Photographer Norman Seeff’s work has been impacting generations with iconic music cover albums and unforgettable portraits. He’s also had a career with plenty of unexpected life turns. Before he was a photographer, he was a doctor in South Africa. Before that, he was drafted as the youngest soccer player in the South African national soccer league. Perhaps, it’s this mixed bag of experiences that gives Seeff a unique aesthetic. From starting as a footballer to becoming a physician like his father in Apartheid South Africa to traveling to NY to become an artist, Seeff’s pictures nevertheless display a warming, candid, and disarming humanity. Norman Seeff was born March 5, 1939, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Seeff graduated with honors in science and art at King Edward VII School in Johannesburg. At the age of 17, he was drafted into the South African national soccer league.
“ …while still at school, I joined a professional soccer team club – an outside club. And then, later on, was drafted into the national leagues as one of the youngest players ever to be drafted into professional soccer. So, my life switched from there, and the next thing is I’m now playing in big stadiums, in front of thousands and thousands of people, and magazines writing stories about you.”
Growing up, Seeff was raised in a family involved in medicine, his father was a medical doctor. This childhood exposed Seeff to witness firsthand the injustices in opportunities and treatment of South Africans under Apartheid rules. This also lead Seeff to pursue medicine and he qualified as a medical doctor in 1965. For three years, he worked in emergency medicine at a Hospital in Soweto, focusing on managing traumatic shock.
“I had frequently, as a young child, accompanied my medical doctor father on his “calls” into the restricted “colored” areas of Johannesburg to see sick patients. What he did, I decided, was the only way to be in the world so filled with pain and desperation, and I resolved to be a doctor like him when I grew up. I loved to draw and paint, and in the dark of night, privately wrote poetry. In my teens, I became fascinated with human psychology.”
Living as a doctor during the day and as an artist at night, Seeff worried about the political climate of his country and his own need to express his creativity. After some soul searching, he decided it was time to leave South Africa. In 1969, he immigrated to the United States to pursue his creative passions and artistic abilities. Soon after arriving in New York, Seeff would stay with writer Kendrew Lascelles. Lascelles would introduce him to the bars and clubs in the city, like the famous Max’s Kansas City nightclub.
“I remember specifically waking up one morning, and it was just an instant thing. I’m out of here… I’m leaving. I woke up emotionally and went; I need to get out of here fast for multiple reasons.
So, when I came to the States, I knew I couldn’t go back to South Africa. There was no way I could practice (medicine). I didn’t have my American license. But I was happy to actually jump into this whole new life.”
Seeff would walk around New York City taking pictures of strangers he met in the street. He would develop them in Lascelles kitchen later at night. Eventually, Seeff’s photographs of the people he encountered on the streets were discovered by the famed graphic designer, Bob Cato. Cato introduced Seeff to the world of album cover design and offered him his first major photographic assignment. Seeff would shoot the album cover for The Band, bringing him immediate recognition. This stage in his early work included images of Robbie Robertson, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and other New York personalities.
“Bob was this renowned graphic designer, one of the initiators of the world of album cover design. I went up with my American portfolio of street images, and I remember sitting on a couch and showing him the work, and as I’m looking at him, I see a tear run down his face. I had never in my life seen a man express that kind of emotion, and he was responding to my work.”
In those years since he moved to America, Seeff developed a unique process for his photo sessions. They were collaborations between himself and his subjects, who were most often the most influential individuals from various industries. Whether it was Tina Turner, Ray Charles, John Travolta, Martin Scorcese, Andy Warhol, or Steve Jobs, Norman Seeff captured not only images but moments of true individuality.
“I was already creating an environment where people felt safe enough to really let their true emotional, intimate selves be seen. So, I thought I was learning the technique and technology, but in fact, the real learning was how to create an environment where people would feel a peer-to-peer inter-action and be trusting enough to just be themselves.”
Norman Seeff’s ideas began to provide visuals to the look of Rock N’ Roll. They visualized Hollywood’s actors, celebrity stardom, and other larger-than-life personalities. Seeff was recording the attitude and feel of free-spirited visionaries. He proliferated this aesthetic with his imagination, as well as his sitter’s ability to be vulnerable in the lens of the camera. This sounds quite ambitious, and indeed it was.
Photographers often use different techniques to make their sitters feel at ease. Some, like the iconic photographer Irving Penn, did the opposite. He placed sitters in what became his signature narrow corner, making the sitter react to the confined space, either squirming with discomfort or dominating the camera with their presence. These techniques helped elicit honest emotions, creating genuine moments. Similarly, Seeff’s photographic process used conversation and verbal inquiry to create an intimate environment.
“It is by actual, practical, living visceral experience I started discovering that my sessions went through a set of stepping-stones that took me to the place where, at a certain point, I could push them beyond their boundaries to go and be very, very daring about what we were going to do. If I started trying to push them from the get-go, they would walk out the door, and they’d feel controlled. It’s a dance, right.” – Norman Seeff.
Seeff would continue a successful photographic career. By 1971, Seeff spent a year as Professor of Photography at Bennington College in Vermont. In 1972, on the recommendation of Cato, Seeff re-located to Los Angeles to become the creative director of United Artists Records. There his work in design and photography received multiple Grammy Award nominations.
Three years later, he opened an independent studio on Sunset Boulevard. His photographic sessions soon became legendary and attracted 30 to 40 viewers at each session. Some sessions swelling to over 200 on some occasions. A combination of an actor’s workshop and a celebration of creative spontaneity, Seeff’s sessions were emotionally engaging experiences that resulted in many iconic images with leading innovators of the time.
“So, we would end up, in the session, sometimes taking a song that was unfinished and having the artist do it three or four times and evolve it right there. At the same time, we’ll be changing wardrobe and saying: “how does this look and how does that look?” So, the session becomes a kind of actor’s workshop, encounter session, a “happening,” and the conversation is very much focused not on what they do, but how they do what they do; the process.”
Seeff’s creative interaction with artists inspired him to film his sessions, beginning with Ike & Tina Turner in 1975. Using the photo session to explore the inner dynamics of the creative process, Seeff has continued this process for over three decades. His film and tape archive of more than 400 shoots with musical artists, film directors, authors, television personalities, scientists, visionaries, and entrepreneurs provide a unique insight of artists and innovators in the act of creation.
From being the youngest professional soccer player in the nation to trauma doctor at the age of 24 in apartheid South Africa to acclaimed industry photographer, Norman Seeff has persevered in the world of photography through open conversations with his subjects. As artists speaking to one another, his sessions are distinguished by removing the layers of fame from his subjects while letting their inner personalities shine through. Seeff’s skill as a communicator emphasizes his ability to create an engaging environment for artists to share their creative process. In his famed sessions, the photographer captures the passion and essence of artists as they describe their experiences. Seeff created an informal environment that liberated his subjects to express themselves freely.
Ultimately, Seeff’s work provides an unfiltered glimpse into the inner light of some of the world’s most cherished creative personalities. Indeed, he creates a path of healing and communication between the “famous” artist and the “common” viewer. In his images, Seeff speaks one common language, that is, of the spirit of human connectivity.
“What can I learn in this level of interaction with other human beings in discovering who they are? And through who they are, who I am?
The photography started allowing me to go on an inner journey of seeing what do I need to do to be able to communicate with someone in a way that is authentic and real, and we can now break the separation, which is what the pain is. So that’s my healer coming in. And then realizing, wait, you can use creativity to break the separation? And you’re starting to deal with the pain of humanity, which is the sense of isolation. So, is this medicine? And basically, I am saying to artists, yeah, you are healers of society. You are healing yourself in the process.” – Norman Seeff.