Entering a studio whose walls are filled with Norman Seeff’s black and white photography feels a touch voyeuristic. Once you get over the quality of the print work, the exquisite lighting, the brilliant contrast and, most notably, the iconic subjects, one realizes what Seeff is really capturing is intimate moments. We’ve all seen countless images of Ray Charles, Sly Stone, Patti Smith, Steve Martin – and the list goes on. But what sets Seeff’s work apart from other photographers capturing living legends is the sheer authenticity of expression he manages to tease out of each one of his subjects, no matter how famous, jaded, or elusive they may be.
When Seeff moved from Johannesburg, where he practiced as a doctor in a local hospital, to New York City in the 1960s, among the fascinating characters he met – Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol – was legendary graphic designer Bob Cato. Cato exposed Seeff to the realm of rock photography. When Seeff moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s to become creative director of United Artist Records, his stunning work received endless accolades and even a handful of Grammy nods.
“I discovered early in my career that if the experience was authentic, the images that came out would be authentic,” Seeff explains. “The core secret of my process is to focus on being emotionally authentic and present in the moment… to allow the outcome to unfold spontaneously.” Regarding Seeff’s body of work, this emotional authenticity takes many forms; strength, humor, thoughtfulness, melancholy. The range of genuine emotion present in a studio of Seeff’s prints is miraculous. In honor of his first solo exhibition at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Soho, Seeff has generously shared the stories between three of his spectacular photographs.
“In the early, trial and error days, when I thought I had to use tactics to get the artist to let go, I ended up having some rather uncomfortable experiences. I remember standing 6 feet away from Frank Zappa and asking, “How far are you willing to go?” he looked at me with a hardly hidden sneer and said “anywhere you want to go”. So we hit him in the face with a pie—this was clearly not the way to go—we ended up getting cream in his ear and he was rather tweaked. But being Frank Zappa had committed to life as an adventure he quickly let it go and we ended up working together frequently after that first misstep.”
“My experience of the Ramones was that they were not particularly interested in conversation focusing on creativity— but they had something visually intriguing about them. It wasn’t that they were fashionistas of the time, but they had a style that totally fascinated me. I found myself, after taking some full body shots, being totally captured by their torn jeans and sneakers. In some strange way they were high fashion. It was so distinctive of The Ramones at the time that in fact you didn’t need to see their faces to know that it was The Ramones. I personally love the whole series of shots from the waist down.”
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith
“In the early days, when I had just arrived in New York , I realized very quickly that in order to survive as an artist I had to discover my own unique voice. I had started, metaphorically and literally, walking the streets and finding interesting people to shoot. I believe I must’ve met Robert and Patti at Max’s Kansas City Bar downtown. Max’s was a nexus to hang out at the time. When I met them I was intrigued, they looked so hip, but I had no idea who they were. They agreed to come up to my place—on 72nd and Amsterdam— for a shoot.
At one point we were hanging out in the apartment kitchen and I was touched by the depth of the love between them, it was visible. This was one of my early shoots where I was just beginning to understand that capturing the authentic moment was, in fact, the essence of what was to become my vision as a photographer.
Robert told me that he was an airbrush artist at the time and asked if he could airbrush over one of my photographs and I agreed. He came back two weeks later and showed me his work… I was amazed. His work was truly brilliant graphically. He gave me a wonderful print, I still have it to this day, I really connected with both of them. Patti later introduced me to Sam Shepard who was living at the Chelsea Hotel and I ultimately ended up relocating and living and working out of the Chelsea for my remaining years in NYC.”