Mike Selsky: Hunting for the Strange and Obscure in Los Angeles

A provocative art photographer, Mike Selsky has an uncanny ability to capture the enigmatic elements of everyday life he encounters in his peripatetic wanderings, now mostly in the Los Angeles area. He was born and grew up in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. In high school his family moved to Europe and he finished school in the Netherlands. After Holland, he moved to Los Angeles and has been there for about 12 years.

He shoots as much as he can, and everything from technical landscapes to fashion. He also frequents the deserts and forests of California, looking for vast spaces with unique qualities. He hosts the photographic journal 2WK and is one part of DAAAF, a design and photographic collective. Mike was the grand prize winner of Leica Camera’s X Vario City Challenge. He discusses his photography and the competition below.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Subtle, surreal, graphic.

Q: Are you a full-time, professional photographer?

A: I am a full-time photographer. I shoot everything from fashion to lifestyle to the odd event. I always carry a camera and shoot people and landscapes wherever I am. I enjoy exploring California with a friend, planning road trips with vague photographic goals in mind.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography?

A: I always enjoyed taking pictures. My urge to create imagery led me first to the field of graphic design. I worked for a number of years as a designer. For fun, I started a photo journal. My blog became a passion as I documented my surroundings. All I wanted to do was make photographs, so I made the switch to shooting fashion with the help of some early clients. I worked as an in-house photographer for a number of clothing labels before going full-time freelance.

Q: How do you think your experiences as a graphic designer and subsequently as a fashion photographer have influenced your work in the fine art genre?

A: I have always liked to create something illustrative and graphic. I think more about creating swathes of color or interesting shapes with my photos. My graphic design work was also highly structured and the grid and geometry has really stuck with me.

Q: Are you a self-taught photographer or do you have a formal education in photography? Is there any photographer that especially inspires you?

A: I’m self-taught. When I came across the work of Lewis Baltz, I was blown away. He really influenced me.

Q: How would you describe his photography and can you say something about how it has influenced your style or approach to photography?

A: His photography is very minimal. He reveals beauty in the mundane or desolate. I just really agree with his ideas and the new topographic movement. When I saw his work it was a perfect execution of these basic ideas I share. And of course it was all done years before I was born. I really appreciate his work and it drives me to create my own thing. (Hin Chua is another new photographer that I’ve been following.)

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: A friend of mine had an M7. It was love at first sight.

Q: What does photography mean to you?

A: I love creating images. I am interested in all aspects of photography from developing my own film to editing a digital image. When I work, I always try to make something happen rather that just taking a picture. My favorite images are the ones that took the most effort to make.

Q: You were the grand prize winner in the X Vario City Challenge. Can you tell us about your experience?

A: It was a great experience. I read about it online, and there was an opportunity to enter a contest and try out a new camera. I picked up the X Vario at the Leica Store in Los Angeles then jumped on my bike and did a 25-mile loop around the city. I biked from Beverly Hills to downtown, then back through Griffith Park. I was shooting everything in sight — street portraits, candids, landscapes, etc. We only had four hours to shoot and I had a lot of fun and it was a great bike ride. I found the X Vario a joy to shoot with. I’m normally a prime lens guy, but it was nice to have that zoom for the variety of subjects I was shooting. I was a bit worried about the battery running out on me since I was shooting so much, but it held out fine.

Q: As part of your prize, you won a Leica X Vario. Can you share how it’s been using it?

A: Yes! Thank you, Leica. It has been a great addition to my camera bag! I’m primarily an M shooter. I use an M6 TTL and the M Monochrom. Lately I’ve been bringing the X Vario everywhere I go, and on jobs it is a great ally with the Monochrom. I love the lens! It is sharp across the frame at all apertures and it handles flare extremely well. One of my favorite parts of this camera is that it can sync with the flash, or strobes at any shutter speed. This has been very liberating to shoot with and it makes an excellent little studio camera. The files are extremely malleable and the colors it produces are some of best I have seen in digital.

Q: Before using the Leica X Vario and winning the Grand Prize in the X Vario City Challenge you had considerable experience shooting professionally with the Leica M6 TTL and the Monochrom. What specific characteristics and features do these cameras possess that you find especially conducive to your work, and how does the experience of shooting on film with the M6 compare to shooting digitally with the Monochrom?

A: I really enjoy using rangefinders. The Leica bodies are built so well and feel like a solid tool in your hands. The controls are uncomplicated and this is very refreshing in a modern camera. I love Leica lenses — the sharpness and lack of distortion. I find that shooting with the Monochrom is similar to shooting with slide film; you expose for the highlights. You can then process a tremendous amount of detail from the shadows unlike any digital camera I have used before. In use, it feels very much like shooting with my M6.

Q: Which prime lenses do you use on your Leica M cameras, and do you think that Leica lenses have an identifiable signature in the way they render the image and is that important to you?

A: The 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH. is permanently affixed. The Summilux is one of the sharpest if not THE sharpest lens I own in any format. It remains sharp wide open, while isolating your subject from the background, which many associate with the Leica Look. I really feel at home with the 50 mm focal length but I also have been looking for something wide so currently I am saving for the 24 mm Elmar. Ultra-fast lenses are becoming a little less attractive since discovering the amazing high ISO abilities of the Monochrom.

