Neil Selkirk, born in London in 1947, was studying photography at the London College of Printing when he won a British Arts Council award to visit New York in 1968. Arriving with a Leica and a European apprentice’s craft skills, he embraced everything the city threw at him.
During the three weeks of his scheduled trip, Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidency, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, Newark exploded in riot and flames, and Bobby Kennedy announced his presidential bid. Selkirk decided to stay. An extensive interview in which he discusses how he came to the United States and the serendipitous encounters that punctuated the evolution of his career, is published in L’oeil de la photographie and on Elizabeth Avedon’s blog.
As a passionate documentarian with an immigrant’s discerning eye for the wonders and anomalies of his adopted land, his photographs quickly drew assignments from all major US magazines including Esquire, New York Times Magazine, Interview, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Vogue and the premier issues of Wired, Paper, Colors, and Spy.
Despite their virtuosity, Selkirk’s visual explorations of uniquely American rituals and his portraits of their protagonists never lose the credibility of the street. Whether famous or completely unknown, be they heroes, villains, or the otherwise forgotten icons of our time, his subjects offer themselves to the camera with disarming equanimity.
In 1968, while assisting Richard Avedon in London, Selkirk had a traumatic and life-changing encounter with a photograph, an experience he recounts in Kurt Anderson’s NPR program “Studio 360.” Two years later, while working as an assistant at the Avedon studio, he discovered that it was Diane Arbus who took the photograph, and then met her through Marvin Israel, Avedon’s longtime friend and collaborator.
Selkirk subsequently took Arbus’s 1971 master class. After her death, at the request of her estate, he found himself immersed in researching and printing her work for the 1972 posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The experience transformed the nature of his feeling for the medium and permanently affected his own work, driving him away from embellishment of the subject and towards the simple integrity of the image as document. He has since become the only person ever authorized to make posthumous prints of the photographs of Diane Arbus.
Selkirk’s photographic journey would become inextricably entwined with this close-knit set of collaborators. In 1993, the photographs in his limited edition portfolio were featured, along with those of Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, in the Minneapolis Institute of Art exhibition, 3 Photographers, 3 Portfolios.
Selkirk’s documentary Who is Marvin Israel? premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005 and has since been screened at museums and other venues worldwide. The film, about the life and work of the enigmatic artist, designer, art director, and teacher explores Israel’s influence on Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, and many of the most important photographers of the last half of the 20th century.
For almost five decades Selkirk has been an invaluable resource for those exhibiting and publishing Arbus’s work. As an unofficial collaborator in the radical installation of the 2016 Arbus exhibition in the beginning at the Met Breuer curated by Jeff Rosenheim, Selkirk participated in a presentation at the Met on the evolution of the show’s design. (His presentation begins at 19:40 minutes.)
All the while, Selkirk has pursued a variety of original photographic projects. Lobbyists, his 2006 book, offered an alternative vision of just who lobbyists are and suggests that they are in fact pretty much like the rest of us—only more so. In a radio interview called “Strange Bedfellows,” WNYC's Brian Lehrer discusses Selkirk’s book (reviewed at length in the Washington Post) with the author and two of his subjects.
A twenty-five year project consisting of portraits of mothers, each of whom had a child between the ages of ten and twenty, culminated in the exhibition Certain Women at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in 2015 and the publication of a hand-printed, handbound limited edition book. The Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed Selkirk for its “Photographer Spotlight” series, which appeared in both print and video.
Other ongoing projects include Security Matters and Out of Darkness, both of which explore photography’s capacity to reveal that which—although indisputably there—would otherwise remain unseen.
His work is represented in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other museums and private collections nationwide.
Selkirk lives and works in New York City and the Hudson Valley.