Exploring the Inner Dynamics of Creativity

Throughout the years, South African photographer Norman Seeff has made a name for himself shooting black and white portraits of the world’s most famous names such as Steve Jobs, The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, John Travolta and many more. The series of interactive photoshoots, which are now known as ‘sessions’, has become a method of exploring the inner dynamics of creativity and the creative process. These sessions, which draw audiences as large as 250 people, involve live performances and personal interviews, supporting the idea of Seeff’s efforts in capturing the very essence of his subjects while revealing the authentic personality of each sitter. The easy, laid-back studio backdrops further directs the attention towards celebrating the raw energy of Seeff’s subjects.

From Doctor to Photographer

Norman Seeff, born in 1939 in Johannesburg, South Africa, grew up in his home town without professional training in photography. Completing his training as a medical doctor in 1965, and worked in emergency medicine for three years. In 1969, Seeff’s life took a turn when he decided to move to New York to build a more creative career focusing photography, design and filmmaking. When asked why he chose to move to New York, Seeff says;

I wanted to go to with what I considered to be the true most exciting, most adventurous place.’ 

“Sessions” in Los Angeles

For three years, he photographed intimate portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol before relocating to Los Angeles to become the Creative Director of United Artistic Records. He was introduced to the world of records through famed graphic designer Bob Cato and his work received immediate recognition as well as five Grammy nominations. Three years later, Seeff opened and independent studio on Sunset Boulevard, where his shoots soon became legendary and began attracting large audiences. His ‘sessions’ became the art form itself, transforming into a multi-disciplinary form of  photography, videography and documentary, which Seeff has continuously developed over the years.

Capturing Images that Emerge Out of Authenticity

Seeff’s philosophy as an artist has been focused on selecting images he photographs in his sessions that emerge out of authenticity. He refers to these as those that ‘flow when you get in the zone.’  Looking back at his own journey to becoming a ‘good’ photographer, he believes that there is very little to do with technicalities, but perhaps everything to do with communication. ‘My whole thing was’ he says in a Rolling Stone interview, ‘it’s not about photography – it’s about communication.’ Commenting further on how he establishes such a sincere level of intimacy and vulnerability with his subjects he says;

I always say to people, ‘look, I can’t do this alone. You have to commit to doing the session a hundred percent, just as you can’t do a concert where you’re not completely committed. I tell them, over time, these images will be part of the history of who you are. So I can’t have you holding back on me. You’ve got to really put out because I can’t do it alone, but we can do it together.’ So I’m very excited in that way. When you give people that kind of clarity and information, they they go.”

Creating an Experience

Through his sessions, Norman Seeff ultimately creates an experience; his engagement with the subject becomes the art form itself, and the viewer is able to witness his own way of visualizing the creative process.

Bel Air Sequence, Tina Turner, Los Angeles, CA

One of Seeff’s most famous sessions is undoubtedly the one he had with Tina Turner, executed in 1983. The photograph, titled ‘Bel Air Sequence, Tina Turner’ from that session has become one of the signature pictures of Seeff, presenting his improvisational style. On working with Tina Turner, he says it was:

like being exposed to a nuclear reactor. She exudes a primordial energy that comes from the muse of her creativity. I was shooting so fast to keep up with her that I blew my strobe. Tina just kept going and we got the most amazing footage on video. Every shot was stunning and at the end of the session, Tina asked me to dance with her. Well, she ‘danced me’…. I felt as though I was teleporting! I used six images from the session to create a 5×12 foot sequence for the iconic Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles.”

Norman Seeff, Tina Turner, Los Angeles, “Bel Air Sequence – Original”
Norman Seeff, Tina Turner, Los Angeles, “Bel Air Sequence – Original”, 1983, Archival Pigment Photograph

Observer and Partner

In the photograph series that have been made into a collage, Tina Turner is seen in between moments of singing and dancing. She is obviously enjoying herself, and her performance is so dynamic that she seemingly forgets the camera in front of her. Thus, Seeff takes on the role as both the observer and partner in creating the overall picture and session. He creates and authentic, emotional experience with Turner which allows the shots to unfold and happen naturally.

Letting Go of Defenses

Throughout the documentation of the sessions, the viewer is also able to notice that the more relaxed Tina Turner becomes, the more she is willing to keep going, as if she is excited to show Seeff what more she can do. The safe relationship they have established together allows Turner to let go of her defenses, and let out her electric, powerful energy, which is evident through the pictures. There are no distractions, therefore the viewer’s experience is solely absorbed in Tina Turner. Seeff’s purposeful decision to shoot the session in black and white also adds a level of pureness to the photograph, in terms of what is going on with the Turner emotionally.

One of the Biggest Comebacks in Music History

Norman Seeff’s 1983 portraits of Tina Turner, one of the most celebrated pop stars, also came at a critical point in Turner’s career. Her rise to superstardom 1983 onwards was considered to be one of the biggest comebacks in music history where Tina Turner became and is still considered to be a true soul powerhouse. Seeff’s session, ‘Bel Air Sequence’ of Tina Turner projects her both as an empowered woman, but also an artist at her creative peak.

Creative Excellence

Norman Seeff’s sessions in which he photographs his subjects in a heightened state, have become a vehicle to explore different ways of creative excellence throughout the years. With a career spanning 45 years, Seeff has documented over 400 shoots with musical artists, authors, actors, scientists, engineers, and many other influential names in the world. His iconic ‘sessions’ continue to provide us unique insights on the act of creation.