Steven Sebring: Illumination

The Photographer Offers Intimate Anecdotes of the Sonic Poets in His Exhibition

Steven Sebring canonizes a group of seminal musicians whose lyrical gifts approach the sublime in the images we feature today. Created from Polaroids of icons including Michael Stipe, Joey Ramone and Neil Young (all shot prior to the widespread popularization of digital film circa 2000), the digitally altered large-scale portraits form the centerpiece of Sebring’s debut solo exhibition, Illumination: Who Are Poets, opening Monday at New York’s Milk Gallery. “I embrace digital technology, but look at how I can screw it up and abstract beauty,” Sebring explains, adding, “I called it Illumination based on the idea that the tiled pieces look like stained glass. When you walk up to a beautiful stained glass piece, you can’t really tell what’s [being depicted], and then you walk away from it and it tells the story.” To launch the project, Patti Smith, the focus of Sebring's much lauded documentary project Dream of Life, will be performing and paying homage to each of the featured artists through poetry and spoken word. Sebring, whose work has also been featured in Vanity Fair and W, among others, talked to NOWNESS about the stories behind the collection.

Patti Smith
Patti is like my sister. We had an immediate spiritual connection. When [we met in] Detroit in '95 she knew immediately that I didn’t really know anything about her because I didn’t grow up with her music. I tend not to want to research anybody I photograph, to be honest. Patti was that precise situation and I asked her if I could start filming her and that’s how the film [Dream of Life] became what it is. I just followed her for years, learning about her; the fact that I didn’t know much about her was a sin. Patti is a national treasure––there’s no woman on the planet like her.

Michael Stipe
Michael is a very dear friend of mine and he’s the reason I met Patti. Patti needed to be photographed for SPIN back in 95 and I had just shot Michael, whose record she was working on [REM’s 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi; Smith contributed vocals to the track "E-Bow the Letter”]. He mentioned my name and so I’m forever grateful to him.

Philip Glass
I photographed Philip Glass for L’Uomo Vogue and he happens to be in the Dream of Life as well. I’m totally inspired by him: for me, he is the modern composer of our time.

Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll was amazing––very thin, very cool, and he spoke quickly. Spiritually, he was an intense person. In one of the portraits he’s wearing a wire mesh headpiece that was designed by my friend [hair stylist] Bob Recine.

Neil Young
Neil Young resonated with me when I was growing up. I used to wear this old 1950s Stetson back in the day, and the only thing he wanted to do during the sitting was wear it.

Richard Hell
I shot Richard Hell in a bookstore in [New York’s] East Village for GQ years ago and he was a very high-energy, interesting guy. Patti would say he’s one of our biggest poets. His portrait has this really cool arrogance about it.

Joey Ramone
From what I understand, my picture of Joey Ramone was one of the last sittings he did before he passed. He was very excited about the photoshoot and I remember him leaving this really long message on my answering machine. Hot pink was Joey’s favorite color, and so I manipulated his image so there was a bit of pink and purple in it. I wish I’d saved that message.


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