John R Selig

Writer. Photographer. Podcaster. Outspoken.

The Eye Behind the Camera

Photographer’s Selfie. Photo by John Selig.

People who know me well will tell you that they rarely see me when I don’t have ready access to a camera be it my Nikon D90 DSLR or my iPhone 6 Plus. I have been an avid photographer since purchasing my first 35 mm camera in January of 1970 during my senior year of high school. Within days of purchasing my Minolta SRT 101 I became my high school’s yearbook photographer as the previous yearbook photographer had just resigned having been accepted to college. Talk about pressure of turning out publishable photographs right from the start.

My dad bought me my first camera back in early 1963 when I was 10. It was a Kodak Instamatic 100 and dad got it for me, paying just $16, during the first week it went on sale. I took decent photos with the Instamatic including many during a 6-week cross country YMCA camping trip that I took with 80 teenage boys the summer after 10th grade.

Learning Photography with My Minolta SRT 101 35mm Camera

My SRT 101 provided me the motivation to take photography seriously and the opportunity to shoot essentially unlimited photos for the yearbook with school paying for the film and the processing. I couldn’t hope for a better learning environment and my skills improved rapidly. I remain an avid photographer. Having switched to digital photography in June 2002, I once again can shoot limitless quantities of photos without worrying about the expense of film and processing.

Minolta SRT 101 Link on Flickr Steve Harwood
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I feel fortunate that I learned photography shooting film as the skills I learned shooting different types of film and in the darkroom still impact my skills behind the camera and with Adobe Photoshop on my computer. There was also something special about having to impatiently wait to get developed photos back from the lab. I never take for granted how remarkable it is to be able to see photos as soon as I take them. Being able to snap photos with my iPhone, edit them and then instantly post them from my iPhone to Facebook or email them anywhere in the world in just seconds still astounds me.

Technical Skill Can Be Learned But One is Born with an Eye for Composition

People have always enjoyed my photographs and I still feel joy when they express amazement with what they see. The technical aspects of photography can be learned but I believe that you either have a natural eye for what makes a good photograph or you don’t. Certainly, you can learn to improve you composition. There are a variety of standard rules that make sense to follow most of the time such as not having a horizon in the middle of your photos; have the sky make up either one-third of the height of the photo or two-thirds, not one-half.

Somehow, I have always had an eye for a good photo. One of my mentors was Tom Cattrall. Tom, a brilliant man who received his master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Columbia University when he was just 19-years old, coached me by teaching me how my new camera worked when I started taking photos for the yearbook. Years later, Tom remarked that he had taken photos for over twenty years when he first met me. Here I was shooting one of my first rolls of film with my first 35 mm camera and I was seeing shots that he just didn’t see. He grinned when he admitted that it really pissed him off. Tom was a valuable and cherished mentor for years impacting many facets of my life beyond photography including my college and graduate school education. His patience and willingness to be an important role model inspired me to pay it forward with the next generation through my work with AFS international exchange students and other youth.

Tom Cattrall taught me an important lesson that I remember 45 years after learning it. People frequently ask photographers what type of camera they use. Tom told me, “John, the film doesn’t know what kind of camera you are using. More sophisticated, expensive camera equipment makes it easier for the photographer to utilize different techniques. However, you can take a perfectly good photo using a shoebox with a pinhole at one end. The pinhole acts like a lens and piece of paper covering the pinhole works like a shutter.” My Nikon D 90 DSLR takes far better photos than I took with my first digital camera, which was a 4.1 mega-pixel Sony that I used from 2002 to mid-2009. I still was able to produce photos with the Sony Cybershot that were good enough for two book covers plus my and other websites. My Nikon DSLR is my camera of choice but I am surprised by the quality that my iPhone is able to produce in a pinch.

