INTERVIEW AND STORY BY MICHAEL WILLIAMS
Photographer Mark Seliger has called the West Village his home for almost twenty years. The intriguing counter-culture world of Christopher Street, and the street from where the L.G.B.T movement began, was on Mark’s radar but only in a peripheral way. Mark, sensitive to the gentrification of the neighborhood, decided to try and capture some of the women and men of this legendary street before the street lost the uniqueness of its legacy. The resulting project is now a book titled On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories and appears in gallery form in both New York City and Los Angeles. (See below for more details) Imagista’s founder Michael Williams talks to Mark about this project.
Imagista: You are one of the few renowned photographers who have done a major show on transgender men and women. How did this story first come in fruition?
Mark Seliger: How it really came about was, in some ways, a little bit of a round about process. I had lived in the neighborhood for twenty years, didn’t really spend a lot of time walking up and down, or studying Christopher Street, I just kind of loved the circus of it every once in a while. I was starting to pay attention to the idea a lot of the working girls, and to a lot of the people, and the activity in the neighborhood, was slowing down. Just out of a curiosity, I decided that I’d try photographing some of the people that spend time there. I also thought it could be interesting to photograph some of the working girls and do just a few portraits. As I started to learn a little bit more about the culture, transgender in particular, I became interested in filling in the gaps and visually documenting what I was learning. That idea turned into about thirty portraits of mostly male-to-female transgender people. One afternoon we were invited by two of the subjects I was photographing, to join them at a trans-panel. At the panel, my producer Frankie Mark and I, were introduced to the female-to-male transgender people. That was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Up until then, I’d been mostly aware of the male-to-female transgender. Meeting the female-to-males that sort of filled the gap and helped to round out the project both photographically as well as in terms of transgender awareness.
After that, over the next couple of months, my intention was to get the project into book form. We curated maybe a quarter or less of the book in terms of just finding more people that we met, so everything really sparked from Christopher Street. It was also important for us to try and get it the book and gallery out there while the project still felt topical and important. In part the polarizing 2016 presidential election, as well as the way human rights have become such a hot topic, made pushing the project forward a bigger concern for us.
Imagista: Were these human rights issues playing in your mind during the shoots and when the project first began?
Mark: Not at all; It was more of a photographic journey for me. Not even a journey, it was more or less a way of capturing what we were seeing and learning. Every night that we would go and do it, I just started to build a collection of these photographs. It really did not present itself to me what it was going to be until after our first year and into our second year somebody at the office was looking at it and really pointed out to be that it was a transgender story. It was not until I got to the female-to-male transgender people that the story really came together for me. You really have to go in there with this attitude that everything you are looking at is the opposite in terms of who they were and where they went and then you get it.
Imagista: There is a simplicity and elegance of the photography in terms of composition, a certain timelessness in your approach. Was that something that was very intentional? How did you decide to approach the technical aspect of it?
Mark: We shot on film. The first night really determined what we were going to be doing. I packed a couple different cameras. After one or two portraits, I focused on an analogue square format, one camera, one lens and then we tried to use more of the street lighting and the available light given to us from the City. Then we had a small panel light, which was an LED light, which was nothing more than a foot square so that we can dial in and out a little bit just to add some light. For the most part, we used anything that presented itself on the street. I wanted to stick with the idea of using one kind of film, one kind of camera, one lens. At first we were taking Polaroid’s on everybody but after about ten portraits we gave up on taking Polaroid’s because we knew what the exposure was going to be. Once we got everything kind of organized in terms of what we were doing, then we started playing with printing.
It is all about determining process, I did not ever see it being street photography from the aspect of being like this Robert Frank moment, I always thought of it as being portraits and presenting them in a way where you really get to know the person you are looking at and how they feel about themselves. For a lot of these people, it was the first time they were really being seen in the body that they feel like they should be in rather than the body they were given. So that was a very interesting experience for me, to take a short period of time and get to know my subjects and revealing them and who they identify with.
Imagista: You mentioned Robert Frank, but at any point in time were you thinking of Diane Arbus during these sessions?
Mark: Not really, if anything I listened to my friend Fred Woodworth, years ago he was telling me that I should go into Crown Heights because he thought that was a kind of interesting neighborhood experience for me because it was as he described “like being in your backyard” but truly my backyard was Christopher Street. The other thing that I recall was Matthew Barney when developing an idea for a body of work, he always starts from a place. I kind of used that as a reference point to be able to kind of identify where I was going. It was more of a map for me rather than it was walking around without any direction.
Finally, my first medium format camera was a Hasselblad, those are really years of working with a Hasselblad and certainly I love Diane Arbus and her work, but I would never want to try to put myself in that arena, that is a very special arena. The world of Diane Arbus is obviously iconic and separate from a world that most photographers will ever get to know, I am just happy to have felt inspired to go out and start it. Obviously I feel some of the images holds of better than others and in terms of the ones that I feel are successful are few and far between, but I feel as if the message and the understanding that comes away with this and the entire body of work tells a story.
Imagista: So you are taking the show to Los Angeles next?
Mark: Yeah, we are going to be going to a really interesting gallery in Los Angeles called The Von Lintel Gallery and it is an extremely well respected gallery. The owner of the gallery, Tara, transitioned about a year or two ago and it was really mind blowing that we found each other through a mutual friend. She has a personal investment in telling this story, so it will be different from the New York show.
Imagista: When does the L.A. show start?
Mark: January 14th and it is up for six weeks, it is going to be really wonderful. I am excited to see the conversations that it inspires because it is such a “New York” show.
Buy the book “On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories” by Mark Seliger. Available on Amazon.
231 Projects in New York City through January 7th, 2017