Join us for a B&H livestream event: "The City That Finally Sleeps: An Interview with Mark Seliger in Partnership with Sony."
During Spring 2020, when most New Yorkers were holed up inside or had fled what was then a COVID hot spot, Mark Seliger wandered the deserted streets in search of photographic silver linings in the midst of a pandemic. The photos he gathered slowly crystallized into a vision of Gotham as never before witnessed—glistening from spring rains yet fossilized in amber like the back lot of some fabled movie set.
We recently spoke with Seliger about his process in making these pictures, and his philanthropic efforts to donate 100% of the proceeds from his resulting book to New York Cares, the city’s largest volunteer network. Sumptuously printed using a 5-color black and gray ink set with a spot gloss varnish, The City That Finally Sleeps is currently available for purchase through Seliger’s website and his Instagram feed. B&H, in partnership with Sony, celebrates the release of this book as proud sponsors of Seliger’s project.
Jill Waterman: When did you start making pictures of New York City during COVID?
Mark Seliger: It was right after New York locked down. There was this sort of hyper-real moment with me noticing the West Village in full bloom during the height of spring. And there was something very strange that I had never seen before—the West Village without anybody there. I started to really carve this out as a project based on the response we were getting on Instagram from people who had either relocated or had left the city, knowing that they were going to be under lockdown for a minute. So, that was the first indicator.
How quickly did the project ramp up after you started posting pictures to Instagram?
It was a very slow start, but I also had time on my hands. I did a lot of the pictures by myself at first, and then after a couple of weeks my assistant Davis was like, “Okay, I'm not really interested in staying home anymore, do you want me to join you?” And I was like, “Absolutely.”
These kinds of projects pretty much write themselves. The idea of these things coming to life, you sort of maneuver your way through them one step at a time. You really don't know what they're going to become.
You had just come back from Los Angeles after doing the Oscar party shoot. When did you get back from LA, and what was your mindset going into making the cityscapes?
I’d have to check the calendar, but I think it was right around March 1. And, we were prepping for jobs that basically got canceled right away. Everybody just shut down, and for me it was more the need to be able to document. I never think of these things as being books, necessarily, or an enormous body of work. And it really wasn't an enormous body of work. The pictures were made from March until when George Floyd was killed. That was the period of time, in essence, and it was very activated. I would go out and find areas in New York that I was familiar with, or places that I'd been to, but I'd never really seen them like that. It was almost like being on a back lot.
Did you initially scout locations and then go back and photograph them, or did you just have your camera and wander about and find a location and shoot it on that same day?
I was in my car and I'd go out, mostly during early mornings or late afternoons, if the weather was cooperating. Meaning that it was foggy and wet, which was really what I was looking for. I’d spend a couple of hours in the car, just tooling around finding pictures. But, there was no real direction I was going. It was all kind of like, “We'll see where this takes us.” And then Davis, my assistant, started flying a little mini drone that we used in addition to my still cameras. We were just learning it, so we didn't know what that would feel like, but it turned out to be a cool experience. There was definitely a learning curve to it.
You mentioned the wet and foggy rainy conditions. One of my memories from the early days of lockdown was it did rain a lot. Did that impede your plans at all?
No, it was perfect for me. That's the kind of weather I like to shoot landscapes/cityscapes in. Not always, but for this series it worked for the conditions to be that perfect spring-like weather.
Is driving around by car your preferred mode of transportation to wander and observe the city?
Yes, because you could drive anywhere. I drive an old truck, so I would literally just throw my camera stuff in the back seat and go. You could park on the middle of a bridge, and there was such an emptiness to the city. And there were also such powerful points where we’d see emergency vehicles, because so many people were getting sick. The police obviously had their hands full, so we could go more or less anywhere.
Did you do any kind of advance location research?
No, none. Every once in a while, I’d look up above ground subway stops, and tool around and figure out what I was doing beforehand, but typically there was not a lot of premeditated thought behind things. It was just like, “Let's go out to Coney Island, or let's go up to 125th Street and see if we find anything.”
You're very well known as a master of portrait photography, more so than landscape and cityscape work. Are there particular photographers within the landscape/cityscape genre who have inspired your vision?