My Photography Is a Gift, My Writing a Talent

I am fortunate in that I love to both take photos and to write. Photography has been a part of my life since my teen years. My writing didn’t begin to take hold until the late 1980s when I was in my late 30s. As I began to write more and submit articles to various publications I learned that it is rare for photographers to write or for writers to take photographs. Editors were surprised when I submitted copy and they mentioned that they would schedule a photographer to take photos to accompany my article. I told them that I was shooting the photos as well. Whenever I submitted photos with articles that were published my photos were always used.

The creative processes of taking photographs and writing are completely different for me. Comparing the two has enabled me to grasp the difference between a gift and a talent. The process of composing photographs for me is effortless. I am almost unaware of what catches my eye. In a way it is as if I am channeling some hidden energy and my muse just takes over. I see this as a gift. People comment on my photos and of course I am proud of them. However, I am often embarrassed because I feel as if I didn’t do anything. The photos just happened.

When I am taking photos and I am with my husband, Rodolfo, or with Nathaniel, my son, they know to keep track of me because I will shoot a bunch of photos moving around just to get the right lighting, the right angle, the right composition. I may shot one or two photos or fifty. It can take ten seconds or fifteen minutes of shoot time. While taking the photos I am not the slightest bit aware of where they are. Most of the time I can find them but sometimes they need to find me.

Writing is different in that I find the process to be intellectual. I am totally aware of what I am writing. Writing comes fairly easily but for me it as a talent, not a gift. I write my initial draft and then rework what I have written, correcting spelling and grammar, reworking and polishing what I have written. I add descriptions for more clarity and color and cut unnecessary content to meet word count limitations. It takes time and energy. Writing is work, fun work. Photography just happens.

Artistic Talent Runs in the Maternal Side of My Family Going Back Generations

Sketch by my Great-Uncle Adrian in the early 1920s while in Paris during his college years before becoming MGM’s Chief Costume Designer.

What I find surprising is that artistic gifts run deep in the maternal side of my family going back generations. Most famous was my grandmother’s brother, Adrian. He is still regarded by many in the film industry as the greatest costume designer in the history of Hollywood. Adrian was at MGM from the late 1920s through the early 1940s and designed costumes for Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer and many others. He designed costumes for over 250 films. His film credits most often read, “Gowns by Adrian.” His most famous film was “The Wizard of Oz.” Yes, my great-uncle designed the famed “Ruby Red Slippers” now housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Adrian died in 1959 while designing costumes for Camelot, the Broadway musical. I could go on and on about Adrian. I plan on writing a blog post on Adrian sometime in the future.

In June 2002 I went home to New York for the first time in years. The Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibit solely featuring Adrian’s gowns. I was given the opportunity of a lifetime by receiving a personal tour of the exhibit by its curator. That same weekend I drove forty miles east to my hometown, Huntington, on Long Island. As I no longer have any family in Huntington, it was the first time I had been in my hometown since before I came out twelve years earlier. The Long Island Pride Parade was taking place and I marched with my high school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), right down the main street of my town. What a head-trip that was. I was interviewed by “Newsday” and featured prominently in their newspaper article on the parade.

My Grandma Bea around the age of 3 wearing a bonnet designed and made for her by her parents who were milliners, circa 1899.

Adrian greatly admired my grandmother, as most people who knew her throughout her life did. Grandma Bea was seven years Adrian’s senior. Before marrying my grandfather my grandmother taught ballroom dance and deportment. Merriam-Webster defines deportment as “the way a person behaves, stands and moves especially in a formal situation.” I remember as a young child having her correct my posture. Grandma Bea also did a few oil paintings. My aunt was a very talented artist and taught high school art. One of my cousins went to music school and has done some acting. Going back a few generations, my grandmother’s and Adrian’s parents were both extremely talented milliners. I have a cherished photo of my grandmother around the age of three from the late 1890s in a bonnet designed and made by her parents.

A great-uncle of my grandmother’s designed sets for Broadway plays. Distant cousins of mine have been artists as well. One was a medical illustrator. There are graphic artists, other photographers and artistic relatives in my extended family as well.

