Harris – You practiced medicine for a few years in your native South Africa during your twenties. What made you move to New York City in 1968 to pursue a photography career?
Seeff – I was working in emergency medicine in Soweto just outside of Johannesburg. This was during the apartheid era. It got a little dangerous for me because I was anti-apartheid and the government didn’t like my politics or my friends who were all activists. Since childhood, I had always had a fascination around how things worked in science, and a spontaneous ability to draw. Did I want to go down the road of creative expression or did I want to go down the road of being a medical doctor and doing healing work? I thought medicine was about healing at that time, but I discovered it was about fixing. I wanted to find my true voice and what my real dream actually was. On the spur of the moment I woke up one morning and thought I’m getting out of here. Literally within a few weeks I packed my bag and resigned and headed to New York City.
Harris – Why did you choose New York City out of everywhere in the world?
Seeff – I wanted to go to what I considered to be the most exciting, most advanced place. But I found to my terror that this was not just about rolling up and saying, “Okay I’m going to start a new career.” I discovered that people didn’t really care who you were because everyone was trying to survive in an unbelievably, overwhelmingly competitive place with thousands of young photographers all trying to find work. Within four months I hadn’t made any money and it was prohibited to bring any money out of South Africa. So I’m literally close to starving on the street and I’m thinking that the whole romantic fantasy of being an artist was a delusion. I made up my mind that I would do a photo session a day. And so I would just go to wherever I could find interesting people, like a club downtown called Max’s Kansas City. At that point it was a kind of subculture hub where Andy Warhol and his mob were and Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith hung there as well. All kinds of musicians and artists and crazies were there.
Harris – How did you end up shooting Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe?
Seeff – I saw these two highly expressive people in the way they dressed. Their whole personality and way of relating was kind of new to me. When I met them they were probably sitting at the bar and I said, “You guys look really amazing. Could I do a session with you?” and we ended up becoming friends. At that point a couple guys who were photographers had let me live at their place, so I had access to a studio and a darkroom. Robert and Patti came over and I took photographs. She had made this necklace of skulls and this was the first time that Robert wore it. For me at that time it was just a way to build my portfolio but who knew that they would become such interesting and successful artists. When I asked Robert what he did, he said that he was an airbrush artist. He asked if he could work on one of my photographs, so I gave him a couple of images and I didn’t think much about it. Then a couple weeks later I shot him again with some other friends and he had these two prints that he’d airbrushed and I was stunned. His work was gorgeous. He said at the time, “I’m really thinking of being a photographer, would you mind if I came and hung out at your sessions and watched how you work?” I was thinking I didn’t even know how I worked myself. Of course, history is history from that point on. And, people love those images of them.
Harris – I think it’s because you can really see the intimacy between Patti and Robert early in their lives. They’re amazing images.
Seeff – Well thank you, but you see the word you used was what I was looking for. I didn’t have a language for it at the time, but when you say “intimacy” that’s kind of another way of saying “authenticity.” That is what I was discovering at that point. I created an environment where people could just be themselves and not be in any way uncomfortable or distracted. They could just be the way they are. So what came out of it when I looked at those images was that you could feel the love between them. That kind of became the benchmark for me because if it’s not in my photograph, then for me, that’s not my voice.
Harris – You ended up living at the Chelsea Hotel for a while.
Seeff – Patti was living with a writer and she invited me to come down to the Chelsea to meet her social connections there. I ended up moving in for a little amount of time because I got into a relationship with an Avedon model and moved into her place. The Chelsea was like “A Clockwork Orange.”
It was like a crazy house. There were some really wonderful people there. Everyone across the spectrum in that place, but what was great was that it was a hotel and you could rent on a monthly basis and make it a home. So for me, everything I did was like a discovery process: Who are these people? What are the various social environments? What do they find interesting? How do they express themselves? What’s the cultural expression of the time? That was very interesting because it was the emergence of The Factory.
During the early days of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, the music at that point was the biggest social and political force. Somehow within six months, I found myself with in this whole subculture and it sort of felt like I was embraced and I felt a part of it. But it was a shitty, hard time just trying to make enough money to buy food each day.
Harris – How did you finally end up shooting your first album cover?
Seeff – So for a year and a half things were tough and then finally I met a famous art director in the music world. His name was Bob Cato. He was a kind of legend. He saw my portfolio and I saw tears in his eyes. He opened up the door for me and gave me my first shoot which was The Band at Woodstock. That particular cover was made into a poster and it was up all over the city. Suddenly from being an artist that couldn’t get an appointment, art directors were calling asking to see me. The point is, I didn’t know there was such a thing as the music business and there was a way to make a living shooting bands and designing album covers. It was like a revelation to me. So with Bob’s help I am introduced into the music business and because I was also an artist, I started designing album covers and being paid as a designer too. Suddenly I was in demand.
Harris – Especially in the 1970s when you first started shooting album covers, like for Frank Zappa and Johnny Cash, how do you think they functioned as a larger part of the culture of the time?