That's an interesting question. Not really. Maybe Berenice Abbott a little bit or Walker Evans’s photographs of storefronts. But, these pictures are really an extension of an earlier book I did called Listen. The work I did for Listen was kind of the precursor to this work. Listen uses general photographic themes, classic, formal themes, like still life, landscapes, and nudes. Those moments of me going out and photographing primarily with a 4 x 5 camera was what gave me the confidence that there were some amazing photographs to be made, given the right kind of conditions.
For the most part, the cityscapes in Listen were taken very, very early in the morning, just to avoid people. While making that collection of work, anytime it snowed, I’d go to a specific spot, pre-dawn and set up and try to get something before people. On a couple of occasions I failed for that to work out. But, that work is really what inspired me to go out and do this work, not another photographer, for sure.
What cameras and lenses did you use for the still photographs?
They varied. I typically used a Sony a7R III mirrorless and a Phase One IQ, and the lenses ranged from pretty standard focal lengths to wide angles. I use a lot of fixed lenses and here and there a couple of zooms, but for the most part, they were all fixed lenses. Every once in a while, we’d use a telephoto. We shot one picture of Park Avenue completely empty and I think we used a 200mm for that.
Was there any rationale for which landscapes you shot with a certain camera, going between the Phase One and the Sony?
Not really. Instead of just depending on what the scene was, I think I just had them both in my bag, that's kind of what dictated. I'd probably tried to swap back and forth, but I just kept it very standard.
So, you'd sometimes shoot the same scene with both cameras?
Yes, definitely. Typically, I’ll bring a limited number of things with me, and I primarily stay with one or two formats. I try not to get too complicated. It doesn't work for my brain. I'm not really like a techie guy. I mean, I love equipment, it’s great, but it's not really my style. The gear is a tool. I like working with Sony for various projects, and I use my IQ for various projects. And then I'll use a film camera for various projects. If it’s a film-based thing, I'll use a Hasselblad, or Mamiya RZ, or Pentax, or a 4 x 5. I've had enough experience in terms of photography to weigh what's going to be helpful. Certainly in inclement weather, and when it's raining, Sony is a little bit more rugged.
Did your process stay the same throughout the pictures, or did it evolve or change over time?
I think once I started to build a momentum in terms of a decent number of images I liked, then every day was pretty interesting going out and finding imagery. And we pretty much used everything I shot. I don't think there was a lot of editing involved. I mean, it kind of presented itself, and when I found the image, I was done and I moved on. Sometimes, too, after I had a fair number of images, we’d go back to look and make sure that we didn't forget anything.
Were there any locations you went back to photograph a second time?
The drone footage that your assistant captured is included in a lot of your YouTube videos. How do you feel that worked with the stills?
It was great. I think having those two perspectives works nicely together. Obviously, I'm more attached to the still images, but I think it was a nice moment for Davis to be able to find a new a new technical project to play with.
Were there any locations where you had to get permissions to access?
Oh yeah, we needed permission for one of the big pictures in the book—the gatefold. The good people at the MetLife building were very sweet and gave us access to take pictures one afternoon on a pretty calm day. The weather gods were really looking after us because we were able to go up there on a Saturday when there was only a handful of people in the building.
That is such a beautiful picture. And I know there was a picture from inside the Javits Center. Was getting the access to places like that more difficult because of COVID or was it easier?
That tied into a photo essay I did once the pictures started to roll on our Instagram. Radhika Jones and Kira Pollak from Vanity Fair wanted me to continue photographing for another couple of weeks. We were able to make the contact with the Javits Center, and they let me come in one day and photograph. It was the overflow room, so there were no patients. We didn't want to document that anyway. It wasn't our story. Our story was more about environments, and places without people.
Would you say the project direction changed at all once Vanity Fair got on board?
No, I just brought in certain elements of non-people areas that were highly related to what was happening in the city. For instance, the tent units set up in Central Park, the triage centers, and then obviously the USS Comfort coming into the city and docking. That was amazing.
