HOW IMPOSSIBLE it must be to photograph a cartoonist in captivity. Not as distant and rapid snapshot, of course, but as evocative portrait that goes far beyond lighting the tricky armored skin of the subject, and that moves to a deeper point of reveal and revelation, until the artwork illuminates — not from without but from within — the cartoonist’s truer spirit.
How challenging it must be to corner the strange bird and beautiful beast that is the comics maker, many of whom would easily fall under the nomenclature “controlis freakus” (they art-direct their own panels daily, after all), and then entice this species to enter into the trusting type of creative collaboration necessary to achieve the most emotionally honest of portraits.
But then again, right up until the very end, Seth Kushner refused to be fazed in the face of the challenging, if not the seemingly impossible. Time and time again, even as he battled leukemia and its related biological bastards, he was an artist who inspired, particularly whenever he defied the odds.
Seth understood cartoonists in part because he was one himself. He put his own heart on the page through semiautobiographical comics, in works like “Schmuck” that fittingly required an artistic collaborator. And so when he prepared to capture a fellow species in his frame, he handled both the camera and the subject before him with equal ease, and accumulated wisdom, and comfortable aplomb.
And it helps to have a heart as big and encompassing as his widest aperture.
Kushner shot cartoonists, and camera-bagged Brooklyn, and photographed pop culture like a visual auteur. The intangible became almost tactile, and the ineffable floated into frame. And the creative results could produce frozen-moment magic, such as the time in 2010 when fellow MoCCA Fest panelists Kyle Baker, Dean Haspiel, Jaime Hernandez, Frank Miller and Paul Pope, with friend Jeff Newelt, lined dark, wooded walls like an assembled team of super-cartoonists. As shown in 2012’s “Leaping Tall Buildings,” master director Kushner turned this Dirty Half-Dozen talents into moody, soulful art.
Seth’s “final photographs seem to capture things that the camera shouldn’t have been able to, considering the casual ease that he set up his shots,” the talented Jeffrey Brown tells us. But then, “That’s what artists do,” says the gifted Rick Parker. “They see right to the heart of their subjects.”
Seth Kushner, who was for so long hospitalized as he tried bone-marrow transplant and then alternative medicine, led with his heart for so long, too, and his large circle of friends describe him in the best way anyone can: as a great and caring human being.
Seth Kushner died Sunday in New York, surrounded by wife Terra and young son Jackson, for whom a GoFundMe campaign of financial support has been launched. He was just 41.
To celebrate Seth’s life and artistic legacy, here — with Newelt’s wonderful help and effort — is a collection of remembrances, by some of the women and men he so deftly captured. Even when it required him to defy the odds, and seemingly work the magic of the impossible.
Your back light burns ever on, Seth.
“I had a black eye and a swollen nose, delivered by an overly enthusiastic dog. We were in the bowels of the Javits Center, the least pleasant and [least] photogenic place in the world. Somehow Seth still managed to make me look cool. I don’t know how he pulled it off: miracle photography.”
“I was lucky enough to have Seth shoot me twice! He took both of these pictures in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — close to both of our houses! I really miss that neighborhood, and being close to Seth was great. We’d meet up at Paneantico bakery on the corner of 92nd and Third avenue for coffee and pastries, to talk about work, and bounce ideas around. Those are days I look back on fondly.”
“These two photos were taken a few years apart. Apparently I was blond at one point? We took the second one to run with an episode of Trip City podcast, and I’m glad we did, because it’s the best photo anyone has ever taken of me. I’m not really comfortable in front of a camera, but Seth had this way of dispelling any nervousness or trepidation. An artist to the end. We lost a good man.”
“So many photographers hunt down the famous and wealthy and squeeze them into little boxes. Seth Kushner seemed to rejoice in making every artist, regardless of the size of [his or her] audience, seem larger than life. Everyone was a hero or magician or legend through his lenses. Maybe everyone is.”
“Seth was no B.S. He showed up, camera in hand. Within minutes, he was set up. He had an easygoing sense of humor — light, direct. He shot, we talked. He loved children and he loved the city. Too young, too soon.”
