It’s 9am in Todd Selby’s Brooklyn studio, and he sounds like he’s bouncing all over the shop, full of the joys of winter. Since moving to New York from California in 1999, he’s milked the city dry. He’s been a professional photographer since 2001, and the website he began a few years later, TheSelby.com, was originally a local endeavour – a showcase for the area’s creative wonderkids – but he has since expanded his brief. Bustling workspaces and busy living rooms are still celebrated, but Selby has more recently been travelling the globe in pursuit of portraiture in food and fashion. He has also turned his hand to filmmaking, bringing his subjects to life with such joy that their enthusiasm – and Selby’s – bursts from your screen.
“I thought of this idea, people in their spaces, and put it on the internet; it was just fun, and then it took off,” he says, jazzed that what was a personal project that saw him photographing his friends’ homes now takes him around the world, allowing him to meet incredible people, publish books, make films and direct TV ads. And while he’s photographed the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Pharrell Williams, democracy rules – people are people, whether they’re remote fisherman, eccentric outsiders or pop superstars. Selby treats them all with the same eye, promoting creativity whatever the field, whatever the reach, their work environments embodying what they do and how they choose to express themselves. He finds art in it all, passion threaded throughout.
First things first, though: his website boasts an early CV that makes him sound like a character from a Charlie Kaufman film. Adventure, it seems, runs deep. If it’s true. Can he really have been, as the third-person biog claims: “A translator and Tijuana tour guide to the International Brotherhood of Machinists, a researcher into the California strawberry industry, a Costa Rican cartographer, a consultant on political corruption to a Mexican senator, an art director at a venture capital firm, an exotic flower wholesaler, a Japanese clothing designer, and a vermicomposting entrepreneur?
“It’s all true,” he exclaims, “although most people don’t think so.” So how did he find himself in all those situations? “Well, I always want to try something – I’m never afraid to fail,” he says, relating his countless (albeit shortlived) careers to his ethos at large. “I relish the challenge of doing something I’m totally unqualified for. I like to learn, so I’m always up for whatever.”
But how does someone suddenly get to be a consultant on political corruption? “Well, I majored in development studies at UC Berkeley, with a focus on Latin America and economics, and I befriended a Mexican journalist who then became a senator. I became his research assistant. Then he got elected to the Senate and I moved to Mexico to work for him there.” And that’s how he ended up being a Tijuana tour guide. “These union guys needed a tour guide and translator for Tijuana, so I did it. I don’t like Tijuana, but it was a fun gig – I had never been around big union guys from the Midwest.”
Leaving the strawberry research and the exotic flower wholesaling for another time, I remark on the fact that he has conveniently created a professional life for himself that enables him to continue his globetrotting. Still dipping his feet into different fields, meeting people he’d never ordinarily meet, soaking up experiences he knows little about – it’s beginning to make sense. “That’s right! And it is topical because getting into film was something I knew nothing about. I taught myself and got into it, and it’s really fun. That’s been my thing lately.”