Tod Seelie’s Prohibition-Inspired Photography

The lensman's magnificently eerie images speak to the underbelly of New York in the 1920s


For a series of 10 magnificent, lush structural images, Brooklyn photographer Tod Seelie partnered with the new Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition to invoke the spirit of the era. To honor their historic past—rooted as a bootleggers spirit, smuggled into America by Captain William McCoy (the origin of “The Real McCoy”) during the 1920s—Cutty Sark launched this latest blended scotch whisky expression. The small-batch offering even comes in a black glass bottle with a cork seal, further referencing the traditions of the time. Seelie’s work reflects shared values; there’s mystery and enchantment. Each photo grants a private view into something historic, that’s been touched with modernity. They exist outside of time and celebrate exploration.


Seelie’s editorial work has graced the pages of many prolific, global publications—both in print and online. He’s also been showcased in solo and group exhibitions around the world, and this particular collaboration follows the release of his first book of photography. From candid shots of eccentric humanity to concert photography and highly structured spatial imagery, Seelie has mastered an artistry that could only be the result of his own interests, lifestyle and adventures.


“Cutty Sark approached me, kind of out of the blue,” Seelie explains to CH about the project. “We discussed it and they thought I would be a good fit based on the style and qualities they were looking for. They were looking for authenticity and rebelliousness.” Authenticity has been a pillar of the photographer’s entire body of work: “The vast majority of my work isn’t staged. It’s all about being in the right place, at the right time and capturing the moment.” Many of those moments translate well to a sensory experience alluding to the prohibition. Seelie felt drawn to the ideas of escape and mystery and then found himself hunting for ethereal places that matched. “A lot of the abandoned spaces in this particular series are something I’ve always been interested in. I find abandoned spaces to be unique and I’m constantly looking for new ones,” he says.


The 10 photographs were shot over a series of years and explorations. As Seelie explains, “I selected some works from my previous photography for this series, and also went out and shot specifically for this.” He finds the image of the Brooklyn waterfront shrouded in fog to be most resonant and the photo’s origin is telling of both the series and the artist. “It came about after talking a lot about bootleggers. I’ve been in New York City for 16 years and there’s something about the water that means escape to me. I’d been going to the Williamsburg waterfront since it was wild. This one day happened to be extremely foggy.” Seelie walked up and down the waterfront, combing the scene for inspiration to strike and “trying to find the shot that was visually connected to this idea of escape and prohibition and bootlegging. In this moment, the waterfront was so transformed. It felt like it had transcended.”


The series fits neatly into Seelie’s larger body of work. His 2013 book BRIGHT NIGHTS: Photographs of Another New York, is deeply rooted in New York City and its culture. “This city has so much more going on than other places, literally every moment of every day, its just constantly pulling me back into it. There’s always something new to explore, new to experience. I feel really good here and I feel 100% confident that I can walk out my door and find something interesting every single time.” Delving further, it is the people within the city that move Seelie: “It’s the sheer density of lives that are being lived on top of each other. I also feel lucky knowing so many great people in this city, having so many great friends that I can collaborate with.”


Such a sentiment hints at Seelie’s artistic origins, and it all began with a blog, aimed at housing his experiences. The almost 10-year-old personal photo site “came about basically because I had a day job back then, at a desk, but I was going out almost every night shooting parties and bands and adventures. I wanted to use the internet to self-publish and create a long running book format. I just never stopped doing it.”

Images courtesy of Tod Seelie