Interview: Neil Selkirk
Neil Selkirk Talks To Elizabeth Avedon
L’Oeil de la Photographie, March 18, 2015
Photo: Neil Selkirk and Marvin Israel reviewing Diane Arbus prints of “Masked Man at a Ball N.Y.C. 1967” in her darkroom.
Neil Selkirk is the only person ever authorized to make posthumous prints of the work of Diane Arbus.
Selkirk, born in London in 1947, is an accomplished portrait photographer and masterful documentarian. He studied Photography at the London College of Printing, graduating in 1968; later studying with photographer Diane Arbus in her 1971 Master Class. Selkirk worked as an assistant to many of fashion photography’s most iconic figures (Richard Avedon, Hiro and Chris Von Wangenheim) before his own distinctive style succeeded in drawing editorial assignments from major magazines that include Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Interview, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, among others.
I spoke with Neil Selkirk in his New York studio about his upcoming exhibition, Certain Women, at Howard Greenberg Gallery and the history of his career through the decades.
Elizabeth Avedon : What year did you come to America?
Neil Selkirk : Before the end of school in London, I came looking for a job during the two-week Easter vacation. March, 1968. While I was here, Lyndon Johnson withdraws from the Presidency, Martin Luther King Jr. is shot, Newark erupts in riots. I had just interviewed with Irving Penn, I’m walking east on 40th Street towards Fifth Avenue, passing the New York Press Club. The door opens and Bobby Kennedy walks out. He’s just announced for the presidency. With cameras on him, but no crowd, he’s shaking hands with imaginary people so it would look as if he was engaged. I’m standing there with my camera snapping away thinking, “This is Bobby Kennedy!”. So incredibly much happened in the two weeks I was in New York, there was just no question of not coming back.
EA : You once told me some advice you were given about looking for a job in New York. What was it again?
NS : David Montgomery, a fashion photographer in London, said, “Don’t call first. Arrive at the door.” And it was fantastic advice…. My first real day looking for a job in New York I got job offers from Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Melvin Sokolsky, and Bert Stern. All four of them. I was on a tourist visa and I had to go back to London. I accepted the job at Penn, they applied for my visa, but were turned down. They never appealed, and they never informed me that I didn’t have a job.
I worked for Avedon in London a few weeks later as a local assistant. They had just banned cigarette advertising on television in England and the advertising agencies were trying to find someone to do still photographs that would cost as much as a TV commercial so they could mark it up 15%. So they hired the most expensive photographer in the world, Richard Avedon, to come to London and take pictures of dog’s heads; a hand holding a cigarette by the head of the dogs, Red setters, Golden Retrievers and some Labs. And that’s what we did for a week. I can’t imagine what they must have paid him.
The great thing about the job was that in the evenings when we weren’t doing these ads, we photographed Anjelica Huston and Julie Driscoll. Polly Mellon, the fashion editor was there – it must have been for Vogue. Julie Driscoll was a pop singer with Brian Auger and Trinity. Musically they were a very hot band at the time. At the end of the shoot, Dick (Avedon) gave her a kiss and she, being very, very English, said in her slightly Cockney accent, “Oh, I bet they’ll be awful,” which is a totally English way to say “Thank you.” He just froze. He sort of straightened, and said, “When I take pictures, they’re good.”
Anjelica Huston was photographed in her father, director John Huston’s house, which is where without knowing it I encountered my first Arbus photograph, an image that shattered me in a way that I had never been affected by a work of art before or since.
We were driving back from the house in a taxi and Dick received a message that said something like, “Mick Jagger can’t do it tomorrow, but he can do it Thursday,” Dick said, “We are shooting on Thursday. If he wants his picture taken, he can come to New York.” I don’t think he ever photographed Jagger. Never did.
I became the Avedon studio guy in Europe. As a result of that, I worked for Hiro in Paris, shooting the Collections for Harpers Bazaar.
EA : What did you do when you couldn’t get a visa to work for Penn?
NS : When I finally found out that my job in New York with Penn had fallen through I took a job working for Adrian Flowers in London. Flowers was a big name in London’s photography scene in the 1950s through the early 90’s. His studio in Chelsea’s Tite Street was the place to be photographed for advertising and editorials for actors, celebrities and artists.
