In his first year with a camera, Seth Kushner remembers his photography as â€œjust completely sucking.â€ Good thing he kept trying, because it was his dedication that propelled him to the career he has today: looking through his camera lens at people like Paul Budnitz, Jeremy Piven, and Rosario Dawson.
Aside from spending time on assignments from clients such as The New York Times, Maxim, and YRB, Seth fills his hours snapping away on personal projects. Read on as Format chats with Seth about his work, his books, and all the things that make him click –I mean, tick.
“Photography changed my life. It gave a gawky, skinny kid with pimples an artistic outlet and a reason to talk to girls.â€
Format: You have a long and strong history in photography. Can you walk us through your experiences, please?
Seth Kushner: I first became interested in photography when I was fifteen years old at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, Brooklyn. A friend convinced me to take the photography class because it was an â€œeasy 90.â€ I never expected to fall in love with it as quickly as I did.
As it turned out, I was very fortunate because my school just happened to have the top, most-awarded photography program in the country. The photography education I received there guides me to this day. I remember my work just completely sucking for the entire first year I was there, and feeling like Iâ€™d never be as good as the older students who, to me, almost seemed to be doing magic with just a camera and an enlarger.
Somehow in the second year, I got it. It became apparent to me what made a good picture and how I could go about creating one. Photography changed my life. It gave a gawky, skinny kid with pimples an artistic outlet and a reason to talk to girls. After high school, I got a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan where I spent four years honing my skills and vision. I came out with a portfolio of work which I immediately began showing to editors. It was all pictures of my friends and family â€“ I tried to shoot them as if they were the actors, musicians and artists I was hoping to eventually [photograph on assignment]. I spent an entire eighteen months just dropping my work, day in and day out, while at the same time I was shooting to keep my book fresh. I lived at home since I was hardly making any money, and just devoted my life to building a career.
Finally, I had a major breakthrough when I received a call from the New York Times Magazine. At first I thought someone was calling to sell me a subscription and I was about to hang up– because a call from someone wanting to hire me seemed so far out of the realm of possibility that I couldnâ€™t conceive of it. It was my first real assignment and it was for a very prestigious publication, so I was elated, and very nervous. But I did well and have been working professionally ever since.
Format: The sets for your photo shoots are often fairly complex. Do you come up with the concepts for them yourself, and if so, how do you find those concepts?
Seth Kushner: I donâ€™t really work with sets per se. My â€œsetsâ€ are almost always actual locations. I love working out in the world. Shakespeare said, â€œAll the worldâ€™s a stage,â€ and I tend to agree; and so I like to shoot in the street or in the subjectsâ€™ homes whenever possible. You never know what you will find in a personâ€™s natural environment, but whatever you do will be revealing.
I very much enjoy the challenge of going in somewhere and having to find the right place and angle for the shoot. Last year I was assigned to shoot Paul Budnitz, the creator of Kid Robot, which Iâ€™m a fan of. I was told to just â€œgo to his office and do something with toys.â€ That wasnâ€™t much to go on, but I knew Iâ€™d find something cool. When I arrived, I was delighted to find that the office was an explosion of vinyl and colour. After moving a few things around, I ended up with Paul on a yellow vinyl couch, in front of a wall covered with blue wallpaper that had Dunnies stencilled all over it. I put a big, blue Dunny and a Murakami stuffed flower on the couch next to him — and an awesome set was before me.
Other times, Iâ€™ll often shoot in a studio situation for either the purposes of a clean portrait or as part of what I call a â€œvirtual set.â€ This is where thereâ€™s a concept in place that requires me to create an environment in post-production using Photoshop.
The concepts for my assignment work usually come from some combination of the client and me. Often, Iâ€™m given some starting point and then Iâ€™ll go from there. I always do extensive research on every subject I shoot, and thatâ€™s where Iâ€™ll usually find my concept. Itâ€™s very important to me that the portraits I take reveal something about the subject.
Format: Youâ€™ve had the opportunity to work with so many interesting celebrities, musicians, politicians â€“ is this the part of the job that you love so much, or is it the art in what you do that keeps you going?
