Seth Kushner on CulturePOP


It’s quite likely that you’ve seen the work of Seth Kushner, even if you don’t read CulturePOP, his series for ACT-I-VATE with Photocomix Profiles of Real-Life Characters. As noted in his ACT-I-VATE bio: “Seth Kushner’s photography work has appeared in such magazines as The New York Times Magazine, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, Time, L’Uomo Vogue, and in galleries around the world. His book, The Brooklynites, (powerHouse Books, 2007) was considered ‘a terrific coffee table photo/interview book’ by The New York Times. Aside from living out his dream of writing a graphic novel based on his Schmucky past, he is working on Leaping Tall Buildings, a book profiling NYC cartoonists. Seth also co-created and co-edits the comics journalism website, GRAPHIC NYC and directs videos, including the “promo-mentary” film, (co-directed by Carlos Molina) The ACT-I-VATE Experience. Seth was born, bred and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife Terra, his son, Jackson, and way too many comics.” I love the range of topics/people that Kushner covers in CulturePOP–and I’m glad we got a chance to discuss the project.

Tim O’Shea: How do you go about selecting your subjects for CulturePOP?

Seth Kushner: My subjects have come from many places. Some are folks I’ve photographed previously (Gymnast Olga Karmansky,  Super Sucklord, Lisa Natoli) and relished the opportunity to explore them deeper, as this format allows for. Others were suggestions from co-curator, promoter and sometime editor Jeff Newelt (Douglas Rushkoff,  Carlos ‘Mare 139’ Rodriguez, Jonny Wilson of Eclectic Method, etc.) who is great at connecting interesting and creative folks. Dean Haspiel, who has been my editor on every piece, also suggested a few subjects (Jen Ferguson, Jennie Fisk,  and upcoming subjects Tim Hall and Cynthia Von Buhler). Finally, there are people I’ve been aware of and wanted to work with. (Rachel Kramer Bussel, Caits Meissner etc.).

O’Shea: When selecting a subject, do you have to respect or appreciate their craft to consider covering them, or does that even enter into the equation?

Kushner: Choosing subjects to cover is a very personal thing. Because of the huge amount of time I put into every piece, I really have to be excited and interested by each subject. People give me good subject suggestions all the time, and I politely reject them for reasons that are purely my own. It’s difficult for me to even explain why I think someone would make a great CulturePOP subject. It’s something I have to feel.

O’Shea: On average, how many photoshoots are involved for one installment of CulturePOP?

Kushner: On average, there is one photshoot for each subject. The “session” usually consists of a recorded interview and shoot, lasting around four hours in total. Of course, that’s after our initial conversations about concept and before my transcribing, retouching and constructing the actual piece. Each finished piece takes days to complete.

There have been instances when more than one shoot has been needed. Douglas Rushkoff,  for example started with a shoot in Times Square as a means of illustrating corporatism, but when I started putting the piece together, it became obvious that I needed more. Dean suggested I also shoot Doug up in Westchester, where he lives, in order to get a contrast to the city images.

The Cynthia Von Buhler piece I’m currently working on will consist of at least two shoots, but probably more. It’s going to be a huge one, and very different.

O’Shea: Do you go into a shoot knowing what kind of shots you want to take for the sake of your narrative, or is it a more organic process?

Kushner: I go into each session with a concept in mind, which is based upon my homework on the particular subject, plus conversations between the subject and me. But, it’s all fairly lose allowing for on-the-spot inspiration.

O’Shea: How do you layout an installment, and is there ever anyone you ask “Hey look at this scene, does that work for you?” Or do you prefer to just trust your own trained eye/sense of layout?

Kushner: I’ve studied comics form independently for my whole life, but when it came to sitting down and making them, it’s a whole different thing. Dean has been my mentor. I always construct the piece on my own and then send to him for feedback. In the beginning, Dean would have a ton of suggestions, all on the money, but now he has very few. That makes me proud, because I must be getting better and more confident.

Working on the layout is probably my favorite part of the process, even more than the actual shoot. I love figuring out how to best convey the narrative and I get to use my sense of design and story and am able to cull from all of my influences. It where I feel I get to be the most creative….and, I get to make comics!

Jennie Fiske

O’Shea: Speaking of layout, how challenging is it place the text boxes in such a way that allows the narrative to flow, while at the same time not obscuring parts of the photo you want featured? As frequent collaborator Christopher Irving noted in the first installment: “I feel you’ve gotten a very strong hand on the LETTERING aspect, breaking it up into the right visual and narrative beats to draw the eye and pull the reader along.”