We’re on the set in Adrian’s studio photographing. I’m off to his right, and I’m probably a pretty good assistant, but he is really uptight about me having worked for Dick and he said, “Neil, I know you’ve worked for all the greatest photographers in the world, and you’re an intimate of Richard Avedon’s, but would you please pass the film holder!” I must have been behaving like a complete jerk. Later, when I approached him with “They want me to go to Paris to work for Hiro for two weeks.” He said, “What if I say no?” I said, “Then I’ll quit.” He should have said, “Get out,” but he folded.
So now I’m in Paris with Hiro and he hires me to work in New York. They had an immigration lawyer and I was able to get a trainee visa. I worked for Hiro for about 9 months in New York. Then Michael O’Neil, who was Hiro’s assistant, left to go on his own and I became the first assistant. I worked there until I left abruptly in July 1971.
EA : What did you do after you left Hiro?
NS : The day after I was fired I got a call from Tina Bossidy, the stylist for Chris Von Wangenheim, who was a rising star in the fashion photography world at that time. She said, “Hello, my name is Tina. I work for Chris Von Wangenheim. We are looking for somebody to assist Chris in Europe.” And I said, “Well, how about me?” She said, “But you work for Hiro” and I said, “Not since yesterday.”
We immediately shot off to Rome and Paris. When we were in Paris, we were in the Harpers Bazaar studio where Chris was shooting the Collections. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Avedon came in the studio and confided to Chris that Diane Arbus had killed herself. Chris then took me aside and broke the news to me. That was July of 1971. I had done Diane’s class the previous winter.
I sent a postcard to Marvin Israel, art director and intimate friend of Arbus’, that just said, “If anything is going to be done in the way of a show or book, I’ll be back in November and I will be happy to help in any way I can.” I spent the rest of the summer and fall in England and when I got back in November of ’71, Marvin and Doon Arbus, Diane’s daughter, asked me to work on what became the monograph Diane Arbus and the 1972 posthumous Arbus retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art.
They needed someone to go through all of her photographs to find the negatives because there was no indication on any of the prints of the associated negative numbers. It still remains a complete mystery how she found her own neg when she wanted to make a print. So I spent the winter going through all her contact sheets looking for the negatives of all the photographs she had ever printed. Finally, in the spring, I started to print for the book and the show.
The show opened at the Museum of Modern Art in November of 1972. It was incredibly successful. I think it was the most successful one artist show the Modern had ever had in any medium, not just photography. It was estimated that over seven million people worldwide saw the exhibition.
Initially, nobody wanted to publish the book. Just before the show was scheduled to open, Michael Hoffman at Aperture said he would publish it, and it immediately went to seven printings. Now it’s one of the most successful photography books of all time. It’s sold half a million copies or so.
[“Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph” Fortieth-anniversary edition, 2011. “The monograph of eighty photographs was edited and designed by the painter Marvin Israel, Diane Arbus’s friend and colleague, and by her daughter Doon Arbus. Their goal was to remain faithful to the standards by which Arbus judged her own work, and to how she hoped it would be seen. Nearly fifty years has not diminished the impact of these pictures; they penetrate the psyche with the force of a personal encounter, and transform the way we see the world. This is the first edition in which the image separations were created digitally; the files have been specially prepared by Robert J. Hennessey using prints by Neil Selkirk.” – Aperture ]
EA : While you were printing for the show, did anyone realize that it was going to change the face of Photography?
NS : No, it was being done because everybody involved had a sense of mission and commitment to do it, because we cared.
I have a couple of memories:
Marvin came down to Diane’s darkroom every morning to look at the prints, which was in the basement of an apartment building. I would finish printing at 2 or 3 in the morning and then meet him four hours later at like 7 o’clock in the morning. I remember he came in one morning and pushed the door open and said, “They shot Wallace!” He was jubilant.
I remember walking down 7th Avenue from her darkroom and there was a bar called The Buffalo Roadhouse. It was always on the other side of the road. I remember watching people at 2 or 3am in the morning, just when I finished printing, and thinking, “One day I’m going to be able to buy a beer.“ I literally never went in. I remember cracking open a penny jar to get on the subway which was 35cents and taking 35 pennies. They told me they wouldn’t take pennies.