I was interested to see some behind-the-scenes footage of you photographing a New York Cares volunteer in Washington Square Park, tethered to a laptop. Were you shooting tethered throughout the project or was that specifically related to that portrait shoot?
Sometimes we would tether, sometimes we wouldn't. Sometimes I would just go out and use my camera. We liked the idea of tethering because we got a chance to see what we were doing while we were doing it. We could kind of play with exposure and things like that. But for the most part, it was a 50/50 balance.
Did any of the locations involve lighting?
Yes, we experimented with a portable strobe on a couple of occasions, with a nod to O. Winston Link. We photographed one of the subways, and then the building at Grand Central, there's an interesting statue there. And I think there was one building we lit up.
What kind of strobe did you use?
It was a Profoto light with a Magnum. It was pretty straightforward, nothing too complicated.
Was there a particular New York city neighborhood or landmark that you found to be most compelling?
I think I was inspired by all the neighborhoods and all the areas that we visited, across the board. I mean, Chinatown was just surreal, going up to and seeing Yankee Stadium was an incredible, quiet, pristine moment with nobody around. We played with a lot of foreground elements, like using the streets, using the street signs. Central Park was pretty sublime. At the time we shot there, there was nobody in the park. The park became a universal destination for a lot of people just because it was outside, and it was fairly safe. But for the most part, the city was really empty up until May.
That subway picture that you lit, was that the image of the aboveground train at Queensboro Plaza near the Silvercup sign?
Yes. We got lucky, we were able to secure a strobe on the other side, on a little piece of the platform. We secured it with a super clamp and did a couple of frames. But, I don't think the conductors liked having strobes popping into their faces very much, so, we hightailed it out of there pretty quick. There was a storm rolling in, and it was amazing to see it come through the city like that. We were just on the tail end of the storm.
Did you discover anything new or unexpected about the city while you were traveling through the nearly deserted streets?
There was a constant sense of discovery. I think that’s always what motivates me to go into that type of work. It's all about discovery and going out there and just doing it. I would feel bad if I didn't get up in the morning and go out to make pictures, or if I neglected that early-morning moment when I could go out and find a new image. It was a good pace, not a frantic pace. We weren't under assignment. We were just working self-assigned.
Were you going out to photograph more or less every day?
Yes. I would try to go out at least five times a week, for sure.
Since the pictures are presented in black-and-white, what kind of process and tools did you use to get the monochrome look and tonality?
There wasn’t any real deliberate process, we were pretty much just taking the color out. When we did the book, we had images that we earmarked as the direction we wanted, and then when we printed with Bob Tursack at Brilliant Graphics, we worked with his team to try to get the best separations possible.
So, were you just stripping the color in Photoshop?
We were working with Capture One.
You mentioned that after George Floyd's death, you shifted gears and began photographing the streets waking up. How long did you spend making those types of pictures?
We documented some of the city where people had boarded up areas, just because they didn't know how long things were going to go on for, but that was really an indicator to me that the project I was working on was over. So, we wrapped things up and then we, like everybody else in the world, took a pause. I think everybody felt pretty angry and upset, and it was a different kind of a moment. I felt very strongly about not interrupting people's grief, that was not my world. There were plenty of photographers covering that, it wasn't really my cup of tea. For me, it was more reflective. It wasn't a photographic thing. I wasn't out to photograph the rallies or the protests. That was more personal.
How do the photos of the streets waking up compare with the earlier pictures showing the city at rest?
Well, there are a couple of pictures that kind of help take us to an ending, which was the city really opening up. And, just from an intellectual place, that to me was the perfect time to take a pause from what was a very different time. It was basically a hundred days for us.
That's an interesting number. Especially, relating that to politics. Wow, that's powerful.
Your photographs from this series were recently published as a book titled The City That Finally Sleeps, with the proceeds being donated to New York Cares. How has the book been received so far?
We're almost halfway through the edition, and 100% of the proceeds are being donated to New York Cares. The plan is that we'll be able to raise over $100,000.00 to benefit this organization.
That’s great. What's the print run?
How did you first encounter New York Cares?