Kushner: That was very nice of Chris to say! I find the process works best when I don’t think of my photos as “precious art” but instead as tools for conveying a narrative. That means text must be placed strategically on my images in order to lead the viewer’s eye around the page, and it has to work in conjuncture with the images to tell the story.

Lettering was something I was very nervous about in the beginning because I understood it’s a very particular art, and often an invisible one, when done well. Dean was very helpful to me in figuring out how to best place the text boxes and now, while I’m certainly no Todd Klein, I’m feeling good about my ability to add the text elements to these pieces.

O’Shea: How intimidating was it try to convey poetry in photography, as you did with the Caits Meissner installment?

Kushner: It wasn’t very intimidating. Caits Meissner’s  piece was the second one I worked on, so I probably didn’t know enough back then to be intimidated! Caits was someone I’ve know for a while and I’ve always wanted to work on something with her. She was one of the first subjects I thought of for CulturePOP. The poem was written by a friend of her family’s and meant a lot to her, so I put a lot of thought into how I would juxtapose images of Caits with the poem. I worked on a detailed shot list, broken down by paragraph and we discussed and planned together. Caits is an amazingly creative person, so we had a very good synergy. It’s still one of my favorites.

O’Shea: What have been some of the more logistically complicated photo shoots you’ve pursued in this project? Do you ever have subjects that initially express interest in being featured, but then freeze up when the actual shooting gets under way? Given that you are documenting creative people, do you ever let them weigh in on how they would like to be documented for the story, or do you feel that impedes too much on your creative process?

Kushner: I very much appreciate when the subject wants to be involved to the point where they’re a collaborator. For example, I recently worked with writer Tim Hall on his profile, which will post sometime in January. I transcribed Tim’s interview and sent it to him to edit. Tim’s a great writer, so what I received back was a whole new piece which was heads and tails better than the original and had perfect beats and a narrative thread which had the whole piece working in a way I never expected. I was thrilled.

O’Shea: Have any of your subjects been inspired to create a unique piece inspired by being the focus of your camera?

Kushner: The one I’m currently working on with artist Cynthia Von Buhler will be a unique one in the series because Cynthia has taken the opportunity with this profile to delve into a story about her fascinating family history. There will be parts of the narrative that will “flashback” to her grandparents during the 1920s and for those sections, she is building small dollhouse sets and characters for me to photograph. This one is a true collaboration and I’m very excited to be working with such a creative person and to be bringing a new element into the series.

O’Shea: Can you talk about how the Douglas Rushkoff installment came about? Would you agree in that the collection of unique tales you have that this one was one of the most unique?

Kushner: I’m not sure the Rushkoff  piece is the “most unique.” I think they all differ from one to the other, and they all share similarities. Rushkoff’s is certainly the longest! But, I can see why you might find it different. Unlike most of the ones I’ve worked on, it’s not a personal story, but instead it’s a sort of ‘Rushkoff 101.’ I think Doug’s a brilliant guy and his theories are important and I wanted to present them in a new way. It was somewhat daunting because I believe them to be so important. The recorded interview lasted 25 minutes (Doug talks fast and passionately) and once transcribed, it was over 2200 words. The average CulturePOP has about 400 words of text. It was huge! I took a stab at editing it, but every thought seemed to lead into something else and nothing seemed extraneous. I sent it to Dean who helped to break it down into beats, but he also couldn’t find much to omit. Then Jeff did a pass and he was able to tighten it slightly. Finally, I sent it off to Doug, and he did a great job of tightening and clarifying. That was the version I laid out into the photocomix.

People have responded very favorably to the piece and it’s by far the most viewed of all the ones I’ve done.

O’Shea: Am I mistaken, or have all the installments been in color? Has there ever been a temptation to do one in black and white? For me, I was wondering given how you capitalized upon iconic imagery and the contrast of darks and lights in the Lisa Natoli installment?

Kushner: There hasn’t been a black and white one yet, but there could be one upcoming. Or, at least one with black and white elements. Actually, the on one designer John D’Aponte’s  history of family mustaches utilizes sepia tone in parts.

As I begin to explore different types of narrative threads, I’ve been experimenting with different “treatments” to differentiate from “real world” parts. For example, the next installment to go up, on comedian/musician Reggie Watts is about how he “riffs,” how he turns real-life situations into improve routines. So, for the parts in the story where he does his riffs, I have the imagery turn very psychedelic to symbolize and illustrate this ability, this ‘superpower’ he has.

I plan to experiment more in future installments.