Seth Kushner: I love people, so the best aspect of my job is being able to meet and work with fascinating individuals who are doing something of interest. Iâ€™ve had the opportunity to meet some of my heroes whose work Iâ€™ve admired and been inspired by; people like The Beastie Boys, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle, Frank Miller, Jonathan Lethem, Spike Lee, and so many others. When thereâ€™s an individual whose work I find personally inspiring I feel a strong urge to take their portrait — to the point where I think up concepts in my head without ever being assigned to them. My wishlist is very long. Every time I get to shoot someone from this list, I feel itâ€™s added to the collection that is my lifeâ€™s work and will hopefully, one day, be included in a retrospective book and/or exhibition. Maybe when Iâ€™m in my 70â€™sâ€¦
Format: Iâ€™m assuming that one of your goals in these photographs is to capture personality. What else are you working to find in the final shot?
Seth Kushner: My overall goal is always to portray my subjects well, and in a way that is truthful and honest to who they are and what they do. For me it has to be a cool image on the surface — meaning interesting composition, dramatic lighting, nice color, etc.– but also have subtext and meaning beyond the superficial.
Format: Aside from shooting people like Jay Leno and Talib Kweli, you take on some really awesome personal projects, like shooting Trekkies at the Star Trek Convention. Are you working on anything like that right now?
Seth Kushner: I am currently working on a personal project which Iâ€™m incredibly excited about. Itâ€™s tentatively titled â€œNYC Graphic Novelists,â€ (though it will probably be given a catchier title at some point) and itâ€™s a collection of my portraits of the most interesting and best comic book authors working in New York today. It will culminate in a book along with several pieces of each artistâ€™s own work and essays about them. Iâ€™m also working on a documentary film on the same subject, which Iâ€™m hoping to release with the book or as a separate entity. Iâ€™m about halfway through production, and Iâ€™m having the greatest time working on it. Comics are one of the things in this world that I love with all of my heart, and they have been inspiring me since I was a small child. I think the creators are true artists and the next rock stars.
Format: In any kind of creative profession, thereâ€™s a constant battle to keep things fresh. How do you maintain your personal style as a photographer, yet evolve as a commodity?
Seth Kushner: I think itâ€™s hard to create a â€œlookâ€ and not have it feel gimmicky. I think personal style is something that has to come out of you; itâ€™s what you canâ€™t help but do. I couldnâ€™t start creating work that looks like another photographerâ€™s, for example. I wouldnâ€™t have his personal experiences, thoughts, dreams, desires, etc. Your style is a mixture of all those things, plus the equipment you use (to some extent), and everything you love. Itâ€™s amazing how much the films and TV shows you watch, the books you read, the music you listen to, and the places you visit can influence you and seep into your work. So, I believe as you grow and have new experiences and influences, that your work changes and grows as well. Being a well-rounded person helps you to evolve.
Format: You recently published a book; can you tell us about The Brooklynites?
Seth Kushner: The Brooklynites was a labour-of-love collaboration between writer Anthony LaSala and I. The project came from our friendship since high school, and from our love of our home, Brooklyn. We spent over three years traversing the borough, and photographing and interviewing many of its most interesting residents. We worked with over three hundred subjects! It was a ridiculous amount of work, but it never felt like work.
The fruits of our labor came to fruition last September when Powerhouse Books published our book. We had an exhibition of the work at their event space â€“ the Powerhouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn â€“ and they threw us a huge opening party. It was the biggest night of my life (other than my wedding a year earlier). Hundreds of people came, including many of our subjects. It was covered by NY-1, The NY Daily News, etc. I honestly felt like a celebrity. The Borough President, Marty Markowitz, came and did a presentation where he gave a proclamation and named that date Brooklynites Day. It was a completely surreal and wonderful experience.
After the book was in stores, and once the parties, bookstore readings and media blitzes were over, I was left with a strange feeling. It was like Iâ€™d spent years plugged into everything that is Brooklyn, and then the plug was pulled. The momentum had been pushing me along for so long that I didnâ€™t know what to do once it stopped. Anthony and I toyed with the idea of doing a sequel, but ultimately we decided that although there would certainly be more than enough interesting subjects left in Brooklyn, it would be too soon. Weâ€™d said just about all we had to say about Brooklyn, so a second volume would feel like a retread. In ten years it might be interesting to revisit and show all of the changes that have already started happening. But anyway, I decided to move on with my Graphic Novelists project instead, and Iâ€™m glad I did.
More Info: http://www.sethkushner.com/