him to New York.

"I've been away from Texas for 15 years, and sometimes it feels like … I've become more of a New Yorker, even though no one from Texas will let you believe that."

Perhaps that's because New Yorkers think art is a crucifix in a jar of piss. For Seliger, it has more to do with character and personality, even if it includes men in drag.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dylan Otto Krider