For the one on aerialist Lisa Natoli, I really wanted to make the parts of her performing very theatrical and beautiful and graceful. A lot of thought went into the layout in order to bring out those elements.

Rachel Kramer-Bussel

O’Shea: How challenging was it to pull off the story within the story for Rachel Kramer-Bussel‘s Bound. You not only have the dual narrative element, but you had to pull off a story dealing with eroticism/bondage in a manner that did not get too graphic, while still being sexually charged to some extent?

Kushner: I’ve very much wanted to explore fictional photocomix narratives. CulturePOP has been profiles of real people, and as much fun and as challenging as it’s been creating these, I want to begin creating photocomix using actors and sets and shooting them like movies. I was looking for a subject who would allow me to experiment within the confines of this series and I knew a writer would be perfect. So I approached Rachel Kramer Bussel about allowing me to illustrate one of her shorts stories from her new collection. Rachel writes very visually, so it was perfect.

Rachel gave me ‘Bound,’ an edgy bondage story. I read it and knew immediately I would be able to do an adaptation. I started by breaking her story down into a proper comics script. Taking the narrator/main character’s internal monologue and breaking them into the beats which would go into the text boxes, and removing all description from the text and turning it into direction for me to cull the visuals.

In adapting the story to a comics script, I created my own edit, different from Rachel’s story, but hopefully keeping the spirit of it. Also, this was an edgy, sexual story and while her descriptions of the situations worked in prose form, I knew a straight visual retelling would come across as pornography. So I quickly decided to be somewhat obscure in what I would show. I would keep it to close-ups, reflections and angles that would all allow for the viewer to use his imagination.

Next, I had to cast to production with two “actors” to pose as the characters. I showed my shooting script to a couple of friends and they were game and trusted me to not go overboard with the sexuality and objectify them.

I did the actual production as a “green screen” shoot, basically. All of the Vegas environments came from my own back catalogue of images, and were merged afterwards.

It was a large undertaking, but I’m really proud of how it turned out and it was a good experiment for me. I will be moving more in this direction very soon.

Rachel was great, because she gave me complete free reign with her material, which she provided me, trusted me and didn’t interfere at all, and loved what I did. A perfect collaborator!

O’Shea: What creative satisfaction do you get out of CulturePOP that you don’t gain in your other photographic venues/pursuits?

Kushner: In my freelance career shooting personalities for magazines I almost always have to end up with one singular photo, which will represent a person. I stared thinking that wasn’t enough. I wanted show show more aspects of a person. With CulturePOP, the “portrait” is just a small part of it.

CulturePOP was designed to allow me to experiment with photos and comics form, and to work with and profile people who inspire and fascinate me. Yes, its completely self-indulgent, but I hope viewing these sort of visual, narrative poems will be interesting and entertaining for others as well.

O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask?

Kushner: I think the terms “photocomix” or “fumetti” are somewhat loaded terms for many people. There seems to be a long history here in the US of bady done comics with photos. I remember Vertigo putting out some OGNs done with heavily manipulated photos a while back and, while interesting, I don’t think they worked particularily well for readers. I’m looking to do it differently and (hopefully) more successfully.

I was talking with Kim Deitch recently and he said he used to collect “photo novellas” imported by Hearst from Italy back in the the early 80’s. They were soap style stories but had consistantly strong writing. He also told me both Fellini and Sophia Loren got their start in fumetti. I had no idea. He was very encouraging and said he always thought there was untapped potential in fumetti and very much liked what I was doing.

Also, someone asked me why I was doing this on ACT-I-VATE, and not trying to bring the idea somewhere else, perhaps a venue which paid. It was a good question and I think I had a good answer. Because by posting these on ACT-I-VATE, a webcomix portal, I’m stating very clearly that what I’m doing is COMICS. It’s not photo collage with words or any other possible description. It’s comics. By definition, comics are words and pictures which go together sequentially to tell a story. No one ever said the pictures had to be drawn. Yes, traditionally, drawn images seem to work best, but that doesn’t mean the medium is not open to experimentation with other forms of imagry, like photographic.

Of course, it’s also a honor and a bit of a validation to share a platform with the likes of great creators like Dean Haspiel, Mike Cavallaro, Nick Bertozzi, Simon Fraser, Tim Hamilton, Michel Fiffe and the rest. Their work, and their encouragement and support of my work, has made a huge impact on me. It feels great to be a part of the group and to be making comics.

One thought on “Seth Kushner on CulturePOP

  1. I’m also making comics with photos and I love Seth’s work. Seeing comics expand as a medium is both a joy to watch and an even bigger joy to participate in!

Comments are closed.