Mark Seliger’s rock ‘n’ roll fantasies
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Not just any photographer can coax rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs to sit in a gilded throne, cloaked in king’s garb, in the middle of Times Square, to personify the social class musings from Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 book “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” Or to get Johnny Cash to pose with his back facing the camera. Or to shoot Mick Fleetwood in a wedding dress alongside John McVie, the members of Nirvana in Brooks Brothers suits, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers au naturel.
But Mark Seliger was able to pull it off, and the results are on display in “The Music Book,” his compilation of more than 100 photographs of the legendary musicians he has photographed over the past 20 years.
Seliger — who was responsible for 140 covers of Rolling Stone while working as its chief photographer from 1992-2002 and shoots exclusively for Vanity Fair, GQ and Italian Vogue — takes pride in the amount of research he does for each photo. But he says he also understands the spirited nature of his subjects. Working with musicians, he’s learned to be less conceptual and more flexible, letting the shot evolve from a more improvisational and organic origin. After all, trying to capture the essence of a multi-member band or seasoned performer in a single photo can be a tough task.
For example, Seliger was able to befriend a reluctant Kurt Cobain in his first assignment with the band during the height of its “Nevermind” tour in Melbourne, Australia. He requested that Cobain wear a plain T-shirt instead of his usual logo shirt.
“He shows up to the shoot in a vintage store sweater and a T-shirt that reads, ‘Corporate Magazines Still Suck,’ ” Seliger says. “I felt like I screwed up, but the editors loved it and used it for the cover.” He shot several more sessions with the band, and it was his single close-up of Cobain that appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover just a few months later in its memorial issue after the frontman’s death. “Working with Nirvana — they were like my Beatles,” said Seliger. “They changed the way people look at music.”
The Texas native also has a strong connection to country music and has worked with such singers as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. He always thought Cash would be great to shoot, in that he was “like a superhero, dressed all in black.” So when he finally got the chance in Las Vegas in the ’90s, he used a simple background in a hotel room, had Cash stand with his back to the camera, guitar draped across his shoulders, and created a neutral, monotone photo in which the background and Johnny were one. His face couldn’t be seen, but from the silhouette there was no doubt it was the Man in Black.
“The Music Book” is Seliger’s fifth photo book and includes musicians as varied as Bono, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Bruce Springsteen, Ozzy Osbourne and John Lee Hooker. Of the selection process for it, he says: “The real priority was the photographs and not necessarily the artist. It had less to do with the subject but, rather, a connection to the music and what I felt was an interesting picture.”