Monday, September 21, 2015


Hubert Selby Jr., Toronto, May 1990

HUBERT SELBY JR. SHOWED UP IN TOWN not long after the movie version of his book Last Exit to Brooklyn had been released. The film gave him a second (or third?) act to his career, and was the likely reason that a film would be made of his Requiem for a Dream a decade later. I photographed him on assignment for NOW magazine without knowing much about him beyond Uli Edel's film, which was pretty hard going, as you'd expect from a film built around the gang rape of a drunken prostitute.

I don't think he was destined for a cover story, but I shot a roll of colour slide anyway. Actually, I shot only half a roll, the other half being filled with Steve Lacy photos I'd taken a couple of weeks previous. I was still very parsimonious with film, and if I didn't finish a roll, I'd note the frame I was at, rewind it carefully and mark the film canister with the number. When I had an opportunity to finish the roll, I'd load it back into my Nikon and forward the roll to that frame with the lens cap on the camera. Looking back on this tightness from the perspective of the digital age, it seems ridiculous.

Hubert Selby Jr., Toronto, May 1990

Selby was often grouped in with the beat writers, a matter most of guilt by association. He was friends with Amiri Baraka (then still LeRoi Jones,) shared an agent with Jack Kerouac, and his first novel was praised by Alan Ginsberg. The book was the subject of a Lady Chatterly-like prosecution for indecency in England that made it a must-read for fans of transgressive literature. By the time I met him he'd been teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California for seven years and had been championed and published by Henry Rollins, giving him a whole new audience of literary punks.

I photographed Selby in one of the usual downtown hotels - my guess is either the Four Seasons in Yorkville or the Sutton Place (both now closed.) I used the always reliable "Anton light" intending to boost the contrast to get more grain. Selby was pretty lighthearted for most of the shoot, mugging and goofing around for my camera, playing on his reputation for being a leading light of "deviant literature."

Hubert Selby Jr., Toronto, May 1990

The shot above was particularly funny considering the fact that Selby probably shouldn't have been alive by the time I shot him. As a nineteen-year-old merchant marine, he contracted TB and underwent experimental treatment that produced complications, and by the time the doctors were finished with him he had several fewer ribs and most of his lungs missing.

His long recovery led to a heroin addiction that lasted for years, though he'd been clean for nearly two decades by the time I took these photos. This frame is really gallows humour, and probably the most antic author portrait I ever took.

Hubert Selby Jr. died in Los Angeles on April 6, 2004.
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1 comment:

  1. awesome pictures from a writing legend. Nobody to this day can write like Hubert Selby.