Nobody had any money, its incredible how little money there was. I was paid something like $3,000. for the year – for the total year – I believe it came from the Museum of Modern Art, plus I got all the film left in Diane’s closet. I got a bunch of 120 film and $3,000. for the year.
None of us could afford anything. We needed one more 16 x 20” processing tray and we couldn’t buy it. We didn’t have the 15 bucks or whatever it was. So I called the Avedon Studio and said, “Have you got a tray you don’t need” and I wound up with this beaten up ancient developer tray of Dick’s which I then used to print the Arbus museum exhibition prints and is now one of the star trays in the book “Developer Trays” (powerHouse Books, 2014).
EA : You are and have been the connecting link to Diane Arbus for all of us through your prints of her work.
NS : I’m very conscious of that as a responsibility. I have always been obsessive about matching every aspect of the character of her prints whenever possible. If people know the work of Diane Arbus from the books, they have been looking almost entirely at reproductions of prints I made. All the books thus far are nearly 100% my prints. My philosophy has always been “if you can tell the difference between mine and hers, I’ve failed.”
They try to get as many original prints as they can for the exhibitions. About 40% of the 1972 MoMA show were my prints. Many more of Diane’s prints have been found since then; there were whole troves of prints that no one knew existed at the time of the MoMA show.
EA : Tell me about the Master Class with Diane Arbus. Is that how you met her?
NS : No, I’d already met her at Hiro’s and Avedon’s studio. She and Marvin would sometimes drop by. In fact she came into Hiro’s one day and asked, “If I give a class would you come?” Paul Corlett, another Hiro assistant, and I said, “Sure!” She asked a lot of people around Westbeth, the artist’s building where she lived, too.
She interviewed and ultimately accepted everybody who applied. My girlfriend, she was probably my wife at that point, had a really, really awful Shepherd mix which I dragged around everywhere. I didn’t know that Diane hated dogs. She later said – essentially that everybody’s work was so bad that she was afraid if she did the class she’d get contaminated. It was so great. She said wonderful things.
Diane’s last Master Class was at Westbeth. Marvin sat in with her on a lot of occasions. Anne Tucker, subsequently photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, was in that class; Paul Corlett and Cosmos, a widely known eccentric Greenwich Village photographer, were in that class. I think the assignments were based on a class she did with Lisette Model ten years before; and she just reviewed stuff and talked.
A lot of the text in the Aperture monograph is taken from Ikkō Narahara’s recordings of the class. Marvin said the trouble was his English was so bad that he always turned the tape recorder off when she was just about to say something fabulous. You could see something great coming and “plunk” he turned the recorder off.
I felt at the time I didn’t know if I was getting anything out of it. I always thought that I would find out years later. The thing is, I was, subsequently, after her death, so completely swamped by being totally immersed in all of her photography within a year, that I would never know. The immersion in her work completely changed everything for me because I was trained in England as a commercial photographer.
I basically went where Diane had gone, because they were the places that were interested in good photographs. So I went to Esquire and then very gradually, actually started using stuff that I learnt assisting in the commercial world to make glitzy pictures. Then Marvin told Ruth Ansel at the New York Times Magazine she should be using me. I took a portfolio up there of all the stuff I’d been doing for Esquire. She looked through all the work and said, “What’s this in the back of the box?” I said, “It’s just stuff I’ve been doing on the street.” She pulled it out and said, “This is great! Will you do this for us?” So then I started working for the New York Times Magazine and taking unembellished photographs.
The first job I did for the Times, I think it was Maurice Nadjari, Governor Rockefeller’s Special Anti-corruption Prosecutor. I got the photograph I wanted, I made a beautiful big print, I dry mounted it, I overlaid it, I did the whole thing to make it look incredible, took it in and Ruth said, “Wow, this is fantastic” and she ran it in to the editor, and the editor said, “Fantastic” so they ran the picture. After that for a period of years, I delivered a single photograph for each job, and they printed it. It was so amazing, and it lasted until eventually I shot Henry Kissinger who looked in the portrait as if he had doubt. They wanted something a little more heroic so then they asked for the contact prints….I was never able to work the old way again.
