Art

THE LIVES OF OTHERS

With a new book, Fashionable Selby, on the way, it seemed appropriate to revisit this profile of one of my favourite creatives, Todd Selby, originally written for Wish magazine.

Todd Selby likes stuff. Worldly belongings, clutter. Anything that tells a story of its origin and its owner. A collection of wine corks, maybe; funny looking toothbrushes, perhaps. It’s whatever takes his fancy when he’s roaming intimately through someone’s home, offering a porthole of voyeurism (Selby needs his own word that adequately describes the depth and personal nature of his photographs) for millions of viewers around the world via his now famous website, theselby.com.

“I think people are incredibly strange and bizarre and fascinating,” says Selby over hummus sandwiches when we meet during his recent Melbourne book tour. “A lot of design magazines are just about wealth, and I have a different perspective that a lot of people share. Homes should look like people live there, and I like to see dirty laundry on the floor or the remnants of a meal. I’m really drawn to that.” So are over 100,000 people a day, if theselby.com’s daily traffic is any indication. “It’s really great to see how it’s grown, from zero, to a few hundred, to this,” he says.

It’s the stuff of internet legend: start a website, draw in the masses, and watch as the numbers soar. “The internet was integral to the whole project,” says Selby, “because I wanted to do something self-motivated that was able to get out to everyone in the world right away for free.” And for the large amount of imagery Selby posts, it has proved a viable platform for distribution.  But the 33-year old photographer and creator, who lists Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld and model and photographer Helena Christensen as some of his subjects, isn’t just lucky. His approach toward photography makes for great imagery: candid insights into a person’s world and thus their mind. As Nic Briand, one-half of Australian fashion label Lover with partner Susien Chong, says, “It was one of the most pleasant experiences we have ever had with a photographer. That’s why his photos look so genuine and he captures people so well.”

Selby rarely gives interviews and, when we meet, I realise that he’s more comfortable shining a light on the lives of others than he is his own. It explains why his home in New York’s Brooklyn has never been documented and posted.  As he says, “it’s not at all interesting. It doesn’t meet my standard for choosing homes, so why should it be on the website?” The softly spoken, well-mannered photographer is genuinely interested in other people and their lives, and he more than once tries to turn the subject of discussion away from himself. “I’m interested in humanity – the way people live their lives behind the scenes,” he says simply.

The son of a neurologist and a financial planner, Selby grew up in the suburbs of California and knew little about photography. “I always wanted to do something creative, but I never knew that you could become a photographer. All I knew about it was what I saw on National Geographic.” It was never his aim to turn his interest into a career, and so for a few years a young Selby spent time as a translator in Mexico – “which is sort of embarrassing, because my speaking is not great,” he laughs – and afterward worked a slew of jobs as far flung as a Mexican tour guide, a researcher into the Californian strawberry industry, and a consultant on political corruption to a Mexican senator. Rather than art school, Selby’s education was his varied life, which certainly seems to have fuelled his interest in and fascination of different ways of living.

Selby was lured to New York for the same reason most people are: pursuit. “It’s kind of the thing in America: if you can make it there…”, he says. “There’s so much creativity and so many people who are really trying to make something of themselves. I love that energy, and it’s a great base for me because everything is efficient and easy.” Selby had been working as a professional fashion and portrait photographer since 2001 before coming up with the concept of The Selby in 2008. It’s fast take-off forced him to stop working for a lot of magazines, though he still shoots for those who engage with his style, like the New York TimesT Magazine and French Vogue. While he typically spends about three quarters of a year travelling, Selby maintains a studio nearby to his apartment and for the most part works as a sole operator, only employing an assistant for major advertising or editorial jobs.

It’s such jobs that float his personal project, given that there’s no revenue derived from website banner ads or the like. But like any good artist, Selby retains his signature quirks and style in all he does, evident in his work for Nike, Cole Haan and Dockers. In a special project with French fashion house Louis Vuitton, Selby photographed a series of iconic men – actor and jewellery designer Waris Ahluwalia, hotelier Andre Balazs and artist Ruben Toledo among them – in their homes, those which included Vuitton luggage and bags in a perfect meeting of creativity and commerciality.

And yet while the project itself hasn’t gained Selby any revenue, the products associated with it certainly have. The photographer’s debut monograph, The Selby is in Your Place, released mid last year, has since sold over 50,000 copies, with sales showing no signs of receding. The book combines both existing and never-before-seen work alongside his trademark hand-written question-and-answers and watercolour illustrations.

“They have to fulfil some requirements,” says Selby of the subjects he photographs. “The person has to be interesting and someone that I think people will be interested in, as well as have great personal style, do something creative, and have a space that really says something about them.” The photographer receives hundreds of emails a day of people wanting him to shoot them, though he says this rarely works out. “In the beginning it was my friends, then friends of friends,” with the posts of fashion designer Alexander Wang and model and style icon Erin Wasson propelling him to broader fame. Whenever the photographer visits a new city, he works with a partner to find suitable people and places to shoot, such as fashion boutique Colette in Paris, who arranged the Lagerfeld shoot. “I depend on these strategic partnerships with people that understand my vision and have great taste and a good set of connections.” And this way, he rarely arrives to someone’s house to find it’s not suitable for his project.

