The Feel-Good Photographer
10 am sharp, a black cab pulls up in a street in East London and a tallish guy with metal-rimmed retro glasses in skinny jeans half way down his Calvin Klein clad bottom and white sneakers jumps out, kisses me on the cheek and says: “Hi, I am Todd.” The man is as relaxed as his photos make you imagine he is. Todd Selby is a photographer and illustrator and his now world famous project The Selby is in Your Place, features the houses, apartments and places of work of creative people – such as authors, editors, musicians, artists and designers. His candid photos leave you feeling that you just tagged along to a friends’ house (which is incidentally how Todd started out – shooting his friends’ places) and that you now know them personally. They also leave you inspired and ready to tear up your own house (of life, for that matter) to create something new and much cooler.
On this cloudy summer day, Todd Selby arrives with very little gear and just one assistant, Johnny (see our making-of video above). He’s openly enthusiastic about Abigail Ahern’s Victorian four-story terraced house where she lives with her husband Graham and dog Maude. The fact that it is raining non-stop does not faze him, even though he shoots without lighting. His work is not so much about technique, even though his photos carry an unmistakable signature. It is about how he interacts with people. It becomes clear to me why he is so selective about who he shoots. Not only does he have a particular fondness for quirky, slightly messy places of preferably super creative people with a tendency to hoard things. He also wants to be able to connect with the people he shoots on a personal level. As they wander through the house, Todd fires an endless stream of questions at her while taking pictures. They walk into the garden.
“What do you do here?”
“What do you mean, what do I do here?”
“Like, do you do any gardening?”
“Oh yes, I do pea-potting”
“Pea-potting? Cool. Can you show me?”
Abigail now gets her hands dirty, while dog Maude is vying for Todd’s attention. Naturally, animals feature heavily on his blog. They are part of the lives of those he portraits and as such part of the concept. His motivation is his own genuine curiosity and he is confident enough not to try and make anything look better than it is. His subjects are discouraged from having their hair and make-up done (though I strongly suspect Karl Lagerfeld disobeyed) or to have someone style the house (no need for Abigail, who began her career as interiors stylist and whose place is bound to be stunning on any ordinary day). Todd’s strength is making people instantly comfortable, showing their creative work and how their unique personality is reflected in their surroundings.
This authenticity may well be the key to Todd’s success. We are so used to seeing styled interiors and photoshopped models that his photos are a breath of fresh air. Seeing a place published that is clearly untidy, slightly neglected or crammed full of stuff – be that magazines, children’s toys or taxidermy – makes us look around our own homes with a sigh of relief. These are not (all) Hollywood stars. We can relate. Except, of course, that these pads belong to fabulously cool, creative and successful people who live in locations that we might only get to see on holiday.
Abigail fits his criteria perfectly. Running a successful interior design consultancy and a highly acclaimed shop in London while currently launching a range of lights and having published a book somewhere in between, she is as natural as she is creative (read our interview with her here). Her house is full of visual surprises and humour. She didn’t have her make-up done. When I asked her up front about it, her cheerful comment was “God no, wouldn’t make a smidge of difference in my case!” She looks great, of course. Her only concession to making an effort seem to be her sky-high boots in which she teeters up and down the many stairs to Todd’s command. Which are very few indeed. “Can we light the fire again?” “Shall we get some lunch?” (they hop into Abigail’s 1968 Mercedes to fetch the possibly best sandwiches in whole of London from fab little shop Violet around the corner). Todd reveals the effect that David Hasselhoff had on the girls at a Nylon Magazine shoot years ago while Abigail struggles to fill in the famous hand-written questionnaire, which is part of each of Todd’s profiles. It was the idea of his friend Lesley Arfin, since he does not write much himself.
And with that he leaves us hanging, begging for more, like a favourite show that ends just when we are on the edge of the seat. We want to see more, find out more about the people, their places, their stuff – their lives. Luckily, the man has begun to direct his own videos – three to date – to which he applies the same talent for combining good vibes, visual detail and interesting characters. More work and planning for him (he used the crew from The September Issue for his first video), even more satisfying for us.
So while Todd’s portraits of people and their places is close enough that we think “this could be me” (and if you are confident enough, send him an email, particularly if you live in Tel Aviv) and diverse enough in terms of taste and lifestyle that we can find a little of ourselves in it, there is enough glamour and eclectic genius involved, that we can only wish that The Selby would come to our place.
To see all of the photos and the video, click on the image above. Enjoy!
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