“Working with Seth on his CulturePop photocomix was one of the most rewarding but toughest and most aggravating shoots I’ve ever been on. He wanted shots of me in middle of the maelstrom of urban corporatism. Only I was supposed to be a calm presence, relating directly to camera, while the whirlwind of the city engulfed me.
“So we went to Times Square. He kept telling me to look into the lens and walk toward him — and not to worry about all the people streaming by. He had a couple of assistants who were supposed to be watching the crowd, but they were also holding lights and equipment bags, and it’s hard enough to protect one’s own space on a busy New York sidewalk, much less someone else’s.
“Of course, in spite of these precautions, people kept crashing into me. And whenever they did, Seth would say, ‘It’s okay,’ as if I shouldn’t worry about having screwed up his shot. ‘Just keep looking at the camera.’ Which I did.
“When the people with the big backpacks smashed into the side of my head, and the blood came out of my ear, he said we could take a break. He felt bad. I had agreed to do a shoot with him, but hadn’t signed up for this. Oddly enough, though, it was just that willingness to risk anything for the shot, to get so lost in the work that nothing else mattered, which made me realize I was interacting with a real artist.”
“I wish I had something poetic or original to say about Seth, but what impresses me the most is just how many people whose lives he touched — and how consistent their feelings are: that he was a super-talented photographer, that he was a gracious human being with an abiding interest in other people, and that he truly loved his wife and son.
“Seth seemed to epitomize the best things about the comics ‘community’: He was a fan, he was a creator, and he had an unflagging interest in reaching out and encouraging others the way he had been encouraged along the way.
“What he did in this last year, with making his battle against leukemia public and human and inspiring and funny and heart-breaking all at once, is an amazing gift to all those who suffer through these diseases alone.”
“Seth took my portrait twice, very nearly three times. The first time was at Coney Island, in the wintertime, for his book [with Chris Irving] “Leaping Tall Buildings.” We spent a very enjoyable afternoon getting the pics. We talked about comics, about TV shows, about growing up in our very different parts of the world, but how much we seemed to have in common.
“Seth was always very easy company. For various reasons, we decided that the Coney Island pic wasn’t right . So Seth wanted to try it again. I had told him the story of my father’s trip to the U.S. in 1963; he had spent months traveling around, and had taken numerous slide photographs. That slideshow was a family tradition; every couple of years, we would look at it, all the people dressed like the cast of ‘Mad Men.’ The Lincoln Memorial two months before Martin Luther King told the world about his dream. And, most fabulously for a small boy, the World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows.
“So Seth and I went out there and took more photographs — we both brought cameras this time. It was another very pleasant day, in the summer this time. He took a photograph that I think is the best photograph ever taken of me. I’ve been using it as my Author Photograph ever since. A bit too long, really. I emailed Seth a week or so ago and asked him if he felt strong enough to do a new photograph of me for my new book. I would come to him and we’d make it as easy as possible. He was just out of radiation therapy at the time. He was excited about getting back to work as soon as he could, though he still felt a bit fragile. He said he’d get back to me about it.
“That was the last time we talked.”
“Whew. Seth was not just a friend, but also a collaborator, studio-mate and co-founding member of Hang Dai Editions, along with me, Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld. One thing I loved about Seth was his tenacious optimism. The man just was not negative about anything. I think this comes across in his portraiture quite stunningly. There is a glow on his subjects — the way they engage the camera or even gaze off-frame. The feeling I get from those faces — there is something more, something better out there beyond the margins. Seth caught that nearly intangible essence and made it central to his work. …
“I included a tribute drawing for Seth. He loved Star Wars, so here he is riding off to paradise surrounded by Ewoks, R2-D2 and riding on the back of the Xolo, the Aztecs’ protector of souls.”
“Seth Kushner changed our lives, he changed the lives of everyone he came in contact with. He was a creative force with incredible sensitivity, wit, determination, kindness, love and talent.”
