Interview: Seth Olenick, The Celebrity Portrait Photographer
by Daniel Haim
There’s no doubt about it – it takes a special kind of person to found a publication called Bald Magazine. And Seth Olenick definitely fits the bill. Olenick, who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, bald himself, flipped the traditional “Go West, young man” advice on its head, moving from Los Angeles to New York in order to pursue his aspirations. Olenick’s travels landed him at New York University, and he has remained in New York ever since, shooting live music and making a name for himself in the photo industry.
While Olenick has photographed such well-known musicians as Joe Strummer, The Strokes and Green Day, among others, the creative mastermind has spread his magical touch into other projects as well. Olenick was tapped by Comedy Central to shoot the photos for the Reno 911 web site and has had his hand in quite a few other comedic pursuits. Olenick has also photographed comedians such as Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Zach Galifianakis, Demetri Martin and scores of others. He hasn’t forgotten his musical roots though, as Olenick continues to put together portraits of bands such as Oxford Collapse and Up the Empire. Pretty solid resume for someone who viewed photography as a hobby until 1998.
Things really came together for Olenick when he quickly ascended to the position of Photo Editor at Heeb Magazine, a Jewish urban culture publication. This allowed Olenick to call the shots, and soon was photographing all of the comedians that appeared in the magazine. This opportunity led to the birth of Bald Magazine, which featured bald comedians in its first photo feature. Olenick is currently working on a coffee table book including people from all over the comedy industry, hairless or not.
Photographer Seth Olenick puts all the joke aside when it comes to taking a some serious photographs of loved television personals.
Daniel: When did you realize that photography is what you wanted to do for a living?
Seth Olenick: I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, but knew that I wanted to be on the East Coast eventually. School brought me to NY as I went to NYU, but I loved the city so much I decided to stay a few more years. 9 years later, I am living in Greenpoint Brooklyn where I have been for almost 6 years and where I have a studio a block from my apartment. It makes going to shoots a lot easier. It also makes it less stressful when I forget something at home or the studio.
Photography is something that I have enjoyed for years, but I saw it more as a hobby until 1998 when I was going out to shows and photographing bands. I knew that this was what I was meant to do. After a while, the brutality of shooting live music (a punch to the face, kicks in the head, my tooth penetrating my lip from a flying bottle) got stale, but the desire to make a career out of photography stayed with me. Over the years I have worked in the photo industry, but nothing is as rewarding as being behind the camera.
Daniel: What are your your favorite shoots to do?
Seth Olenick: My favorite shoots to do are the ones where the other person comes to me with an idea. This is usually when I can be most creative because then I can take what they want and give it my own little spin. It’s nice to come up with concepts for the shoots on my own, but sometimes my ideas are so out there that I risk making my subject think I’m crazy. That’s not a good thing when I just met them 15 minutes earlier for the first time. One idea that got approved that I thought never would was the preparation of a baby sandwich. You’ll have to wait and see what that one looks like.
Daniel: How did you come across taking comics head shots, creative pictures, and well – where did this portfolio begin?
Seth Olenick: In 2003 I started working for Heeb Magazine, a Jewish urban culture magazine based out of NYC. I started as an intern, but quickly became the Photo Editor, finding myself fortunate enough to be able to assign any shoot to myself. Being a huge fan of comedy my whole life, I decided that I would shoot all the comedians in the magazine. This led me to people such as Todd Barry, David Cross, Eugene Mirman, Michael Showalter and Demetri Martin amongst others. It was pretty cool being able to meet these people, but even cooler that I got to photograph them. When I left the magazine, I wanted to start my own magazine for bald people (Yes, I am bald).
In the process of coming up with a great first photo feature, I thought it would be great to have all the bald comedians I could get. When the reality set in that I didn’t have the funds to start the magazine (yet), I decided to pursue photgraphing comedians and making a coffee table book with some of my favorites. Naively, I assumed that once I shot 20-30 people, I would be ready for the publishers. Three years later, I have shot almost 200 people, and the prospect of the book happening is very real. And now it covers not only standups, but also writers, directors, actors, all within the realm of comedy. The Shits N’ Giggles blog came out of necessity for me since I had all these amazing shoots with all these amazing people, but the photos were all just sitting on my computer.
The plan was to use the blog to build an audience for when the book was released, not get a book deal from the blog. That does seem to be happening a lot these days, but I like to see the blog more as a companion piece to the book. Also, the photos I plan on putting in the book have been seen only by a few people out there, so there’s a big surprise waiting even if you have seen the blog.
Daniel: What inspires you the most to take a good picture?
Seth Olenick: Fear. The fear that I have wronged the person that I’m shooting. As if I wasted their time and my own if we don’t get the right shot. I’ve had some amazing shoots and I’ve had some that I came out of thinking I should retire. Not really, but it’s what I imagine an athlete feels like coming off a winning streak and losing to the worst team in the league. You always want to play at your fullest potential. And hell, why would I want a crappy photo out there with my name on it?
Daniel: Do you remember your first photography sale?
Seth Olenick: I believe the first sale I ever made was to Süddeutsch Zeitung Magazine back in 2002. I had gone to see The Strokes with David Cross at the legendary Apollo Theater at the end of ’01. It was probably the whitest show they ever had at the theater, and I was there to take photos of thmanager of The Strokes for an interview I set up for a friend’s zine that never materialized (do you see a pattern?). Somehow this magazine in Germany found out I had also taken photos of the band while they were playing, and they asked for one, offering me about $100. The problem was that since the money was coming from another country, there were all kinds of crazy laws preventing the deal from going down smoothly. In the end, I never followed up to get the money, so you could say that my first photo sale made me $0.
Daniel: Can you share with us a good photography quote? One that sticks out in your mind, one that means something to you.
Seth Olenick: I don’t really follow famous photography quotes, so I’ll make one up right now: “If you can’t get the shot you want unless you put your life in danger, then do it!”