December 14, 2010
Perspective from a Legend
Tod Seelie’s photographs make me ask myself the same question over and over again—“where is that?!” That’s a sensible thing to wonder at when looking at his landscapes, in terms of geography, but I also find myself wanting to know where the almost mythological urban scenes he captures could be allowed to exist in our increasingly rigid, antibacterial world. Abandoned factories, squats, hovels, crowded, sweaty basement rock shows, impossibly dangerous bike parties, floating art installations: Tod shares instances of defiant modern transcendence with the world.
Press Tod for details about how he happens to so consistently be in the right place at the right time and he’ll insist that he just lives his life and happens to always have a camera in hand. If that is the case, two things are clear: 1) the man lives an incredibly interesting, exciting existence and 2) his friends are really, really creative and industrious people. He has exhibited work in New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Paris, San Francisco, Houston, Cleveland and Miami and has published photos in Rolling Stone, The NY Times, New York Magazine, Spin, and Vice among other publications.
I met up with Tod near his apartment in Brooklyn for a quick interview and ended up soaking in his perspective for the better part of three hours. What follows are the choice bits of what I learned from him that day, although truth be told, publishing the entire transcript would be a service to every artistic, self-reliant kid coming up today.
The quiet and the crazy: I have two bodies of work, and they really aren’t related to each other. Whether it’s the quiet, travel, landscape work or it’s the crazy, chaotic slice of everyday life, or—and I guess they are kind of like subcultures that I shoot—the portraits that I shoot.
It’s weird, because a lot of people who see my work and don’t know me think that I’m a photo journalist and that I’m on some project, but these are just my friends. I’m hanging out and they happen to be doing this crazy stuff. At the same time, they’re not subjects that I choose or projects that I finish and I make a little book and move on to something else. These are really just the things that I’m doing regularly regardless of the camera.
Heroes and friends: The nature of photography can tend to be exploitative if you’re not careful. At the same time it can be very celebratory. I might meet someone while traveling on the Mississippi, hang out with him for a day, take his portrait and that’s it. You know, I don’t have his home phone number, I don’t go hang out with him a year later. But I try to take a portrait—I started calling them my hero portraits—that are very central; the person is looking at the camera, really just having their full character there. And I feel like, by celebrating them, by presenting them as positively as I can, and all the positive aspects I see, I’m not exploiting them. I think with photography in general you are promoting what you shoot, so I try to shoot positive images of people that I’m impressed by and I think are good people.
Different modes, different methods: I use two different cameras for the two bodies of work. The heroic portraits are square just like the landscapes are square, so that’s the “quiet.” With the portraits, there’s this contemplative moment where you’re connecting with the subject… at least hopefully. That’s also why I choose the different equipment. Shooting with a different lens you have a totally different experience. There is something that causes you to pause with the big camera—the way it operates–which is why I still shoot with it. I figured out a way to approximate that look with my digital, but I do it and it’s not the same.
Telling the tale: I think any photographer, whether they’re working on a project or their general body of work or anything, they’re creating a narrative. If you go back and look at a lot of famous photographers’ whole bodies of work, it’s a narrative. I think a lot of projects that I’m involved in are ephemeral. If you’re not there, while we’re there, it doesn’t exist. And the only thing that survives a year later, five years later, are the photographs and they become the tale.
The web as a tool: My websites are a response to my work: I don’t shoot for the websites, the websites respond to the way I shoot, which is why they’ve grown. I used to have one and as the work diverged and it didn’t fit together I found it necessary to break them up. TodSeelie.com is everything I do that’s pretty good. You’ve got to have that. But then I have OfQuiet.com, which is just the landscape work: medium format, very quiet, night stuff, travel stuff. Not crazy. After a while when I started shooting my life in New York instead of just traveling and shooting landscapes and portraits while I was gone, I was like, ‘this does not go together.’ And that’s where EveryDayILive.com came together. And so these websites existed before SuckaPants.com. SuckaPants was a response to ‘I have a boring desk job but I go out every night to shoot stuff, but I don’t do anything with it, it just sits on my computer.’ It was just the whole idea of posting photos, so they exist—they’re not buried.
Advice: The advice I have is always the same: shoot all the time and compare the results you get to what you actually saw and seeing how it translates. And look at all the photography you can and deciding what you like and what you don’t like and why. Knowing what you like and what you don’t like is not enough. It’s scratching the surface. You must figure out why. It applies to a lot of stuff in life in general—you know, watching people do stuff and being like, ‘was that OK, was that not OK? How do I feel about that?’ You build your morals and your ethics like that.
Crowd surfing with a camera: I’ve seen photos where I’m in a sweaty mosh pit, literally holding my elbows together and keeping my camera in front of my face because there’s nowhere to put it anywhere else and there’s another photographer there and I’m in the shot, and I’ll be getting kicked in the side of the head by a crowd surfer, but I’m grinning. And I don’t realize it when I’m at the show, but it’s sort of like, ‘this is horrible but I do enjoy it.’ It hasn’t lost that appeal or that fun, and I honestly don’t know how hard I’ve had to work at keeping it that way. I think I’ve just been lucky—even though I’m getting kicked in the head I’m still having fun.