I am thankful for the artistic gift that seems to have flowed throughout my family. I am no Adrian, not by a long shot, but the enjoyment of photography, art and my creativity has always been there. I wish I could draw or paint. Unfortunately I have limited depth perception and am saddled with more color blindness than I want to admit. But I can compose and take photographs.

I have had others in my life that have had a major impact on my photography. My friend, Ken Guglielmo, was a dorm mate freshman year of college. He remains a close friend. Ken is both a gifted fine artist as well as a successful commercial artist who has been the art director at some of the finest advertising agencies in New York. Ken has always been a huge fan of my photography and he has worked with a slew of big name photographers so his compliments carry a lot of weight.

In the late 1980s I seriously considered chucking my marketing career and going to photography school. I applied to and was accepted at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California. Brooks is considered a top photography school. While considering giving up my marketing career made possible through my training and MBA from The University of Chicago I met a Brooks graduate by the name of Hal Ungar. After graduating from Brooks Hal went on to become a photo assistant to world-famous photographer, Yousuf Karsh, who is considered to be one of the greatest portrait photographers of the twentieth century. Hal became a close friend and after spending lots of time with him I realized that earning a living, as a photographer was no sure thing even with the training I would receive from Brooks.

I decided to keep my day job. I realized that I would be better served keeping photography as a beloved hobby rather than pursuing it as a profession. Over the next decade I had the opportunity to take a number of courses with Hal including darkroom, lighting, medium format photography (cameras like the Hasselblad used for weddings) and also large format photography (the really large cameras with bellows that held film for one photo at a time). Most of these classes were just a day or two. They gave me more of an appreciation than expertise. The darkroom classes were held at a local junior college and they lasted longer. As helpful as classes Hal taught were, the Ungar Photography Club was just as valuable. Hal would ask us to shoot slides and bring them to meetings where Hal would critique them, providing coaching from the master himself. Hal also had outstanding guest speakers. Thanks to Hal my skill improved and I became more aware of the technical side of photography. My eye for composition improved as well.

What Do I Like to Shoot?

I am often asked, “What do you like to shoot.” If you peruse the photography section of my website you will see galleries dating back to 2002. The film photos I’ve shot over thirty years (1970s until 2002) are not included on the site. Rodolfo and I have just added nearly 300 photos in twenty-two new galleries, which I shot between July 2011 through April 2015. New photo galleries will be added going forward. Photos in galleries starting with July 2011 are much larger in size than earlier ones for more optimal viewing.

I love shooting a wide variety of photos from travel to still life to photojournalism. I shoot a lot of abstract photography, which I think best displays my eye for composition. My photos tend to feature geometric shape, natural and artistic beauty and I am naturally drawn to subjects with lots of color saturation. I am often asked, “How did you see that?” My photo galleries contain few photos of people. I enjoy taking photos of people but my website features my art photography.

Photojournalism provided amazing opportunities when I came out of the closet. I got to meet and befriend some of the great people in the LGBT movement here in Dallas and nationally including having press credentials for the 1993 March on Washington. The photographer is always asked to come to the front of crowd where the action is taking place. My writing provided me the added opportunity to spend time with folks after the photos were shot. I haven’t included many people because most of my people photos are not art. I don’t have a studio with lighting.

I have been fortunate in that just about every job I have had has enabled me to use my photography. The owner of one company where I worked was a fan of my photography. One day he told me that he had recently heard a conversation on radio where the host mentioned to the photographer how amazing it was that good photographers could see things that most people couldn’t see. The host stated to the photographer, “You go to a locale and can take the whole thing in. The rest of us aren’t able to do that.” The photographer replied, “Actually, we don’t take the whole thing in. We notice parts of the scene, that others don’t see.” That totally fits with what I see as a photographer. I notice geometric shapes, how lighting and color blend and play off objects and that influences what I shoot.

I hope you enjoy my photographs. Please visit the Photos section of my website and visit again often as more photos will be added.

Recommended Links

Yusuf Karsh
One of the masters of 20th century photography

My great-uncle considered by many as Hollywood’s greatest costume designer

Brooks Institute
Nationally renown photography school I almost attended