Interview: Seth Kushner on comic book creators, photography & “Leaping Tall Buildings”
Seth Kushner is a critically acclaimed photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, TIME, Newsweek, L’Uomo Vogue, The New Yorker and others. He graduated from School of Visual Arts in 1995. Four years later, he was selected by Photo District News Magazine as one of their “30 under 30” and is a three-time winner of the annual photo competition. In other words, he’s like Peter Parker, only without the spandex.
Recently, Kushner has co-created the upcoming book, Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics. Published by Powerhouse Books, this book looks at the creators who played a role revolutionizing the comic book industry.
Nicholas Yanes: Before we discuss your upcoming book, Leaping Tall Buildings, I wanted to ask you about your career in photography. When did you know you wanted to be a professional photographer?
Seth Kushner: I first discovered photography when I was 15. I took a class in high school because I heard it was an easy A. What I didn’t know at the time was I had fallen backwards into the most honored h.s. photography program in the country. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with photography and I would say by my senior year I had decided photography was what I wanted to do with my life. Photography gave an awkward kid a reason to talk to girls and go to football games. I owe it all to my teacher Howard Wallach, who was that one teacher who made a real difference in my life.
Nicholas Yanes: There are lots of people who would love to become professional photographers. What do you feel you did right along the way that others fail to accomplish?
Kushner: I think there are lots of talented photographers out there, many more so than me, but I think what I’ve done right, was I never gave up. Period. My all-time favorite quote is by Woody Allen, who said, “70% of success is showing up.” I couldn’t agree more.
The other thing I do which I think is very important is I constantly work. I don’t wait around for someone to pay me to work, (though it’s very nice when that happens). I’m always coming up with new ideas and concepts for photos and photo series, and I go off and I do them. Because those are the projects I HAVE to do, they often end up being my passion projects and my best work. And that’s what gets me noticed for paying gigs.
Nicholas Yanes: Your upcoming book, Leaping Tall Buildings, examines significant comic book creators. What is it about the comic book medium that interested you enough to help co-create this book?
Kushner: Comics are my first love, long before photography. My dad introduced me to them when I was three years old. I grew up wanting to make comics, but I found photo instead. For years, photo and comics were two separate things in my life, which never crossed over, until a few years back when the notion of photographing comics creators came to me.
I’ve read lost of books about the comics industry, including the excellent Men Of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones and The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju. But, I really wanted to create a book that would focus on the people behind their famous creations. People interest me and creative geniuses fascinate me. It was this goal that brought me together with Christopher Irving, who wrote the book. He’d been writing about comics for various publications and he too wanted to take a different and more personality driven approach to comics history.
(You can learn more about Leaping Tall Buildings by clicking here)
Nicholas Yanes: While making this book, you probably learned a lot about the comic book industry. What were some of the facts you learned that took you by surprise?
Kushner: I think the one thing that struck me the most was when I learned that many of the early guys, the pioneers of the golden age didn’t start out wanting to work in comic books, they wanted to have their own syndicated comic strips. That was a far more “respectable and lucrative” thing to be involved with at that time. I first heard that from Irwin Hasen, who worked for DC during the 40s where he created Wildcat and worked on Justice Society of America, Wonder Woman and others. He eventually got his wish when he co-created the syndicated strip, Dondi.
Nicholas Yanes: The vast majority of texts about the comic book medium and industry were written by people only trained how to write. How do you think your understanding of photography and images added to the history examined in Leaping Tall Buildings?
Kushner: I think it’s my passion and knowledge of the comics medium that makes my photos of the writers and artists unique and original. My goal when I started out was not to do the same old photo of the artist by their drafting table, but instead to shoot these creators in ways which invoke or recall their work. One example among many would be my portrait of Denny O’Neil in an alley, recalling “Crime Alley” (a concept created by O’Neil) where Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down.
Also, I wanted to shoot these men and women, my heroes, like I would any other celebrity or rockstar. They should look cool! But more than that, history (even comics history) is about more than names and dates. It’s about people. We all relate to other humans and I want readers to look deeply into the faces of my subjects, in this case the creators of comics.
Nicholas Yanes: On this note, is there a particular image in this book that stands out the most to you?
Kushner: I’m very pleased with my portrait of Art Spiegelman. I’ve been a huge admirer of his work for years and I was thrilled to have been able to photograph him. It wasn’t easy. He turned me down at first. But I wouldn’t give up and told him my book would be incomplete without him, which wasn’t bullshit–it was true! He relented and I found myself on the rooftop of his Soho, NY studio taking photos of him with some building in the background and it was fine, but I needed THE Art Spiegelman photo and I know I wasn’t getting it. I asked if there was something else we could try and he picked up a piece of chalk and drew the Maus version of himself on the wall behind us. I had him sit under it, and he smoked his cigarette, as he often does, and as I looked through my viewfinder, I knew I was getting THE shot.
Nicholas Yanes: With Leaping Tall Buildings finally out, what are some of your next projects?
Kushner: Leaping took four years, start to finish, but I started on other projects while working on this one. My profile series, CulturePOP Photocomix (which you can learn more about by clicking here) has been a very exciting venture for me. It’s allowed me to mix my love of photography, celebrity/personality profile and comics format into this new format.
I recently was commissioned by American Photo magazine to create an 8-page photocomic on myself making photocomix–very meta! Working on that made me really think about why the project has been so rewarding and I think it’s because it’s allowed me to really explore all the things I love on a much deeper level.
To date, I’ve made 30 different ones covering such diverse subjects as; author & Bored to Death creator, Jonathan Ames; musician & DJ, Moby; author & media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff; WTF podcaster & comedian, Marc Maron; author, Chuck Klosterman; comedian & musician, Reggie Watts, and many more. It basically scratches all of my creative itches! I began it on the webcomix hub ACTIVATEcomix.com, and then continued it on TripCity.net.
Speaking on which…
Last year, I teamed up with three buddies, cartoonist Dean Haspiel, writer/actor Chris Miskiewicz and writer/musician Jeffrey Burandt to create TRIP CITY, the Brooklyn-filtered literary arts salon. It was designed as a place for us and a community of contributors (Nick Abadzis, Jennifer Hayden, Joe Infurnari, Vito Delsante and others) to post our signature works. The works we HAVE to make.
For me, that means my autobio “comix neurotica” series, SCHMUCK. I’ve written 12 brutally honest, pathos filled shorts about based upon my experiences during my 20s and each are being drawn by a different artist. The first four are already up and are drawn by super talented artists Kevin Colden (Fishtown, The Crow), Bobby Timony (Night Owls), Sean Pryor (Pekar Project) and Ryan Alexander-Tanner (To Teach). Future episodes will feature art by Shamus Beyale (Grimm’s Fairy Tales), Leland Purvis (Resistance), Nathan Schreiber (Power-Out) and others.
There’s also The SCHMUCK Diaries, my prose companion to the comix. They allow me to delve deeper than the comix format allows, but once finished and collected, they’ll work in tandem to tell a complete narrative.
Also on TRIP CITY I’ve been working on an essay series called “First-Person POP,” where I mix personal experiences with pop-culture. Some of the topics I’ve covered include; collecting Star Wars figures, 1980s Pro wrestling, my relationship with Star Trek, about meeting Mark Hamill and how that sort of led to my getting together with my wife, the relation between my deceased father and actor Patrick Stewart, the Brooklyn comic book stores of my youth, my connection with one-time James Bond George Lazenby and more. In a way, they’re all autobio. I think I just realized how self-absorbed I am!