Mark Seliger: The Music Book

The ICP Library carries over 24,000 volumes within its shelves (and beyond) covering an extensive overview of photography as a practice, historical documentation, fine art and more. Students and patrons enter our doors looking for Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Tillman, Arbus, Davidson, Moriyama and a plethora of other famous and under-the-radar photography luminaries. But what I’ve noticed in the two years that I have been lucky to be a part of this amazing institution is a very minimal interest in music photography.

But why? There is no doubt that music is important; it has survived since prehistoric times, preexisting written languages. It has the power to both bond and save people (both mentally and physically), and generations have been defined by the styles and content of music – the 20’s, 40’s, 60’s and 80’s for example. But yet in a library that covers so much, there seems to be very little interest in documenting the important history of music and musicians.

The ICP Library houses an impressive music photography collection, ranging from books of live music shots covering genres including country, jazz, rock and more, to those containing some of the most famous portraits of musicians. This blog entry is going to focus on one of those books: Mark Seliger: The Music Book (TR681.M86.S45 2008). This collection consists of 35 iconic photos Seliger shot between 1987-2008, some of which were featured in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone (where he served as Chief Photographer from 1992-2002).

MarkSeligerTheMusicBookCover 2
[TR681.M86.S45 2008]

The Music Book includes legendary artists that span decades, genres and in some cases have interacted with one another, creating several themes that catch your eye as you flip through the images. The next few paragraphs will discuss some of those themes and characteristics the way I perceived them.

Image Placement:

When flipping through a photo book, the location of the images is sometimes just as important as the images themselves.  Their relationship to one another can either create a story or add to one that already exists. As you turn to the first image of The Music Book, you are greeted by the one and only Chuck Berry: a wonderful black and white shot of him crouched down with his guitar. Turning to the next two images, somewhat reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge, you can image Johnny B. Goode himself doing his one legged hop across the floor.


[Chuck Berry, St. Louis, MO 2001 – Pages 1,2,3]

A playful peek-a-boo Paul McCartney is positioned opposite a blank white page. Turn to the next page and you notice another blank page next to the portrait of Sean Lennon. Place holders perhaps? Turn once more and you find two contrasting portraits of George Harrison. It’s a simple guess that the two blank pages represent not only John missing in his death, but also where’s Ringo?




[Paul McCartney, New York City, 2001 / Sean Lennon, New York City, 2003 /
George Harrison, Los Angeles, CA, 1992 – Pages 9-14]

When thinking of the love stories that blossomed throughout the history of music, one of the most iconic that comes to mind is that of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Seliger’s portraits feature the Man in Black standing stoic in his choice attire, his long hair flowing like a mane as his back is turned to the camera, his guitar contrasting in color on his back. His head is slightly turned to the right, as if looking to the next page at his beautiful wife. June, also accompanied by a guitar, faces her husband with a warm smile; their love for each other (and music) comes through the two separate images.


[Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash, Hendersonville, TN, 1992 – Pages 18-19 ]

Flamboyant vs. Simple:

The objects and stories of the photos aside, Seliger’s portraits are in and of themselves pieces of art. The dramatics added can at first seem over the top, but they work well with the subject, as seen below:

Country icon Dolly Parton poses in a red dress, surrounded by red roses, on a chaise lounge on stage (shot for Vanity Fair’s Iconic Images Series):


[Dolly Parton, Nashville TN, 2006 – Pages 87-88 ]

Sean Combs as ‘The King of New York’, literally; he’s sitting on a throne in the middle of Times Square (shot for Vanity Fair’s Iconic Images Series):


[Sean Combs, New York City, 2005 – Pages 54-55]

Rufus Wainwright, a distant blood relative of Peter Stuyvesant – New York’s Dutch Governor in the 17th century, standing stone-faced, dressed in period attire:


[Rufus Wainwright, New York City, 2001 – Page 57]

There are also portraits that could be considered simple, especially in comparison to those discussed above, but are actually more complex in emotion not only within the subject, but the emotion that the viewer feels. Sometimes all it takes is having the artist in their element. Like Ray Charles sitting at a piano, or B.B. King in his zone on stage.


[Ray Charles, New York City, 2000 – Page 13]

Some of my personal favorites from the book include – badass Chrissie Hynde, founding member of The Pretenders, looking “vulnerable” – her makeup running down her face as if she was crying.


[Chrissie Hynde, New York City, 1995 – Page 74]

And Nirvana, with Kurt Cobain front and center wearing a shirt that reads “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” written across in magic marker (This photo made the cover of Rolling Stone – Vol. 628, April 16, 1992 – and the story behind Selgier’s concerns of presenting it to RS are well documented).


[Nirvana, Melbourne, Australia, 1992 – Page 70]

Farewell Legends:

One of the benefits of photographs are they allow the human image to live on. Going through the pages of The Music Book, it’s hard to not notice how many music legends have left us, especially since the book starts off with the great Chuck Berry, who just passed in March of this year. There’s Ray Charles, Johnny & June, B.B. King, Lou Reed, Gregg Allman, Jerry Garcia, Merle Haggard, just to name a few. Seliger’s portrait of Kurt Cobain, shown below, was used for the tribute cover of Rolling Stone when he passed in 1994.


[Kurt Cobain, Kalamazoo, MI, 1993 – Page 72 / Rolling Stone. Issue No. 683,  June 2, 1994]

There are more iconic portraits in the pages of Mark Seliger: The Music Book – including U2, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, CSN&Y, Willie Nelson – and while it doesn’t showcase all of Seliger’s work (he did shoot over 100 covers for Rolling Stone alone) it’s a wonderful collection for any music lover and, in regards to how this entry began, a documentation of music. Spanning over three decades, Seliger has captured definitive moments in music that may never come around again (i.e. grunge) and the legends who have left us in flesh, but live on thanks to their music and his photos.

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