For almost 20 years, Tod Seelie has been a fixture in the music and art communities operating at the fringes of Brooklyn’s ongoing gentrification. Not just a documentary photographer, he is an active participant - collaborating with the artist Swoon on her projects, for example. His recent book Bright Nights capture mosh pits, warehouse parties, street fights and strip shows and is a welcome reminder of the messy, confusing, overexcited energy that pushes the city forward.
What did you get into first? Music or photography?
I got into music first. In fact, it was many years before I ever thought to take photos at all the shows I was going to. Even then, it was pre-digital photography, so you were much more limited with what you could do.
NYC has gotten really cleaned up in the last 20 years. Do you feel like you're capturing/presenting/promoting a different version of life in the city?
One thing that I love about NYC is that there are thousands upon thousands of worlds existing, side by side in the city. Bright Nights is just my version of the NYC I've been living in. I don't think any one version is more legit than another. I just hope that people find my version as interesting as I do.
Where are you from originally? What made you move here? Have you found what you're looking for?
I'm originally from Cleveland. I moved to NYC to attend college in Brooklyn, and I initially had a very difficult time here. Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else at this point in my life. I have definitely found great communities here in the city, but I hope I never really find what I'm looking for... because then I'll stop looking.
A few of your photos, such as the one shot from the top of the Williamsburg Bridge, feel pretty daring or dangerous. Does your camera give you a sense of protection?
At times I think a camera can give you a sense of protection. But I find the opposite is true more often. It's pretty typical to be targeted at shows or other events with a lot of chaos because you have a camera. There's something about it that makes it open season to try and fuck with you. It used to be, years ago, that having a camera at protests and other events with a police presence would be a form of protection, but the opposite is true now. Media are often singled out and targeted by the police because their documentation can often come back to haunt officers when their actions are recorded and seen by the public.
Your book balances really energetic images with very calm scenes. How did you approach editting? Did you start with a concept in mind or did the photos tell their own story?
It took me a while to come up with the theme. When I finally did decide on NYC as the subject, it was just a matter of combing through every photo I had taken in the city since 1997. I just culled and culled photos, year by year, and slowly whittled them down. The fact that the book was comprised of images facing each other forced me to pair every image in the book, which was a lot of work, but also was a huge factor in determining the story.
Do you see yourself as documenting a community or participating and maybe even promoting that community?
I see myself doing all three. I consider documenting a community a form of participating, but I also don't think that is enough. There have been projects over the years, like our first junk raft trip on the Mississippi, where my documentation was second or third tier on the list of priorities. When you look at those photos it's pretty apparent it wasn't my focus. I think not only documenting, but then sharing the photos with the communities, allowing them to tell their own stories with the help of your images, is also an important way to support them. I think there is an inherent element of promotion in anything you photograph by the simple act of choosing what to record to share with the world.