Q: Aside from the optical flexibility and high performance of its 28-70 mm equivalent zoom lens, and its ability to sync with flash at any shutter speed, which you alluded to, what was there about the Leica X Vario that made it “a joy to shoot with” on your whirlwind bike tour of L.A.?

A: Since there isn’t a rangefinder, I don’t worry about knocking it out of alignment as I’m flying off curbs on my bike. I do bike with my M cameras and have never had a problem, but I tend to be more cautious with them. The X Vario is also lighter and more compact and it is a great camera to travel with. I love the implementation of manual focusing with the X Vario. It really feels like it is mechanical, even when I know it is not. I often set the shutter to 1/1000, zone focus and take snapshots while riding. The optional grip is also really nice.

Q: As you note, your images are subtle, surreal, and graphic, but many are also enigmatic, and one can imagine an infinite number of narratives for what’s actually going on. For example, “Route 66″ shows a sports car sitting randomly in some scrub brush. Did the person get stuck? There are more questions than answers. A similarly enigmatic image is “Wilshire & Vermont,” and shows a line of folks standing next to a railing in a train station flanked by what look like uniformed police security guards. The guy in the American flag shirt is smiling, but the cops have pads and pencils. Are they writing these folks up for infractions? It’s all so indeterminate. What were you thinking when you shot these pictures, and was this enigmatic quality a deliberate statement on your part?

A: Well, I actually just came across both of these scenes by chance. The person on the ground in front of the car is a woman. She was intoxicated on something and had just crashed that Corvette in the middle of the desert (Route 66). She lost control going way too fast around a corner and ended up in that situation. We were first on the scene and as my friend ran up to help her out, I stepped back to capture the moment. She turned out to be OK, just really high. As I took another photo of the car she attacked me and tried to tear my Monochrom off my body. Rightfully so; I guess she didn’t want any incriminating evidence! For the folks lined up, yes they are being arrested in the LA Metro. I am not sure about the offense, possibly for failing to buy a ticket? I gave the kid a nod and he gave me a smile. When I’m shooting in the street, I try to be patient and something usually presents itself. I hope for something unusual, and luckily I found these characters interacting with their environments.

Q: A number of your images are abstract patterns that don’t include people but imply human agency in a human context. These include “Paint on Concrete,” of an urban sidewalk with an old-fashioned, ornate streetlamp base, electrical maintenance covers, and graffiti, and “Water on tile,” a study in aqua, with a linear pattern suggesting a lumpy bedspread, but with a feeling that suggests undulating water. What inspired you to create these images, and what do you think they communicate to viewers?

A: I observed street workers painting trade instructions on the sidewalk. The morning light was perfect and the paint just looked the exact opposite color of its surroundings. Electric! They are just mundane markings, but they can also be brush strokes on my paper. The study in aqua is just the surface of a pool with the tiles beneath. A breeze was creating all of these great patterns and I was trying to freeze them in time. As much as I love shooting black-and-white, sometimes there are photos that demand color. The X Vario really reproduces color very well. Especially the sidewalk; it is very true to life.

Q: A number of your images look quite ordinary at first, but when you look into them more deeply they have a strangeness that transcends the commonplace. I am thinking of “Jordan,” the one of a smiling young girl facing the camera and, “Van Hamersveld” where a man in holding an umbrella. Is capturing the unexpected or extraordinary in the ordinary an important element in your creative approach? Do you often shoot at wide apertures to blur the background?

A: I am constantly filtering through information when I am out in the world. When I am driving in my car, or biking down the street anything that makes me double take or stops me in my tracks is what I want to capture. The man with the umbrella is a design hero of mine, John Van Hamersveld. He is an amazing designer and created one of my favorite movie posters, “The Endless Summer.” I had the opportunity to shoot him at his place and of all the warm, welcoming, personal shots I took, it was this one that stood out for me. The umbrella and his hat have this classic appeal to me and remind me of a Renoir or Seurat or something, but his body language is something else entirely. I don’t always shoot at wide apertures, but it is very effective to isolate the subject, especially when I don’t have much choice for a background. It is much more challenging for me to make a portrait where more interesting features of the environment are in focus, so I want to work more on that.

Q: This image is fascinating because it also encompasses two levels. In a literal sense, it looks like a guy hanging out the side door catching a quick smoke, but his face is strangely illuminated by a ray of light that seems to magically emerge behind him, and the monochromatic blue color and dots of light in the background give it a cosmic context. Am I over the top here? What is actually going on and how and where did you capture this engaging image?

A: I have been documenting the underground dance party scene in Los Angeles for many years. This shot is from one such occasion where the smoke and lighting was particularly nice.

Q: How do you see your freelance career and your art images evolving over, say, the next three years or so, and do you plan to explore any other genres or venues.

A: Over the next three years, I just want to work more. I am looking for representation and I want to take on larger projects.

Thank you for your time, Mike!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Mike on his website, blog and Instagram.