“We feel blessed to have this incredible memento of Seth’s work in the form of a Photocomix feature that he created for our off-Broadway musical, ‘Forever Dusty: The Dusty Springfield Musical.’ Seth will live on in all of our hearts. We will miss him every day.”
“This photo is from a shoot Seth did with me in 2008, as part of a series about cartoonists. At the time, I was doing the Salomé act in a vaudeville show called ‘No Applause, Just Throw Money!’ based on the book by Trav S.D., so we did the shoot in costume, with the prop head of John the Baptist. Well, I didn’t know [Seth] very well. But he impressed me as a very professional and kind person, and I feel heartbroken for his family.
“I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to get to know him, and I am sorry that my initial reaction to his request that we do the shoot in bellydance mode was a little dubious. I feel bad that I wasn’t into that at first. It ended up being a great idea, and I’m very proud to have those images.”
“Seth was on a great mission to find the right setting, mood and lighting for all his comic-artist subjects. I was honored he found such a great explorable mixture of park and ruins: Floyd Bennett Field.
“Of course he took a fabulous, gorgeously lit photo. I have no idea how he gets the lighting he does.
“On the way out, I asked like a toddler to have an additional photo taken in front of a large, multi-paned and somewhat derelict window. I loved the textures and the way the frames evoked mosaics of comic panels. I’ve always wanted a photo like the one on the back of Brian Eno’s ‘Another Green World’ LP — the human fully in the environment and the texture of the material world more foregrounded than the subject. I asked him to shoot me sitting in front of the window, and he did.
“Needless to say, the photo I art-directed was not so good, and the photo he took was beautiful, delicate and deep. He was an artist.”
“Seth’s photography and writing blurred the lines between the creator and the comic, and over the course of the past year, we all believed that he was a real-life superhero.”
“I first met Seth in 1997, when he photographed me for a magazine called Yellow Rat Bastard. Once he assured me [that] the title wasn’t a reference to me, I relaxed. At least enough to scowl at the camera — in my defense it was a very sunny day and I was just trying not to squint.
“Seth was a compete gentleman, professional and enthusiast. His actual interest in comics, which he expressed a mile a minute effusively, was a pleasure to encounter. [At] that special club of the comix-initiated, the party that no one ever leaves — granted it’s a relatively small party — he was always on the dance floor. I was happy to share enthusiasms with Seth on this subject as we crossed paths through the years, including a Midtown photo shoot near the beloved Chrysler building.
L”ike so many people in the cartoonist orbit, I treasure the relationships I have with kindred spirits, even if we only see each other occasionally in passing.
“I’ll miss Seth’s presence and upbeat energy, and hope he is out there spreading it at high velocity in the ether.”
“In person, Seth was a normal, down-to-earth, incredibly nice guy. … Spending a day with him taking photos was more like hanging out with someone who would make a good friend, if we had lived in the same city. Reading his self-deprecating comic Schmuck gave similar feelings — despite showing all the flaws of his youth, you knew this was someone who would probably make a great dad someday. And neither of those impressions would give away just how critical an eye Seth had behind the lens, where the final photographs seem to capture things that the camera shouldn’t have been able to, considering the casual ease that he set up his shots.
“We’re lucky to have seen these different sides of Seth, and they will be greatly missed.”
A true New York thinker, and a creative force that made me proud to live in this city! Brilliant documentation of a time in New York that is most likely gone forever. I was so incredibly proud to be selected as one of his CulturePop subjects… Love you, Seth.
Hannah Means-Shannon (Bleeding Cool):
“It’s hard for me to conceive of a person who will be so personally missed on a daily basis by such a large number of people, and particularly within the comics community, than Seth Kushner. He taught us a great deal about how to live as individuals passionate about artistic expression, and I doubt those lessons will fade from our minds any time soon.
“Seth was a person who made you feel completely at ease and important at the same time. He created his work with each person in mind, crafting it to enhance and sometimes make fun of their traits. Each photo or comic was a snapshot of both fiction and reality. He was one of my favorite creators in the world. His work with photo-comics was important. He was never afraid to push it forward or experiment. He will be dearly missed.