In 2010, Selby visited Sydney and worked with Monster Children Gallery in seeking the couples, families and groups that he subsequently photographed, including fashion photographer Harold David and his parnter, stylist David Bonney, architect Kelvin Ho and Sass & Bide public relations manager Jacqueline Perrett, and artists and designers Jonathan Zawada and Annie Wright. “I really love Australia and all of the great artistic projects happening,” he says. For Australians – who according to Selby form a large portion of his traffic and have been very supportive of his project since it began – a peak inside the homes of fellow citizens (or friends and colleagues, in some cases), is super interesting.

As Zawada attests, Selby’s site is far-reaching. “We had people from all around the neighbourhood and at our local café recognise us,” he says of the experience. “A lady introduced herself to us and wanted to know all about our yellow heater, and we had people contacting us asking where we’d purchased our sofa. It was all a bit flattering, creepy and exciting at the same time.” Briand and Chong agree, adding that it was their cat, Potato, who received the most attention. “It made her so famous,” says Briand. “We had so many ‘cat people’ email us wanting to talk about her.” For Lover, who boast one of the largest and most established social media networks in the fashion industry, theselby.com remains one of top connectors to their website. Sarah Cottier is amazed by her website traffic as a result of her family being featured in Selby’s project. According to Google analytics, a vast percentage of her website hits are still via the link on theselby.com.

When Selby enters a home, he immediately makes himself at home and, in doing so, his subjects more comfortable. As Harold David explains, “He was pretty loose and spontaneous on the day. He knew what he liked in the house and just started shooting it. I liked his kid-in-a-candy-store approach – he really satisfied his curiosity.” Briand notes that although he and Chong are typically very private about their home, they respected his project and other people he’d photographed, so agreed to take part. “He was instantly very comfortable and enthusiastic, and without a team of assistants or stylists it was very intimate,” says Chong. “Nothing is staged or constructed, he just works with what you have.”

It’s what Selby photographs that is interesting, but also what he leaves out, too. “That he shot our fridge door was unexpected,” says Zawada. “The magnets spell out a personal joke about our cats name; there’s a note from my five-year old nephew and our best friends’ wedding invitation… all of those things mean so much to us but it’s hard to imagine that anyone else would be interested.” Needless to say, people are very interested. So too is the broader design industry, with some saying that Selby’s mode of photography is influencing not only design magazines – with magazine’s like Spaces, an off-shoot of local indie title Frankie, adopting a similar approach – but interior design in general.

“That would be awesome if it was true,” says Selby, “but I don’t know that it is. I mean people tell me that I’ve influenced how they decorate their house and things like that, but mass society is another thing.” While his editorial roster is very high profile, some still don’t understand him. “I had a discussion with a big interiors magazine who said that they liked my photography but I could never work for them because people buy design magazines to fantasise about inserting themselves into the featured spaces. I think that’s a really old-fashioned way of seeing things. It’s not real.” Many agree. “Todd’s work liberates interior design from the tyranny of style and focuses on it simply being an artefact of lives being lived,” says Zawada, adding, “so many people have told me they use his site for inspiration when decorating their homes.” “I thought the success of his site was going to spawn an avalanche of copycats, but you can’t duplicate what he does,” says Briand. “It’s his personality coming through in each shot, even down to the people he chooses to shoot.”

The unique aesthetic of The Selby is heightened by Selby’s watercolour paintings and handwritten question-and-answers, which he has his subjects fill out at the end of a shoot. The watercolour masthead of Selby’s website and page headings in his book are all created by the photographer in a bid to inject an additional humanistic element to his work. It further inserts Selby into his project and differentiates him from other photographers. “I wanted a way to include some text with the photography so that people could learn a bit more about the person – things they wouldn’t necessarily be able to learn from the photos,” he explains. Selby sits down at the end of a shoot with a pack of coloured textas and poses questions based on things he has learnt of the person or people he has just photographed. “I write the questions at the end so they’re not based on a preconceived notion of who the person is. It’s a much more natural way, and with the famous people it’s good because people have read hundreds of interviews with them anyway.”

Selby has met some undoubtedly interesting people. “Some of them are at the top of their game – whether a scientist or musician or designer – and I learn so much about their work, their way of life.” And while there have been some celebrities along the way, he’s not interested in the culture for the sake of site figures. “Of course, there’s a lot of page views when someone like Karl [Lagerfeld] or [N.E.R.D. front man] Pharrell Williams are on the site, and sometimes publicists and managers contact me to have their celebrity on the site, but I tend to ignore that. It’s a little contrived.” Which begs the question – is there anyone left he’d still like to shoot? “There’s a huge list, and there’s some fashion icons that I’m really interested in,” says Selby, “but there’s lots of people I don’t even know about yet, and that’s the exciting part.”

Fashionable Selby (Abrams), by Todd Selby, is released 14 March 2014.

All images: Todd Selby.