The bio on Todd Selby’s website makes some very bold claims about his career before he became internationally known in the art world. From being a consultant on political corruption to a Mexican Senator, to being a cartographer in Costa Rica, Todd’s experience of life can only be described as extraordinary, and although his path to success has not been linear, his ability to not take life so seriously has resulted in a body of work that is upbeat and interesting to all that lay their eyes on it.
From a young age, Todd had an alternative perception of the world, “Since I was a little kid I’ve liked trying new things, and I wasn’t afraid of going out there and doing something”. His out of the ordinary family holidays and consequent interaction with different cultures has formed his identity as a “Creative Documentarian” which perfectly sums up every part of his practice; primarily as a photographer, but also as an illustrator and a sculptor.
The creation of his cult website “The Selby” in 2008, offered an insider’s perspective on the homes of creative individuals, photographing and portraying the intimate details of their interiors. The site saw immediate success since its inception, and from Karl Lagerfeld to Pharrell Williams, has featured many notable names as subjects, but also garnered the attention of brands like Louis Vuitton, Nike and Microsoft who all appreciate Todd’s eccentric style.
This summer, Todd has taken over entirety of The Daelim Museum in Seoul, South Korea from April 27th to October 29th, 2017 with “The Selby House”. Uniquely exhibiting his multi-disciplinary talent across four floors, the exhibition is a transition from 2D to 3D. Initially showcasing work from his three books, the exhibition takes you on a journey through Todd’s creative life-span and really into the mind behind his work. There is even an installation that is a reimagining of his own bedroom which includes aspects of his childhood “You really get a glimpse into my world, and my style, how I live”.
His childhood seems to be a recurring, and very much welcomed, theme for the show. In a world that can sometimes get too serious for our own good, Todd’s glimpse into childhood is somewhat needed. The centre, and arguably most ambitious, aspect of the show is “The Jungle Room” which was dreamt up by a younger Todd, on a boat when he and his family were travelling up the Sepik river on one of their notorious family trips. Unveiling new illustrations and sculptures, even having a diorama room, Todd’s interpretation of The Daelim Museum, that has previously housed the works of Ryan McGinley, Karl Lagerfeld and Nick Knight, is surely one of the largest projects that he has ever embarked upon.
This week, get to grips with Todd’s unusual but very organic journey into creating his dream job. Delve into the jungle dreams that have now become a reality in “The Selby House”, as Selby bares his Seoul on Semaine.
Semaine: You didn’t study a specific art practice, where did the visual storytelling come from?
Todd: I majored in development studies at UC Berkeley, with a focus on Latin America, Mexico in particular, but my family travelled a lot. When I was growing up my friends would all be going to the beach, going to Disneyland, or going to Hawaii or something and we would go, like in 1991, to the Soviet Union or we’d go to China, or go to Berlin, London. My parents were really avid travellers, and my dad loved taking photos. So as a family we’d travel and take photos, and that ended up becoming my career. I’d definitely say that was my artistic education, in a way.
Semaine: You started ‘The Selby’ in 2008, were you pursuing art before that?
Todd: In 2000, I was working for a magazine in New York, and then I quickly realised that working for magazines wasn’t that fun. All the interesting stuff was going on outside, like all of the assignments that were happening and being a photographer, so I took a night class in photography, and then while I was working I also worked on a portfolio of pictures of my friends in their homes and kind of made my first portfolio that way. Then from there I just started taking pictures, I left the magazine and started taking pictures as a freelance photographer, I did that from 2000 - 2008, and that’s when I started ‘The Selby’. So I had a few years of professional training, if you will. Really it started as just this personal project, and I wanted to put it on the web, then just after a few weeks of doing it, it took off. It really exploded in terms of interest and traffic, and then within a month I quit working for magazines and I thought I’d just start up my own things, all within a month!
Semaine: Why do you think it became so popular so quickly?
Todd: I think it was just a different concept, it was really novel when it started, seeing into people’s lives. At the time it had a very quaint aesthetic compared to all of the interior magazines out there, a lot of them didn’t even have people in them and if they did, the people would live in these homes with nothing in them, it was a very polished concrete look in 2008, and my whole thing was very much not that. It was a new take on this human world, in a time where blogs were still a really powerful medium and where people were still surfing blogs instead of social media, it was just different!
Semaine: You seem a lot more multi-media now than you were in 2008…
Todd: I think one of the real big advantages of not being classically trained in anything has given me an ease and a fluidity to move in between mediums whether that’s film, or photography, or illustrations. I can just move around and push from one to the other. Because I’m not like, “oh I did ten years in school of photography and painting, I need to do that”, it doesn’t actually matter.