Seeff – The album covers became, I say this tongue-and-cheek, almost religious icons. They said how to dress and how to behave. Later I shot “Exile on Main Street,” and the way the Rolling Stones looked would influence the way people dressed. So the attitude, just the feel of everything became, sort of “Hey, let’s live that lifestyle because it would be the hip thing to do.” It started out that it was just packaging for the product, but later on it became the art itself and that is what was interesting about the time. The Rolling Stones had a series of album covers that were a breakthrough in a certain way. They wouldn’t work with anyone unless they thought that person was going to push the envelope and do something that no one else does. You were under really hefty pressure to produce something that would be a “Stones moment.”
Harris – How did you eventually become creative director of United Artists Records?
Seeff – The way I got to LA is through the same man, Bob Cato, who became my mentor. He called me one day and said, “How would you like to go to Los Angeles to be creative director of United Artists Records?” I suddenly found myself far away from the struggles of New York to arriving in LA and being picked up by a limo with a girl who had a wad of money in her hand. Now everyone wanted to see me because I’m the one handing out the jobs. I ran United Artists for two years and I instituted a whole new way of working: I let go of the hired designers and I decided I was going to use the best artists for graphics and photography besides my own.
It was very successful, but I always had the dream that I wanted to prove to myself that I could survive as an independent artist. After two years I got myself a studio on the strip on Sunset Boulevard, resigned, and moved in. I then started developing this way of working with a conversation on the exploration of the creativity. It was at that studio, after about two or three years, where I started filming my sessions. I filmed hundreds of artists there. Belushi and Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder and all those kind of people all in that little, narrow studio. It kind of worked and kept people close together.
Harris – Did you already have the intention to film your sessions before you moved into the Sunset studio?
Seeff – What happened by then was that I had developed a particular process of working with artists that was aimed at getting them to be spontaneous and free in front of the camera. Most people you aim a camera at think you’re cocking a pistol and saying, “Smile.” So I started by thinking, “How can I get artists to feel safe and secure in the session and just be themselves?”
This process ended up creating an amazing level of intimacy and vulnerability from a positive point of view. Artists and people began clamoring to come to these sessions as they became known as big events. People were telling me it was fantastic to be in a room with me and Joni Mitchell or whoever and that what went on in the session was unique and they had never seen it before. I began to wonder: “Is it just because I’m hanging out with these amazing artists, or is that there’s an objective quality and revelation going on?” So I brought a film crew in and that first film session was for an Ike and Tina Turner album cover in 1975. I shot on 16mm film and when I looked at the dailies, I knew exactly what I was going to do from then on. Once I saw what we could capture I realized I’m now expanding my creative voice from not just designing album covers and photographing, but also becoming a documentary filmmaker. Not just by documenting what’s happening, but I’m literally creating what’s happening. You can call me an experientialist; I’m creating an experience.
Harris – Visualizing the creative process has been an aim of yours from the beginning. How did you capture that?
Seeff – One of the keys to the creative process that I’ve discovered on my own journey was if you create an authentic emotional experience with someone and you document what is unfolding in the moment, you don’t have to try to get a shot. The images will emerge out of the authenticity of the experience. It just flows when you get into the zone with someone. They’re enjoying themselves so much that they forget the camera is even there. What we do is focus on our relationship and the creative process, so I’ve found my own creative paradigm shift. Being a good photographer has very little to do with technicalities. Learn who you are and learn how to communicate. Learn to be honest, present, and how to relate and to create relationships with your artists. Out of that will come incredibly profound images that ring true and are authentic.
Harris – Usually whenever people see portraiture, they think it’s really just about the subject that’s being shot. But at the same time it’s really about the photographer himself and how he perceives the person and what he wants to show. Did you see yourself in the images?
Seeff – Exactly that. You as the photographer are the observer and the way that you observe something is critical. If I want to, I can show people in a light that’s not about the beauty, truth, and goodness of who they are, but the ugliness and the dishonesty. If you come to what you do from that point of view, that’s the kind of work you’ll produce. What I didn’t understand, but found out later, was that for me it was always about how to find what’s beautiful, good, and true about people. And that’s what fascinated me.
I began to use the photography session as a vehicle to explore creativity. The conversations with the artists are about their creative process and the artists would get completely excited and say, “You know, no one ever asks me about where I live and what I go through.” They would forget they were being photographed and then they would get inspired, and when you get inspired your pupils dilate and your muscles relax and your face literally changes.
So the idea for me was to create these vital and inspiring relationships with people and photograph them in a heightened state. So it really is a dual expression. Obviously it’s about the relationship between the two people and what was going on in the moment, but the artist brings their own set of values and beliefs and intentions to the way that their image is captured and to what they select as being representative of what they want to say.
Harris – Going back to specific sessions, I’m interested in your time with Joni Mitchell. I understand you’ve photographed her multiple times.
Seeff – About ten times. I would photograph her at different phases of her career. She’s a very interesting person to shoot from the point of view that she’s a visual artist as much as a musician. She had a conceptual mind. Unlike a lot of people that come in and are like whatever, Joni was always interested in coming up with an idea and bringing it into my studio.
