Mark Seliger ‘s Latest Book Reveals an Eerie, Empty New York
Mark Seliger has made a living immortalizing the most well-recognized and well-loved faces of our era. Over his three decades-long career, the Texas-born photographer has shot countless covers for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and positioning the likes of Mick Jagger, Susan Sarandon, Kurt Cobain and Lenny Kravitz in his crosshairs. Seliger is no stranger to the perils of encapsulating cultural icons—in fact, he’s a glutton for punishment. This week, he released The City That Finally Sleeps, a book of photographs of New York City funded by Sony and B&H Photo and shot in the earliest months of last year’s pandemic lockdown. “I have two approaches. One is, ‘how do I turn the expectation on its head?’ The other is about capturing the essential character of someone,” he says of photographing the famous. “The City was no different.”
From March to May of 2020, Seliger wandered the streets of his adopted home in the early hours of the morning and evening, turning his lens on the ghostly terrain of the most photographed city on Earth. Though the images—of a cavernous Grand Central Station, a crypt-like Times Square, and an empty West Village intersection—feel instantly classic, there’s something unnerving (even unwelcome) about the devastation they reveal in corners of the city typically seething with life. Now more than a year later, as Pride celebrations fill New York with color and noise, they look like something out of a dream. Proceeds from the book, available exclusively on the photographers website, benefit New York Cares. To reflect on the City’s metamorphosis, we sat down with the photographer to discuss a few of his standout shots, his early bird tendencies and his death-defying ability to scale subway platforms.
MARA VEITCH: How did you spend your morning today?
MARK SELIGER: I was up at 4:00. I went for a walk from 4:30 until 5:00 with my dog, then I did some house chores and went to the gym at 6:30.
VEITCH: You’re an early riser.
SELIGER: Yes, I am.
VEITCH: It makes sense, because these images all seem to be taken at a transitional point in the day sky-wise. How do you go about revealing a new side of such well-known places?
SELIGER: I don’t really think about it. I typically approach my work very intuitively, but weather is always a consideration. I typically shoot cityscapes when weather is slightly inclement. You can see some sunny days mixed in, but typically it’s early morning, late afternoon, or dark and rainy.
SELIGER: This photograph was the kickoff image that started me on this project. You never know which one is going to be the one. You’re just recording. On the second day of the lockdown, the city was so incredibly vacant and quiet. At the same time, we were in full emergence of spring. We were really experiencing what is considered to be one of two amazing seasons in New York City, where everything transforms in front of your eyes. It really was haunting to me, but also beautiful. All these amazing New York landscapes that I’d passed by endless times over the years were suddenly missing something. In the mornings I would find a location, shoot for a couple of hours, and then return at sunset. I didn’t even know it would become a book. I began sharing the photos on Instagram, and Vanity Fair ran a story about them. People really wanted to know what was going on in New York City during that time. So, it became this obsession— to find the places that this monumental meaning for people and show them as they were. There’s a sense of melancholy, but I also think there’s beauty that comes from things being put on pause.
SELIGER: This was one of the earliest photographs that I did. It was sunset and it was raining. I’ve spent a lot of time photographing on this street—it’s one of my favorites in Chinatown. That was a predictable place for me to end up because it’s so photogenic. It was surprising to see no tourists walking through. That was the biggest thing that we were missing in New York, all the foot traffic and the tourism. This man was probably the only person who came by in the 20 minutes I was there. I was shooting at a very, very slow shutter speed just because it was so dark, and when he came through he was just a little blur. I think just that little glimpse of a mask puts you into this mindset. You process it differently, right?
SELIGER: My assistant and I rejoined forces after a couple of weeks of the lockdown and started to evolve the project a little bit. In this one we were literally on the tracks. There was this tremendous storm coming, so I said, “Okay, let’s go to the 7 train,” because I remembered that this was a particularly interesting above ground train. I had to jump up there because my assistant was like, “I’m not doing it.” I set my strobe up and we shot a couple trains before hurrying to get out of there. As we were leaving an MTA worker told us the cops were coming because we’d been popping lights in the driver’s eyes, and you’re really not supposed to do that. What was really amazing is that the storm started to lift right as we were shooting. You can see it in the background. You can see the storm passing right over us. Anytime I was out the weather gods were right on my coattails.
SELIGER: My favorite time to be in New York is holiday and summer weekends when everybody is gone. I start to see things within the city that always drew me into it, that stillness and grandeur of being in what I consider to be the greatest city in the world. It is a place that continually gives back to you. It also can be very intimidating, right? I walked into Grand Central one day and there was nobody inside. The upstairs was blocked off, but there was nobody there, so I did exactly what I was supposed to do when I was a teenager. I was lawless the day I took this, jumping over yellow caution tape and sneaking into places I’d never noticed before. There were little hidden secrets in New York City that I’d never noticed before.
SELIGER: I shot this, and later as I was looking at the film, I realized that the with the Chase Bank sign in the background this photo reads, “chase hope.” I thought that was a little bit of irony. There’s also like a patina on it that just gives you a sense of the city healing almost. I felt that a lot through the project. You saw the decay and the quiet and then also the evolution of the seasons. All those things started to intertwine. Not only did everybody need to stop for a second, but the pause in the city itself was helpful I think. It made you appreciate it more.
VEITCH: When you’re shooting landscapes of one of New York City, do you have a voice in the back of your head that says, “How do I keep this photo from becoming trite?” What do you do to avoid that?
SELIGER: A friend of mine looked at the book and he goes, “Well, you’re not afraid of the obvious, are you?” I was like, “Yeah, I know.” To me, it was about going to these places that are usually to crowded to allow you to understand their detail and power. You get to see them as sculpture. As you hustle through your daily life, you forget about those incredible moments when you were walking home late from a party and passing through the Village, or your favorite street, and noticing things. For me, this was a return to those quiet, very appreciative times where you did notice romantic aspects of the city. I am corny too. I like that kind of stuff. It’s a different experience from how I usually work. It tugged at my heart because I could see that it was a fragile time for people, but it was also a moment to pause to recapture certain things.
VEITCH: Is there a moment when this series came to an end?
SELIGER: It’s very difficult to know when to stop. It’s very much like a painting. You don’t want to screw it up by painting over something that was too good, but you tend to overwork things. There was definitely a start and an end to this project around the time of the killing of George Floyd. It was a specific moment where everything lit up with frustration and we were out on the street again. One Saturday after the killing, I heard this incredible rumble. I got a little nervous because things had been so dark and quiet and then all of a sudden this roar. I was like, “Oh my God, is there an earthquake?” But it was thousands of people walking down the West Side Highway. I was there for a short time and I realized that I didn’t feel comfortable photographing it. I needed to participate, not document. It was the end of the period. It was the perfect moment for New York City to energize, right? There were no tourists. We had all been laid up in our homes and then it was time to react and voice our grief and loss. When I think about the amount of time that we spent doing these images and the amount of time that we were all really in lockdown it seems like forever, but it really wasn’t, right? It was a pretty brief moment. This was part of the process for me to understand that.