Semaine: The show at The Daelim, Seoul is very personal, and completely multi-disciplinary, would you say it’s a collection of your life’s work so far?
Todd: It was really an incredible opportunity to be approached to do a whole museum show a four story museum! I’d done gallery shows before, but to be able to do something that big is exciting. Fifty percent of it is retrospective of my work up until that point, and then fifty percent of the show is all new work. It’s more of an opportunity to showcase what I do. I’m showcasing my illustrations more, and turning them into sculptures, and finding ways to show my photos. I’m working on these resin frames, which are like handmade, layered, kind of collage-ey frames made up of my illustrations, with my photos inside. It’s kind of a collage around the edges that tells the stories of the photos inside. I’m always looking for ways to integrate different things that I do.
Semaine: Can you tell us a little bit about “The Jungle Room”?
Todd: Everything that I do is based on a reportage, I see myself as a creative documentarian. So with the jungle room, it has a documentarian root to it, but I am trying to push it as far into the creative realm as possible. For the last big family trip that we went on, as a complete family we went to Papua New Guinea, I thought we were going to Hawaii, but we were tricked. We went to Papua New Guinea and it turns out that my Dad had this plan of going in a boat up the Sepik river for three days, to find a tribe of alleged cannibals. He was really excited about meeting real cannibals.
“The Jungle Room” is based on my dream that I had as we were going up the Sepik river. It was a dream that I was in the jungle and then at the end of it there was a cannibal riding a bird, so in the room there is a some fanciful creatures that I created as well as real jungle beasts. I make my illustrations quite small usually, around eight to ten inches, but we’ve blown them all up to be thirty feet tall! So it’s a completely immersive experience. There’s a friend of mine, Philip Smiley, who made a jungle inspired soundtrack, that plays and ome of the animals move.
Semaine: What makes this show, at The Daelim, so unique?
When I went to the Daelim museum for the first time, I was really blown away by how young the audience is. There’s a whole mixture of ages, but there is a whole lot of twenty and thirty year-olds, and they’re very much documenting and taking pictures of the shows which is very much a part of how they experience it, and it is in a way that is beyond what I’ve seen in Europe and North America, people just going through documenting it, and taking pictures of themselves with the exhibit, and figure out their own angle on it. So the Jungle Room is made to be shared on social media, there’s little vignettes happening and places where they can take photos of themselves and of their friends, which is something unique about it from a photographer's perspective too.
Semaine: So would you say this like “The Selby” rather than this is your “The Selby”?
Todd: It’s just a fun opportunity for me to do this whole thing, I’m not so interested in documenting myself, that’s not that interesting to me. For instance I went to a Diane Arbus show “Revelations” and I remember really vividly that we got to see her journals and her cameras were there and just getting a sense of her process and how she created and you know, I really enjoyed that.
Semaine: Would you say you want to inspire other people with your process?
Todd: Oh yeah definitely! That’s a part of the reason why I did the show, and what I was thinking about. I have photography elements that I hope will inspire photographers to go out and document their world in a creative way and the illustrations, that’s all done in an unpretentious way that people can see like “Oh, he’s doing these little watercolor beetles, and this is how he does them”. I tried to make it very encouraging.
Semaine: Because it’s so multidisciplinary, how would you see your style changing?
Todd: I try not to repeat myself. I guess I have a basic framework of my interests and that hasn’t changed since I was a kid. So I expect that will always stay true, so my interest in people and the creatives and the outsiders, the weirdos, the quirky characters... I think it’s safe to assume that whatever I’m doing, and whatever medium it is, it’ll still have that root to it. The medium keeps changing, as I’m changing between photography and filmmaking. As I said, I see myself as a creative documentarian. I’m not making up stories, but I’m documenting what I’m seeing and adding a little twist to it.
Semaine: What would you say is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
Todd: I think Rick Ross gave us all some great advice when he said “Everyday I’m hustling”. I think that’s a good quote for any creative person who’s trying to do their own creative thing, or run their own business… You’re hustling every day. Whatever you’re doing, in this day and age, where everything is transmitted instantly and if you’re not changing what you’re doing, or evolving and growing it’s not going to work out, so I think that’s something I think about.
Thomas Keller, the American Chef of the restaurant “The French Laundry” has, in all of his kitchens in all of his restaurants, a plaque prominently placed above the door that says “a sense of urgency” so I think that’s a nice way of saying it too. Time is such a limited resource and the sense of urgency is really critical.
By Kezia Navey for Semaine.