A Photographer Who Likes Inspiration as a Roommate

Posted June 21, 2018 5:32 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — That a photographer collects work in his own medium is perhaps not surprising.

But Mark Seliger’s West Village compound — a building of some 12,000 square feet that comprises a studio, offices and his home — has an unexpectedly deep array of 20th- and 21st-century images by the likes of Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, Edward Steichen, Paul Caponigro, William Wegman and Diane Arbus.

“I never really feel as if I actively go out and collect,” said Seliger, 59, who had just that moment finished a photo shoot of Drew Barrymore. “I buy photography that I will never think about selling. I like living with the inspiration.”

If you have opened a magazine since 1990, you have seen Seliger’s work. He is a Texas native who moved to New York City and became his own brand in short order, shooting stylish and tightly composed portraits and fashion images for Rolling Stone and then for a host of Condé Nast titles. But he has always pursued personal photography, too, some examples of which are featured in the book he just published, “Mark Seliger Photographs.” An exhibition of his work at Chase Contemporary in Manhattan ended recently.

Seliger loves other photographers, and that admiration drives the collection of some 50 images he lives with in the apartment portion of his building. “I’m OK to be a fan,” he said, recalling how he recently photographed the distinguished William Eggleston. “I’m not one of these guys who holds back.”

Recently he talked about how he got started. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What’s the first thing you bought here?

A: In college I had a professor who taught us about the history of photography. And one of the first photographers I connected with was Arnold Newman. This portrait he did of Igor Stravinsky — a little bell went off for me. I didn’t really understand studio photography that much, but I loved the idea of a slightly environmental, conceptual work. He got Stravinsky to emulate the pose of a piano, basically.

Q: How did you buy it later on?

A: It was in the early 1990s, from Howard Greenberg Gallery. I put a down payment of $200 on that and had to wait a year to finish paying it off. I think the total price was $1,100.

Q: This image with the spiky frame is dramatic.

A: That’s an outtake from Edward Steichen’s series of Martha Graham. It’s very rare; you just don’t find those. That’s also from Howard. Next to it is an image taken in New Guinea by Irving Penn from his book “Worlds in a Small Room” [1974]. He traveled with a portable studio in a tent.

Q: How did that Penn acquisition come about?

A: I had a show in LA at Fahey/Klein about 15 years ago, and we had a couple sales immediately. So, I took that money and I invested it in that photo. Actually, after the Newman, I think the second image I ever bought was this photograph of a chimney sweep by Penn, from his “Small Trades” series.

Q: What’s so appealing about Penn?

A: He had this incredible way of simplifying the portrait, but making everybody look regal and giving them such honor and respect.

Q: I see a lot of guitars, too.

A: Well, I’m from Texas. I play in a country band called Rusty Truck. We’ve been together about 20 years now, and we have a residency at Hill Country Barbecue [in Manhattan]. It takes a lot of the burn out of the daily grind to sit down and play — it’s old-school entertainment.