The history of rock n’ roll myth-making is inseparable from photography, whether we go back to its origins (the rare images of bluesman Robert Johnson) or mobile phone snaps of Childish Gambino this past weekend at Coachella. And rock has known a host of busy-thumbed shooters whose work has, in many cases, outlasted the bands and solo acts that made them almost famous (and sometimes rich) in their own right.
Few would dispute that Norman Seeff is one of the most important photographic chroniclers of rock’s most robust decades, from his audition job (a shot that became a fold-out poster in The Band’s Stage Fright album) through the legendary session that produced the brilliant chaos of the postcard images from the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. Perhaps most notable is a career-long association with Joni Mitchell that is still vibrant.
Seeff has believed from earliest days that only by building trust—despite the rigors of beating a ticking clock—can he get at something like the truth: “I always say to people, look, I can’t do this alone. You have to commit to doing the session a hundred percent, just as you can’t do a concert where you’re not completely committed.
“I tell them, over time these images will be part of the history of who you are. So I can’t have you holding back on me. You’ve got to really put out because I can’t do it alone, but we can do it together. So I’m very direct in that way. When you give people that kind of clarity and information then they go.”
Earlier this year, the Grammy Museum curated an event at the Sunset Strip’s Andaz Hotel, which during the days Led Zeppelin stalked the Strip was known not by its corporate moniker, the Hyatt House, but rather the Riot House. Seeff, introducing an array of striking Joni Mitchell portraits that are slated to join many others he made of the singer when the Museum mounts a large exhibition in their downtown digs later this year, wore a characteristic grin of some slyness when asked to make a few remarks to the crowd.
“I usually like to be extemporaneous, which is dangerous. Working with Joni,” he added with fondness, “is also dangerous….”
Often, he added, in referring to the 14 shoots they did together over the years, Mitchell would “roll up in a new persona” with a notion or two: “And we would try for a half an hour, I would do her idea, have a discovery process, until we came to a truce. Collaboration is possible.”
His current collection of striking portraits, The Joni Mitchell Sessions, is a handsome, beefy coffee table volume of preponderantly black and white studies of his friend in a variety of moods and looks, from 1972’s Court and Spark shoot through 1975’s bathing-suited Hissing of Summer Lawns work and on through to a concluding set around the time of the mysterious poses of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter in 1977. (He also filmed behind-the-scenes at a recent all-star Mitchell tribute.)
On a recent weekday afternoon in Burbank at Seeff’s airy studio (a converted car showroom) he pulled up full of chatty energy, his shock of grey hair one of the few concessions to recently reaching his 80th birthday. He opened our discussion by showing snippets of ad hoc interviews from the hundreds of hours of film footage he’d made over the years while shooting his talented array of subjects. One selection features a quick succession of Tina Turner, Alicia Keys, will.i.am and Merle Haggard tossing out striking gems about their creative process under Seeff’s empathetic questioning (and in some cases, energetic shutter-clicking).
After a long and mutable career that’s included music and magazine work, a raft of high-end advertising shoots (e.g., for Apple), and detours to intimately portray institutions like CalTech and the Jet Propulsion Lab, he’s unpacking his huge body of work to be widely deployed in books, online and on film — a full, sprawling multi-media effort to share the archive with the public. We began back where it all started.
Born in Johannesburg, a pro soccer player at age 17, then an ER doctor trying to save lives in a huge Soweto hospital, you were chased out of South Africa for your anti-apartheid activism—only to arrive in New York with no money or credentials.
Where I had to get out of the country quickly. Arrived in New York in 1968 — I can’t practice medicine, and I go, “Okay, I think I’ve got to switch my career.” But I was a painter and a sculptor, just beginning photography. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the music business and you could photograph album covers.
But hanging out downtown you meet Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith…
I’m spending my days at Max’s Kansas City, where Andy Warhol and all the subculture people in New York hang out, and I’m sitting next to Patti and Robert. I just say to them, “Hey, you know, I’d love to photograph you.” I have no idea who they are. They have no idea who they are. I’m just trying to build a portfolio, it wasn’t a job. Now those shots, along with later ones of Steve Jobs, are the first ones people want to buy.
The next happy accident was The Band. You’d been discovered by Bob Cato, a leading graphic designer who shot for Columbia Records who liked your portfolio. He assigns you to take some shots for the liner notes of The Band’s Stage Fright. You arrived late, unused to driving on the left side, and managed to quickly shoot the few rolls of black and white film you could afford.
And when I came back, I didn’t like anything I’d shot. I worked on this one image that I was still very uncertain about and pushed it under Bob’s door because I was too embarrassed to actually show him face-to-face…
And when Robbie Robertson saw the picture, as he would say decades later in his memoir, “I had never seen this texture, the style of art, in photography before. It was soft and stark at the same time, in a modernistic sepia tone.”
I love that Bob was then secure enough in himself to say “I’m not going to use my own [photos], I’m going to use your shot as a fold-up poster”—the one that when you pulled the shrink-wrap off, people went, “wow,” and up went the poster on people’s walls. Every bar that I went to suddenly had this picture posted up by the jukebox. And everyone in the graphics business saw that poster. From being unable to even get in the front door, I was [now] having people call saying “would you please come in?” I was in demand in New York and getting work.
Soon after, Bob Cato was tasked to do a nationwide search for a creative director for United Artists Records…
And I’ve never done that before, but he spoke to United Artists and said “take this guy as your creative director” and based on his gravitas they agree. So that’s how I came to L.A.
By now the Rolling Stones had noticed your stuff, and you got a special dispensation from United Artists to shoot them for Atlantic Records—for a historic, art-heavy double album. Jagger had an idea for a dockside scene—their symbolic move to France for tax reasons. Had you heard Exile on Main St.?
Hadn’t heard anything. That session started at midnight, they’d been in a studio all day. I had built a set which was, in fact, like a dock scene with the people I work with as extras in vintage costume. So, I’m beginning to work with the band. I push them—”Hey guys, nothing is happening here”—no boundary crossing of the sort I value. Then one of my staff, this woman who was playing Mick Jagger’s consort, suddenly felt the desire to kiss him. She grabs him and they both lose their footing and they do this near-somersault, and I just fired off about ten shots, cocking away, from the kiss to the fall. And I knew in that moment I had my quote unquote Rolling Stones moment.
Another striking moment, and you can see it, was the Fleetwood Mac sessions for the Tusk album.
Like herding cats! It was like being a sort of a school teacher in the kindergarten because everyone was having their own wonderful time. The hardest part was to get all five in front of my camera at the same time. Each of them was individually fascinating, but together you could feel an electricity between everyone. And I’m working with all the stories of what was going on with them, and then they start to touch each other and flow with the music. It was magic, because rather than being five separate people they became one.