So one’s magazine career turns out to have been an endless struggle to get good work published…
Marc Balet, who was Creative Director at Andy Warhol’s Interview came to me and said would I shoot for them. I did a lot of quite good political stuff for them. It was mostly political stuff for the Times Magazine as well. I did all the Watergate people, I would keep getting these calls from Vanity Fair saying photograph this person, photograph that person, photograph the next person, and I did. A lot of them were really good pictures but they rarely ran the stories.
I used to say, “The best magazines only lasted six months.” What I think I was trying to get at was the idea that quite often, really smart people manage to launch a magazine with very high ideals and standards, but frequently they simply fail, or are so radically watered down in order to survive that they cease to be anything but a shadow of their original concept. The first six months can be an exhilarating time for everyone involved.
The Village Voice did a fashion supplement called View and that lasted six months. The Movies lasted six months. Spy lasted longer but succumbed. Paper and Wired and Colors have survived by adapting, but working on the first issues was thrilling.
There was a magazine that started up by David Bruel called Avenue. It was delivered by limousine to all the doorman buildings between Fifth, Madison, Park from like 57th Street to 86th Street. It was super, super high end, and they just wanted great photography, there were no restrictions whatever.
I found myself doing this wonderful shtick. Everybody I photographed, and they were all people of social significance in that area…. I suddenly realized, after a couple of assignments, that I had hot dog vendors in the picture, so I started deliberately including them in subsequent shoots; the shadowy figures actually delivered real substance. Then someone from Time Inc took over from David Bruel and he said, “Wait a minute. There’s a hot dog stand in the background!” I said, “Yeah, there’s always a hot dog stand.” I never worked for them again.
At around that time, I had two young children, I started doing corporate work. It paid ten times as much as magazine work. It was almost all traveling. I used to get up in the morning and go to the airport for years. But I simply did not have the time, and in fact could not afford to do all the editorial work. I had a really good gig working for corporations, doing annual reports and things like that. It was completely steady for almost twenty years. I made plenty of money, owned two houses, it put the kids through college. And that business died just as I was ready to get out. In the meantime I had been able to pursue and finance projects of my own devising that are turning into books.
EA : OK, we’ve turned the recorder off several times to tell each other some great stories from the past. Can’t we do a book of everything we can’t say on record?
NS : Isn’t it amazing what isn’t said? For ten or twelve years I did the Dow Jones Annual Report, the Wall Street Journal’s annual reports basically. My favorite place to have lunch was the cafeteria at the Wall Street Journal because everybody who worked there knew everything. I was so aware of how much we never hear about because for various reasons it isn’t published – it can’t be published. It was just amazing all the things these people knew! It’s incredible what you can’t say. I can’t remember what it is I just realized I couldn’t tell you.
It is an indication of how you can’t trust most books that are about anyone in the form of a biography. I don’t know if you are familiar with Heidegger on Aristotle, but I have a great quote that I saved. “What was Aristotle’s life?’ Well, the answer lay in a single sentence:
‘He was born, he thought, he died.’ And all the rest is pure anecdote.” ― Martin Heidegger
Biography presented as truth is bullshit. That’s what’s so great about the “Slide Show and Talk By Diane Arbus” which is essentially a film record of an event. The soundtrack is an original audio recording of a 1970 slide presentation by Diane in which she speaks about photography using her own work and other photographs, snapshots and clippings from her collection. It was compiled and edited by Doon Arbus, Adam Shott and myself.
Even though it was essentially recorded on only one evening – in other words it’s not legitimate to say that this is “her” in the broadest sense – but it’s so much closer, just to hear her voice. It’s so important. You get a clue, where as everything that’s been written doesn’t give you anything like the sort connection…. the attachment one feels from a little bit of somebody talking to someone else about something that interests them.
EA : Is the slideshow a DVD?
NS : It’s not on a DVD. It would be, could be. It’s on hard drives – because it was too big – it’s very complicated – we’re inept. We would schlep around the world with these hard drives and computers and have back-ups ready and all. It was always deeply stressful making sure it showed up on the screen. There’s a lovely story here.
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Avedon