We got to know them when we first auctioned off prints with Christie's, that was our introduction to them. We liked the idea of a New York-based grassroots volunteer organization. They seem to have a lot of heart and kind of a direct action to the world, and to New Yorkers. They provide a lot of support for New Yorkers in need, people who are facing hunger challenges and food challenges, and everything from education, to medical and mental health needs.
Did the Christie's auction predate your photographs for the book?
We were working on the auction while we were shooting for the book.
When did you come up with the idea for the auction? Was it after the pandemic started?
Yes. The studio and I rallied with this wonderful organization called the Red Carpet Advocacy (RAD). So, my friends at RAD and the studio came together and thought, how can we do our part? I had already started shooting the New York cityscapes, but I didn't know what it was going to be. I didn't know whether it was going to be a book or a handful of pictures on Instagram. So, we were all trying to figure out what we could do to help with the stress that a lot of people were going through.
We teamed up with RAD, and they connected us with Christie’s and Christie’s rallied to get the auction in full swing during the month of May. And, we sold all 25 portraits, featuring everyone from President Obama to Brad Pitt. And each celebrity had his or her own charity, or multiple charities, that they wanted to support with the donation from the sale of their portrait.
Another aspect of your involvement with New York Cares is the quarterly photo editions, B-SIDES. Did that idea come out of the auction?
Absolutely. It’s a way for people to buy a print for a more affordable price. We consider them to be fine art, but with a different medium. They're not made in the darkroom. They're beautifully made inkjet prints, they're authenticated, and they're pictures that have never been seen before.
Where are the prints made and what kind of printer and paper are you using?
You’ve done two different B-SIDES editions to date, consisting of five photos each, and all the editions are now sold out. Do you have plans for the next edition?
We're still in the process of figuring all that out, but we'd like to keep it going. Like everybody else, we've recently been pretty swamped with our day jobs and getting back to work. It's been crazy since November. So, I'm just trying to keep up with the flow. But we'd like to continue this series. I think B-SIDES feels like a very nice way for people to have something for their wall. I always consider the print to be the great, golden egg of photography. I'm not that excited about looking at photography on the Internet or on a computer, but I get excited about a print.
What's it like to go back through your archives and identify these pictures that nobody's ever seen?
Scary! I mean, I've been a worker bee. This is really the first time I’ve paused in almost 30 years. So, for me to go back and actually take the time to look at these moments is pretty daunting. I didn't realize what a hustler I was.
Have you learned anything from revisiting these past pictures?
Well, it's always cathartic, right? You look back, you have memories of the moments that you work, the incredible people that you got to work with during the of golden age of magazines, and all the opportunities you had. Some were missed, some were lost, some were back in the archives. It's always about reconnecting with the memory.
And reliving history in your case, certainly.
In a video for B-SIDES, you refer to successful portraits as being all about the off moments and the in-between moments. Do you think there's a similar atmosphere of being off or in-between in your photos from The City That Finally Sleeps?
Well, it's a different experience, because when we're shooting for an assignment or we're doing a project, that’s a series of images about a subject. A lot of those pictures are the ones that are never used. They're put in magazines at the time, and then we move onto the next assignment. So, the idea of going back into the archives and finding the ones that perhaps were images a magazine decided not to use, even though they might've been your favorite moments. Or, the ones that you didn't necessarily think were great images at the time, but they turned out to be great, after the fact. It’s like a bottle of fine wine you put on the shelf for a couple of years, and you open it up, and you’re like, “Wow, that worked out, that aged well.” And a lot of them didn't. We looked at a lot of images and it was like, “Oh, what was I thinking?" Or actually, “Was I thinking?”
Do you feel that the atmosphere of post-pandemic New York is different from how the city used to be?
It's sort of what I expected would happen, in terms of how the city is now opening up. But I’m grateful for whatever the trigger was that motivated me to go out there and document that time that was. I also have to give a lot of credit to my assistant, Davis McCutcheon, because you can really fall into the trap of not going out, not taking any chances. We were kind of lone wolves out there, but it was like being a kid in a candy store—all these locations that were iconic with nobody in them. It was full-on inspiration, and just the greatest art project I could possibly imagine.Did you embark on a photo or art project during COVID? Please tell us about it in the Comments section, below.