This was not the way that I worked in the beginning. I would say, “Let’s just get started and see where it goes.” I don’t like preconceiving a concept, but she would say, “No, no, no I have this concept.” Our sessions were always a little bit of a fight at the beginning, but at the end we both gave each other what the other wanted. I would have artists perform and sing and dance and do new things. The session was a happening where people did spontaneous performances, not just standing around being photographed. But I would go down the road of her concept as well, so in the end it was very valuable for me too because I was able to utilize her ideas as well and make them work at the emotional level. It gave us a real range, a real variety of things.
One time she rolled up to the studio with a bunch of wolves and we had to make an electric fence. Another time she came dressed up as a black man. We didn’t even know it was her when she walked in, she was in men’s clothes and in black face. I had said to my crew, just make sure that when Joni comes in you film her entrance. And we’re waiting and we’re waiting and I’m looking at this crowd and there’s this black dude and he’s sort of dancing and wearing all this bling. And I’m like, “Fuck, that’s Joni.”
Harris – So you’ve predominantly shot musicians, but what about other creative types?
Seeff – Well I actually opened up hugely at that time and started shooting actors, directors, writers, and comedians. I was working with everyone from Scorsese to Norman Mailer, Steve Martin and also with John Travolta when he was doing the dance movie “Saturday Night Fever.” Then later on I started working with people like Steve Jobs and politicians, athletes and scientists. All of these various disciplines are expressions of the core creative process, they’re just different facets. With all of them you’re always building an authentic moment and that is the key. I wouldn’t walk away unless I felt I got something authentic.
Harris – You’ve shot in both color and also black and white. What determines which you will use?
Seeff – I’ve shot everything in both. In those days when I started, if you wanted to make a color print, it cost a fortune. I would develop my own black and white prints because I had a darkroom, but I couldn’t do color, so I put all my color shots away. The truth is, for every shoot I have a color archive that I’ve hardly looked at. Now I’m going through a half a million slides of color and I’m finding new things all the time.
Aesthetically there was something about black and white that was more pure in terms of what’s going on with the artist emotionally. When you have color it kind of takes you away in the picture. I found black and white kept kind of focus on the emotional authenticity. So it’s not the color of the hair or something that kind of becomes its own element.
Harris – With your backdrops that often expose some of the environment and elements such as lighting or wires, how do you think this affects the overall outcome of your portraits?
Seeff – The studio was my environment and I couldn’t say to someone, “Let’s go out into the desert.” Then it becomes conceptual. I wanted to remain focused on the authenticity of the communication and the relationship. What I really wanted was a backdrop that didn’t in any way interfere with the essence. As I saw the shots, I thought that cord on the ground is just part of the environment, or that edge of the backdrop looks great graphically. It’s a true environment.
I remember in New York during my early days I went to go see a well-known magazine and I showed them my portfolio with all the cords and the strobe heads and everything showing. The woman said to me, “Why don’t you go back and start learning how to be a photographer. When you can finally shoot and when you don’t show all that crap, then come back to me.” Within two years that same magazine had their photographers shooting with studio paraphernalia showing. To me it was an authentic environment. It wasn’t a device. If it looks good, I would do it. If it didn’t look good, I wouldn’t do it.
Harris – What are you working on now? Do you have any future projects?
Seeff – My website (http://www.normanseeff.com) is about empowering people’s creativity through the hundreds of sessions that we’ve recorded. We’ve been cutting those films and turning them into short little movies and each of the movies contains secrets and keys to the creative process. It will be fully ready by June 2016. Also we’re about to bring out a feature documentary and we’ve just begun the post-production on it. We’ve got decades of incredible content to edit from. It’s been a long time coming.
Norman Seeff has over the past 45 years been a photographer and filmmaker that has captured many of the world’s most recognizable faces— from Ray Charles and Carly Simon to Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol—in their most unguarded moments. The authenticity of his images reflects his skills as a communicator documenting the creative process, passion, and essence of the innovators.
Seeff was born March 5, 1939 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He qualified as a medical doctor in 1965 and for three years he worked in emergency medicine. In 1969, he immigrated to the United States to pursue his creative passions and artistic abilities. Soon after arriving in New York, Seeff’s photographs of the people he encountered in Manhattan were discovered by the famed graphic designer, Bob Cato. He introduced Seeff to the world of album cover design and his first major photographic assignment for The Band brought him immediate recognition. In 1971, Seeff spent a year as Professor of Photography at Bennington College in Vermont.
In 1972, Seeff relocated to Los Angeles to become creative director of United Artists Records leading to Grammy nominations in design for the label. Three years later, he opened an independent studio on Sunset Boulevard where his photographic sessions soon became legendary and attracted audiences from 30 to 200 people. His film archive of more than 400 shoots with musical artists, film directors, authors, television personalities, scientists, visionaries, and entrepreneurs provides a unique insight towards artists and innovators in the act of creation.