“He took this picture in 2012, after I threatened we’d have to jump the fence into Gramercy Park. With a little honest storytelling and a business interested in the cause, we shot the photos with the key procured to the park [that] my great grandmother grew up in. We recorded and shot until Seth convinced me to get in the flowerbed for one last shot. We were soon kicked out and forced to give back the previous key. I can still remember him wondering how we’d get his equipment over the side of the gate if we had to get back in. [A link to a blog post that contains links to their collaborations.] We were supposed to do a project on William S. Burroughs, as well. I will miss him dearly. Thank the universe for N.Y. stories, keys to hidden parks, and Seth Kushner.”
“Seth was a legend and a sweet man. He was truly innovative in a realm that lacks innovation. He leaves behind a young family and though it is no consolation, I hope his family receives some of the love Seth brought into the world for others.
I’m a mashup artist. What Seth did with me was mash-up photography and comic books to make an original concept art. I still proudly show it to friends, I will show it even more proudly now .
“I first met Seth Kushner in Brooklyn, of all places, when I was one of the artists who was illustrating stories for the godfather of autobiographical comics stories, the late Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame. It was a cold December morning, and we were all gathered at an old, unheated bathhouse in Brooklyn for KING CON 2009. Arriving on the scene, I was told that Seth Kushner would be photographing Harvey and some other artists who were there, and later he would be photographing me. Like most people, I have had my picture taken many times, but this time, somehow, it was going to be different. I had seen the photos he had taken of artists like Dean Haspiel and Art Spiegelman, and they were great. I knew that he couldn’t possibly make me look that good or that important.
“I watched with growing anticipation and dread as he went about his business coaxing Mr. Pekar, who was quite averse to being coaxed, and the other various creators and I became increasingly nervous with each flash of white light. Soon he would be turning that powerful, all-seeing weapon of his on me. To dull the anxiety, my mind drifted off to a faraway place and then suddenly, there he was standing in front of me, and it was my turn. I stood there, like a deer in the headlights, in front of an old wooden door and bam, bam, bam — he took three shots.
“I was immensely flattered to be deemed a worthy subject of his attention and talent, but found the whole process rather embarrassing. Thankfully, in a few seconds, it was all over. The resulting pictures revealed something no one else had ever managed to capture in me: my feeling of deep insecurity, which I have carried with me all my life — my deep-seated fear that somehow, even after all these years and all my work, I am still not quite good enough.
“But Seth was more than a professional photographer, more than a man who knew how to operate a complex machine called a ‘camera’ — he was an artist. And that’s what artists do. They see right to the heart of their subjects.
“This is an author’s photo Seth took of me on the second day we hung out, ever: Dec 3, 2008. It was intended for a book that isn’t published yet. It was also early into the days of the Graphic NYC website, as we were planning out what would become ‘Leaping Tall Buildings.’ Getting to see him work day to day, photographing these creators [I sometimes held a portable flash, making me Jimmy Olsen’s intern], was an education. He’s the best collaborator I ever could’ve snagged.”
“Here is the photo he made of me emulating the Queen II cover. Seth had come over to my apartment to shoot photos for his Graphic NYC series, and after he’d taken the shots he’d needed, [he] had the idea to put together this funny homage, which just cracked me up. I remember at the time, we were both about to become [or had just become] new fathers, and we talked a lot about our experiences relating to that, and I feel [we] formed a small bond over being in similar places in life.
“He was a really friendly warm guy, and a positive creative force, and will be greatly missed.”
“It feels empty and pointless to ‘sum up’ Seth Kushner in a paragraph. Seth could be humble and self-effacing and. the next moment. display a boldness and determination that inspired. Working with Seth felt like a true collaboration; he had much to offer, but was a great listener. He was charming, optimistic and comfortable to be around; like any good photographer, he brought out the best in others.
“He fought like hell and desperately wanted to live, to create more work, to grow old with his wife, Terra, to share his passion for comics and stories with his son, Jackson, and watch him grow up to be a man. The world is cruel and unfair for taking him so soon.”
