Revisiting David Seidner’s Life in Haunting Photos

The International Photography Center's new survey of the work of boundary-breaking writer and photographer David Seidner pushes his legacy to the forefront for a new generation to discover.

Clothing by Robert Piguet, Raphaël, Pierre Balmain. Credit (all images): David Seidner Archive

How does a writer for the New Yorker, a defining photographer of the house of Yves Saint Laurent, and an artist featured on repeat at the Whitney and Centre Pompidou fade into near obscurity? A new survey of David Seidner’s cross-disciplinary practice brings his writing, portraits, fine art, and commercial photography to the fore once again at New York City’s International Center of Photography. During his heyday, any New Yorker or Parisian—Seidner split his time between the two cities—with even a passing interest in fashion, art, photography, or the magazines covering those beats would have been hard-pressed to escape his influence.

In a series of untitled nudes, his subjects, who are very much alive, are rendered so still as to be practically sculpted. Arresting black-and-white portraits of himself and Louise Bourgeois pull heavily from the Italian Renaissance technique of chiaroscuro to unsettling, breathtaking effect. Fashion photography for Azzedine Alaïa created a fractured, funhouse-mirror effect, predating the first edition of Photoshop by four years. The list goes on.

His photographs graced the windows of Barneys; he was a long-standing columnist and editor for art periodical Bomb magazine; his 1998 photo series of the descendants of John Singer Sargent’s lush society portrait sitters was one of the all-time greats to grace the pages of Vanity Fair. Seidner, who died in 1999 from AIDS-related illness, also wrote of the “rage” he felt at the “dehumanized abstraction” of AIDS represented by the red grosgrain ribbons the well and well-to-do donned in a show of solidarity with those living with the virus. “David Seidner: Fragments, 1977-99” invites the photographer’s surviving contemporaries and a new generation of art enthusiasts to revisit his creative legacy. 

Surface spoke with ICP senior curator Elisabeth Sherman about the obligations we hold to overlooked artists, mining Seidner’s incredible archive for the exhibition, and her favorite works.

What about Seidner’s work made you feel like now, looking at ICP’s 50th anniversary, is the moment to stage this show?

We’re celebrating the depth in our collection. I wanted to do that with a less well-known figure. We will, in the future, celebrate our many archives that people know well. Robert Capa just had a show last year. That’s part of our job, bringing people back out and reminding the public about these overlooked figures.

How did your professional background impact the way you pieced together Seidner’s portraits, magazine articles, fine art photography, and advertisements for the show?

I’m a contemporary art curator. I came from the Whitney Museum and worked with everything from photography to painting, sculpture, installation, and performance. It’s not about the category—it’s about the artist. I follow artists. I’m used to working betwixt and between categories, and it doesn’t feel different to do that between fashion and fine art, just like it doesn’t feel different to do that between painting and photography.

Do you have any favorites from the exhibition?

I love seeing him figure out his ideas and his style, also how he’s going to honor all of these amazing people that he’s in awe of. John Cage was really important to him, and you see him photograph [Cage] at the very beginning. And then the orchids and how strikingly beautiful they are—how saturated, how elegiac. To know that he’s making that work as he knows his health is failing. Those two counterpoints mean a lot to me.

David Seidner: Fragments, 1977–99” will be on view until May 6.

All Stories