Pop Culture History and Artistic Excellence

Norman Seeff’s name is synonymous with both pop culture history and artistic excellence, while his portraits, taken as a whole, have become a “who’s who” of the later twentieth century. Seeff was a chronicler of the creative process and developed a uniquely emotional approach toward photographing his subjects based on interpersonal relations and bringing out immediacy in them. As a result, his portraits offer memorably unguarded and introspective moments in pop culture history, capturing the inner-feelings of many of the most iconic musicians, movie stars, and visionaries.

Visualizing the Creative Process

During an interview we conducted with Seef we discussed visualizing the creative process and how it has been an aim of his from the beginning. We asked how he captured that. He answered:

“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.”

The Early Years

Originally trained as a soccer player and then a surgeon, the 30 year-old South African was desperate for a change. He moved to Manhattan in 1969 with little more than the vague hope of pursuing a creative career. He quickly fell in with New York’s notorious underground crowd of the time by being introduced to Max’s Kansas City where Andy Warhol and his protégés would usually gather as well as others like the close friends Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. In 1969 Mapplethorpe was an artist not yet involved with photography, Smith was exploring writing, and Seeff was beginning to learn how to interact with subjects he was photographing. Well before the friends were famous, Seeff simply believed they were interesting looking and he invited them to do a shoot in his West 72nd Street apartment. They all immediately hit it off.

Norman Seeff, Robert & Patti II, Robert Mapplethorpe & Patti Smith, New York, NY, 1969, printed 2015, Archival Pigment Photograph

Robert & Patti II

In Seeff’s renowned images taken in his kitchen, equipment is present and visible in the images becoming a part of the environment and predating what would become part of Seeff’s signature style. Seeff says about the shoot:

“What really touched me was the absolute depth of the love between them. If you look at the way they were together, and the way that he looked at her, and the way that she looked at him . . . I had no way of knowing the cultural impact that they would both later have. After Robert’s death Patti told me that these shots come closest to her remembrance of the profundity of the love between them.”

Seeff’s photographs masterfully reveal the intimate connection between Mapplethorpe and Smith in a fresh, informal but arresting way. It is fitting that both artists would impact contemporary culture through their own, unique and artistically non-conforming voices.


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