“Seth and I were both auto-bio guys [who] got along really well — him with Schmuck, me with So Buttons. We’ve even shared an artist or two with our Pekar-inspired collaborative method. When he and artist Dean Haspiel asked me to be a guest creator on their Brooklyn-Literary Arts Salon, Trip City, Seth also offered to take my author photo for the site. I was both nervous and excited about it. I don’t think I photograph well — maybe that’s why I prefer that people draw me — but I liked the idea of a pro taking care of me.
“He came up to my fifth-floor walk-up in Boerum Hill — home of more famous Jonathans — and we took to my roof. It was a beautiful afternoon and we talked about New York, comics, and his kid. He got me to feel relaxed for the photo; by the end, it felt like we were old friends.
“I didn’t see Seth much since we had a chat at Brooklyn’s Grand St. Comics Fest almost a year ago. But I knew he was sick and that he was my second friend dealing with leukemia at the time. Let’s just say ‘F–k Cancer’ together, OK? I’d like to think that I had a hand in helping him get a special screener of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ for him to see at the hospital with his son, but I’m sure there were a dozen other people with connections to Marvel as well who were pitching in. Lots of people loved Seth.
“I saw him last a couple of weeks ago, at MoCCA. We used the word ‘victory’ about his cancer and the miracle cure that eradicated the leukemia. But I guess that wasn’t the whole story. We talked about getting a beer when his strength came back up. I would’ve liked to have had that beer.”
“I didn’t know Seth extremely well, but as I write this, I’m thinking about the time Seth and I, along with many others, shared a table at a comic event some five or six years ago. A friend brought us some much-needed coffee, and as Seth and I both took a sip, we agreed that it was terrible coffee. The worst coffee ever. But we needed it, and continued taking cringe-inducing sips. I have no witty or meaningful ending to this story. I just remember enjoying some really terrible coffee with a really nice guy.”
Jeff Newelt (aka Jahfurry):
“Seth turned each of his subjects into a superhero with his photography. Not in an over-the-top, cartoon-y or fawning way, but via an earnest appreciation for the subject’s genuine ‘superpowers’ that invariably resulted in an image that reflected the ‘best self’ of whoever he shot. His portraits were the real-life equivalent of those encapsulating illustrations of each superhero in the old “The Handbook of the Marvel Universe,” or DC’s “Who’s Who” — both of which I, and I’m sure Seth, studied as tweens.
“Seth and I called our collaborations ‘team-ups,’ and we had many, so I’ll pick a few:
“1. CulturePop Photocomix on Trip City: Along with Dean Haspiel, I co-curated and edited Seth’s photocomix profile series, where he snap-crackle-crystalized the essence of each subject into a fun fumetti. It was a treat recommending subjects, my favorite real-life superheros in various mediums, like Clark Gayton (Bruce Springsteen, Levon Helm) on Sousaphone, writer Doug Rushkoff, graffiti artist Mare139 and rapper/dancer Akim Funk Buddha and watching them get the Kushner treatment.
“2. Seth shot the ‘The Art of the Superhero’ panel I moderated at MoCCA 2010, with Paul Pope, Frank Miller, Dean Haspiel, Jaime Hernandez and Kyle Baker, and gathered us together for a priceless superteam shot.
“3. When Seth interviewed and photographed me [on a Gowanus roof!] for his Graphic NYC site, it felt like a playdate, but when I read the resulting article, I felt blessed by being on the receiving end of a loving appreciative eye and ear.
“4. Multiple Harvey Pekar-related shoots: I was Harvey’s editor on ‘The Pekar Project‘ and ‘Cleveland.’ Seth and I concocted a ‘Pekar Week’ with five different photo-heavy features, on Seth and Chris Irving’s Graphic NYC site. Seth also created a splendorous Harvey Pekar photocomic, that Dean Haspiel and I edited.
We were pals and collaborators, mostly both at the same time. Every day I will miss his singular combination of earnestness, kindness, understated gumption and artistic genius.”