David Seidner: Fragments, 1977-99 | ICP, New York City

BY Stephen Frailey, March 1, 2024

In his short professional career, the photographer David Seidner embraced a rhapsodic historical vocabulary of refinement and connoisseurship, in which the female was the aristocratic embodiment of grace and privilege. Working from the late 1970s until his death in 1999 at the age of 42, during a pivotal period when fashion photography became assertive, subversive, and provocative, Seidner chose instead to emulate a twentieth-century history in which a Greco-Roman-European ethos prevailed and classic idioms drawn from opera, dance, letters, and costume maintained the high mark of cultivation. In an interview with Louise Neri in BOMB, Seidner described his work as using “an entire Baroque lexicon.” The anomalous and elegiac gestures in his photographs seem strategic – he was confident in his role as a man of letters, summoning an emerging cultural class of downtown sophisticates to share his taste and style. 

It is counterintuitive that, contradicting the institution’s branding and privileging of “concerned photography,” the ICP would commence a celebration of its 50 years with its archive of a fashion photographer who has left the limelight. That and an accompanying gathering, both overseen by Elisabeth Sherman, of a versatile selection from its archives seems intended to champion the plurality of photographic practice. 

David Seidner, Betty Lago, Azzedine Alaïa, 1986. David Seidner Archive, International Center of Photography © International Center of Photography

David Seidner Fragments, 1977-99, on view through May 6, is a thoughtful and hospitable glance at an artful sensibility and a useful inventory of Francophile romanticism, distinguished by an emphasis on fabric and its sumptuous cascade – rippling, ruched, and formed into massive bows in the manner of Yves Saint Laurent, Seidner’s patron and consigliere. Consistent also throughout the work is an emphasis on the vertical, seen in the early full-figure portraits broken into five stacked contact frames, reminiscent of academic life-drawing metrics. The use of the column as a classical motif and of the face elongated in vertical tears of the photograph, a Fortuny pleat, an architectural form, all add to the ongoing verticality. The shards of broken mirror that recur in certain images act as a compositional device rather than a suggestion of violence or psychological fragmentation. A surrealist pastiche or collage, they appear as confetti, or as a chandelier.  

David Seidner, Pia Getty, ca. 1995. David Seidner Archive, International Center of Photography © International Center of Photography

Seidner’s sensitivity and ambition as a portraitist is evident in a grid of somber black-and-white portraits of artists of high credentials, an homage to the Roman bust rendered with gravitas and authority (only Louise Bourgeois suggests a slight trace of mirth). Notably, Seidner includes a self-portrait among this pantheon of achievement. With an opulent folio of portraits commissioned by Vanity Fair, on view here, Seidner translates the painterly nobility of John Singer Sargent into photographic terminology.

As celebrated by the ICPs own memorable Weird Beauty in 2009 (curated by the agile Carol Squiers and Vince Aletti), fashion photography from the late 20th century has seen a tectonic shift, restless and jubilant and sliding from scruffy brawl to extravagant fiction and back. One is reminded of the brilliant accomplishments of Tim Walker, whose whimsical fashion images cull from the opulence of British history and pageant in dialogue with an eccentric present, and more recently Erik Madigan Heck’s lushly romantic pictures of haute couture. In both, historical precedence informs and transforms the future. The obvious thing to do would be to speculate on what might have come when contemplating an abbreviated life. Here, we are left, however, with the gifts of an individual of tenacious taste and commitment, a fleeting requiem for a short life well-lived.