For the past 15 years, Brooklyn-based photographer Tod Seelie has documented the carnivalesque. The pursuit of visually intriguing images has taken him to 25 different countries and five continents. In his photos high-heeled women in body-suits crowd-surf, sweaty limbs sway to pulsing indie rock, and junk raft flotillas converge on international waterways. As a member of several different artist collectives Seelie acts as both an observer and participant in his photos. With the Miss Rockaway Armada, Seelie has floated these junk rafts down Venice’s Grand Canal, traveled to Haiti and built earthquake-proof domes for Konbit Shelter, participated in Grub—a dumpster-diving party where food is taken from the trash and communally cooked—and staged an impromptu concert in a maintenance shed atop the Williamsburg Bridge with the punk band Japanther.
“I always thought it was more important to be a contributor than just someone who takes photos, and that’s partially why I am invited to be a part of a lot of these projects because I am not just the guy who lurks around with the camera and then leaves,” Seelie said.
Seelie’s photos have been featured in the New York Times, Slate, Vice, Spin, Juxtapoz, and on his own personal websites: the.everydayilive.com, the.ofquiet.com, suckapants.com and todseelie.com. These Dionysian endeavors have culminated in Seelie’s first book—Bright Nights: Photos of Another New York—that was published this past October by Prestel Publishing.
However Bright Nights is not a prototypical coffee table book. In a review of Bright Nights for the San Francisco Book Review George Erdosh wrote: “These are not the usual city photos with buildings, landscapes, parks and people. These photos really show the downside of the city, the drunks, those high on drugs, dead rats, a dead cat partly mauled by other hungry creatures, fallen down buildings, frenzied people on rock concerts, and so on.”
Tod Seelie loves New York, but not the New York that can be found on the post cards in Times Square. In 2011, The New York Times wrote alongside a slideshow of his images:
“While Mr. Seelie’s work documents events and situations that may seem to be weird for weirdness’ sake, the best of his images elevate mere weirdness to a more striking real of visual intrigue.”
Seelie’s photos are a contrast of a city with a glamorous persona, and the counter-culture communities who have made New York their own: bike parades and indie rock concerts, pyromaniacs experimenting in abandoned lots, and blue haired women mud wrestling in Walter DeMaria’s New York Earth Room.
A friend of mine said I really love your WTF element,” Seelie said. “Photography is an extension of a narrative, in my case it’s a confusing mysterious narrative, but there is a narrative. If you look at a photo and its just simply confusing you may not be interested in it, but when there’s an element of narrative, even if you don’t understand it immediately, you are drawn in.”
Originally a sculpture major at Pratt University, Seelie dabbled in photography, mainly taking pictures of his friends on the weekends. When a professor flipped through his “dollar store photo album” he gave Seelie the reassurance and push he needed to pursue it as a career.
“He said something like: Your sculpture is very smart and academic, great for an art audience, but your photography is totally personal and has a vision to it, and that is way harder to do,” Seelie said.
In addition to freelance photography, over the past decade and a half Seelie has worked a variety of odd jobs. From art handling to home renovation, Seelie has developed a coterie of friends of the same D.I.Y. persuasion. Rather than waiting around for someone to put their work up in galleries they painted on the walls of abandoned buildings or public places in their borough. If they wanted to put on a concert they scouted abandoned warehouses, power plants, or used someone’s apartment and rigged the sound system and lights themselves. Some of his collaborators included in Bright Nights are Brooklyn street artist Caledonia Curry, better known as Swoon, and Ian Vanek of the band Japanther.
Seelie said he is focused on documenting the free-spirited camaraderie that these individuals have found within their artist collectives. Pensive self-portraits, toothy grins, and landscape photos are just as prevalent in Seelie’s work as the hedonistic pictures of concertgoers. When Seelie sailed junk rafts down the various waterways of the world he said that the project was one of the most amazing he had ever worked on because of the individuals he met along the way. The brainchild of Swoon, the Miss Rockaway Armada is a collection of individuals with an idea. Their quest is propelled by the notion of traveling in a sustainable way and seeing the American wilderness from a wholly different perspective.
The Armada has sailed the Mississippi and Hudson Rivers as well as Venice’s Grand Canal on ramshackle pontoon boats made entirely from recycled materials. Each trip featured a different number of boats, and some were designed to host live music and theatrical performances. Rather than focusing on how to get from point A to point B, the Armada was constantly trying to engage people along the way. Seelie said that whenever the boats would dock near a town on the Mississippi trip, the crew invited locals on board to teach them theatrical trades like silk screening and costume making.
“I think a lot of the people who I photographed for the book are trying to make the city they want to live in,” Seelie said to an interviewer in 2013. “When it comes to the flotillas, that idea is taken to an even bigger level. There it’s about making the world that they want to live in,” he said.