Norman Seeff Shares Stories Behind His Iconic Rock Photos
Photographer Norman Seeff isn't into researching his subjects or setting up props; he'd rather place his famous models in front of a plain screen and chat. "My whole thing was, 'It's not about photography – it's about communication,'" he tells Rolling Stone.
A former medical doctor from South Africa, Seeff arrived in New York in the late 1960s, looking for a more creative line of work. After shooting interesting-looking people on the streets for a year, he met graphic designer Bob Cato, who introduced him to rock photography. Inspired by his subjects' creativity, Seeff's photo sessions featured live performances and interviews. "The experience was so profound that I started having audiences come to my sessions," Seeff says. "Anywhere from 40 to 250 people would come and watch."
His first solo exhibition, at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York, features not only photos but also video from those sessions. Rolling Stone asked Seeff to share his stories about some of his favorite photos; click through for his tales.
By PAT PEMBERTON
After Cato assigned him to shoot liner-note art for the Band's Stage Fright album in 1969 – his first big gig – Seeff got lost on the way to Woodstock and arrived an hour late. "By the time I'm there, the band is really pissed off," he recalls. Because he couldn't afford to buy more film, the session only lasted an hour. When he turned his photo in to Cato, he was so embarrassed, he simply pushed it under the door and left.
Two weeks later, Cato called back and said the photo was going to become a wrap-around poster. "And suddenly I have an image in every bar in town. Every club. Every record store," says Seeff, who became creative director at United Artists Records a year and a half later.
While Seeff preferred spontaneity, Mitchell – who also created art for album covers – was more into planning. "Joni would often come in with conceptual ideas, so we would generally argue for the first half hour," he says. In this case, he adds, "It was just a moment of Joni looking gorgeous, as she is. And she came in wearing that kind of stuff."
One of These Nights was a breakthrough record for the Eagles in 1975. This photo, which appeared on the back of the album sleeve, captures the harmonically tight band locked in intense gazes – "being themselves in a confident way," Seeff says.
While he never makes subjects pose, creating a moment with several artists at once can be challenging, he adds. "When you work with five people, if you don't create a simultaneous relationship with every single person, someone loses eye contact, someone goes away – they're not present."
Ike and Tina Turner
It was this 1975 photo shoot, which he also filmed, that prompted Seeff to make motion pictures an integral part of his sessions. "They performed a song that they put out afterward," he says. "But the way they performed it in my session was an early version. And when I developed the film, I was very clear what my future was. It was a moment of destiny."
Since then, he's filmed around 500 sessions, each with two hours or more of video. "I've shot so much, I've only been able to look at half of what I've shot," he says. "To save money at one point, I was not developing the film; I was putting it in a vault." He hopes to create a channel that will feature his films.
Just before Saturday Night Fever made him a mega-star, Travolta's management decided he needed to be shot by a rock & roll photographer, Seeff explains. "I was in the early phase of trying to figure out how to get people to relax in front of a camera," he says. "And I was doing pretty trial-and-error, radical stuff, like throwing a pie in Frank Zappa's face to loosen him up."
For this shoot, he doused a willing Travolta with a bucket of water. At one point, he says, Travolta discussed his upcoming dancing role. "He said, 'What do you think of this pose?'" Seeff remembers. "And he put his arm up and, thank God, I said, 'Oh, I think that's great.'"
While Simon's 1975 album Playing Possum didn't generate much enthusiasm, this shot garnered a reputation as one of the sexiest album covers of the era. "The weird thing is, she was terrified before performances," Seeff says. "But in front of the camera, she had no inhibitions whatsoever. At one point she goes, 'I've got this little teddy under what I'm wearing.' And I said, 'Well, that sounds great.'" Simon danced, then began doing yoga poses. "And that was at the end, when she's coming up, and her head had gone out of the frame."
Sent by Rolling Stone to shoot a tech company with an atypical approach in 1984, Seeff began shooting group shots of "this commune of kids" at Apple, Inc. Eventually, he managed to get one-on-one time with the company's 28-year-old millionaire co-founder. "We were sitting on the floor, drinking beer and chatting," he says, "and at one point, he ran out and came back with this computer – which I'd never seen at that point – then plopped down into this lotus pose and put it into his lap."
The photo had a rebirth – used on the cover of Time and the back cover of Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography – after Jobs died in 2010. "We weren't thinking, 'Okay, let's make you into the guru, spiritual leader with your thing,'" Seeff adds. "It was just one of those moments."
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
After arriving in New York, Seeff began hanging out at Max's Kansas City, where he befriended Smith and Mapplethorpe, then a couple and both unknown. "We were just hanging in my kitchen when we did that," Seeff says. "When I photographed them, who knew where they would go?" In 1969, Mapplethorpe considered himself an airbrush artist and demonstrated his work on some of Seeff's photos. "Then he said, 'Would you mind if I come and watch your sessions, because I want to learn about photography?'"
Through Smith and Mapplethorpe, Seeff met this eccentric pop artist, whom he photographed at Warhol's place in 1970. "Andy was a body whose mouth never moved," Seeff says. "He did whatever I said, but no emotional interaction there." Never trained in photography, Seeff said he was beginning to learn how to interact with subjects when he shot this. "Thank goodness I learned early on it's not about cameras; it's about the relationship and your own observing devices."
Before she released her 1976 album I'd Rather Believe in You, Cher and a friend walked into Seeff's studio unannounced. "They said, 'We're kind of interested in doing some work, and we wanted to just come and see your space,'" Seeff remembers. "So I said, 'Well, that's cool.' So we went to the back room, and we started talking, and I shot some very off-the-cuff kind of stuff. In fact, I've got a whole sequence of Cher doing what Carly Simon did – rolling around on the ground."
As Tina Turner was launching her comeback – now as a solo act – Seeff had a stage built for her 1983 photo session. "And she walked on, and within five seconds, it was, like POW! I got hundreds of shots." Turner, who arrived with backup singers, sang and danced for three hours. "Working with her is like working with a nuclear reactor," Seeff says. "She is so present and powerful."