Norman Seeff with Ray Charles (All photos by Norman Seeff)
You may not know Norman Seeff by name, but you know his work; you've likely held an album cover shot by the man. Celebrated as one of the most noted photographers of the 70's and 80's, rock legends and celebrities alike have requested him, names like Blondie, The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Steve Martin, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Steve Jobs… the list could go on and on. With the advent of an upcoming sale of unseen archival photos at Christie's Auction House, Noisey spoke to Seeff and discovered a tale of precipitous immigration, the fearful pursuit of passion, and an unanticipated voyage to venerated photographer.
Noisey: You were a medical doctor in South Africa in the 60's and moved to the U.S. to pursue creative endeavors; how the hell did you make that leap?
N.S.: I was living in South Africa at the time of apartheid, and it was sort of racist and inhumane and I decided to work in an all black hospital outside of Johannesburg. I ended up being running the emergency unit there. A lot of my friends were involved in anti-apartheid politics and becoming adversarial to the government, so at a certain point it got kind of dangerous for me to stay and on the other side, I always had this duality of, "Do I want to be in the world of art or do I want to be in the world of science?" I was excited by both, but at some point it became, "Get the hell out of dodge city, because if you don't move soon, it's not going to be a pretty picture." So I called my friends one day and said, "Come and buy my furniture", and I sold lots of artwork. Within three days I was on a plane to New York.
Michael Jackson & Diana Ross
Noisey: So it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type move. Let's talk about being flat broke in a new country, and in New York no less; anyone who's been there knows the fear.
N.S.: I arrived in New York with very little money and I couldn't practice medicine because I never had the American Bar. The first year was a nightmare because I was starting a new career and was self-taught, I never went to school for anything. I basically came with one little camera, and started walking the streets and finding people on the streets that look interesting to me, asking "Would you let me photograph you?"
I was trying to get into magazines and and be seen by art directors but it was rough. People didn't even want to see your portfolio, or if they did take it they'd say, "leave it at the door" and then you'd pick it up a couple of days later and no one would say anything. It was a pretty rough time, because I'm thinking to myself "What the fuck have I done with my life?" I was doing such profound work in South Africa, a place that really needed it, and it lead to a lot of doubt about my decisions. At this point I can't go back to South Africa because I just left and I didn't want to. No matter what I was going to see it through. You know, New York is not a place to be without money. So it was rough and a lot of anxiety…and self doubt as an artist.
Noisey: I understand that it was really one photo that gave your career the momentum needed to launch you into notoriety; tell me about that photo.
N.S.: [Noted Graphic Designer] Bob Cato gave me my first gig shooting The Band. When I first heard, I thought to myself "The Band? Who's the band?" He's talking to this guy called Robbie Robertson and says, "I want you to go up to Woodstock and shoot them; you'll do the liner notes."
So a couple of weeks later I borrow a car- I've never driven in America before- and I borrow a strobe, and spend my money for six rolls of film. I set off to upstate New York, being used to driving on the opposite side of the road. I was three hours late and Robbie was furious, and the rest of the band was really pissed off too. I was incredibly embarrassed to start out my first shoot; I've never worked with a band before, of any stature. Garth [Hudson], the big guy, was just sitting in this big barn, tinkling at the piano, and no one else was talking to me. So I quickly rearranged the furniture and got everyone in and did the shoot in an hour because I ran out of film. So I do this very fast shoot, they don't really even talk to me and I don't have a nice time, and I remember driving back really asking myself, "What the hell have I done with my life? This is not even fun, it's a waste of time, and you're in self delusion. Who the fuck do you think you are?"
I develop the film and I don't like anything. Then there's one image that I think, "Okay, maybe I can work with it", and so I spend a week on it in the dark room. I was living on the upper west side on the 70's and I remember walking, because I had no money, all the way downtown to the east 30's. When I got to Bob's studio, I'm too embarrassed so I pushed the picture in an envelope under the door. Then I go home and I don't hear anything. Two or three days pass, no call. A week. Ten days. I'm saying to my friends, "I've really blown it", but they convince me to call him.
"Where the fuck have you been?! I don't have your phone number and I couldn't reach you! By the way, I just want you to know, Robbie Robertson loves your picture so much we've decided not to use my stuff, we're going to use yours for the cover." Then Bob says, "I've got this great idea. I'm not even going to print it on the cover, I'm going to print it as a poster so when people buy the album and pull off the shrink wrap, what comes out is this poster which you can unfold." Within a few days of the album getting released, every bar I go to, there's my picture. The album turned out to be a hit album, it was The Band's Stagefright. Suddenly I'm getting phone calls from art directors- "Um, do you have time to come in and see us? We really love your work." I'm getting phone calls, I'm getting shoots, and my life has changed.
Insert for The Band's Stagefright
Noisey: At a point you began filming your photo sessions; why was that?
N.S.: I always had the dream of being and wondered if I had the guts to be an artist. I ran United Artists for two years and then I resigned to go freelance; I got myself a little studio right on the Sunset Strip, right next door to the Chateau Marmont, and ran it there for about 12 years. At this point I'm getting all the major artists. The Rolling Stones called me from London saying, "Would you do our next album?" which was Exile on Main Street. I started inviting people to come to my sessions, and people would comment, "There's something amazing happening. The conversations you're having with artists-the photographs are amazing-but what's happening is riveting. The artists are letting down their guard; they aren't talking to you like an interviewer, they see you as another artist, so it's more of a peer to peer relationship." I wasn't interested in what artists did, I was more interested in how. Say I was shooting Scorsese, I would say, "Hey, I've seen your movies. I 'll forgive you for your bad movies, but how do you get people to be so real?" and he would tell me stuff. I realized that what I was doing was, as I would call it, 'accessing their process from the inside out'. So one day I wondered if what was going on could be objectively shown to people.
So in 1975, I brought a film crew into an Ike and Tina Turner session after Bob Cato's blessing. So there's this mentor that gave me my first store shoot, then gave me my first corporate design job, then got me the position of creative director of United Artists, and then gives me the money to film. When I developed the film and looked at it, I was fancied; because the incredible conversation about creativity and the performance- which is totally one of a kind and spontaneous- is on film; and it's just as riveting to watch as it was to be in the session. And I knew instantaneously what my destiny was. I made a resolution that I was going to film every single session that I could afford.
But I'm slowly running out of money, and it's tough because I can't get enough money to shoot. So sometimes I'm having to go, "I can't shoot the next one, I don't have any money," and then Stevie Wonder calls. So we film and I end up spending a couple of million dollars on filming over the first ten years. Through the middle of the 70's into the middle of the 80's I'm filming as much as I can, and I'm kind of running always slightly in debt. But at the same time, I know I'm getting treasures.
Norman's lengthy, extraordinary career has continued to evolve. He's worked as a commercial director and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sue. He has been praised for his creative methods and his archival prints can be found at Christies as well as exclusive, behind-the-image stories on a number of prints and artists.