Behind Norman Seeff's Vintage Photographs

Artsy Editors
Feb 28, 2019 9:53PM

Artsy is pleased to present the Heritage: Norman Seeff Vintage Photographs, a dedicated auction to Norman Seeff composed of 50 single edition gelatin silver prints, with a large previously unseen selection. Bidding will be open from the 26th of February and will close on the 13th of March with a live auction at 3pm CET (4pm EST).

Norman Seeff was born on March 5th, 1939 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The artist initially studied science and was an ER doctor. It was only upon moving to New York in 1969, that he started experimenting with photography. Unknown and untested, he began photographing people in the streets of Manhattan. Soon he was introduced to a bar called Max’s Kansas City where he had his first encounters with the likes of Andy Warhol, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Norman Seeff, Andy Warhol, 1969

Norman Seeff, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith,1969

Intrigued by their looks and persona, Seeff remarked, “I didn’t know who Patti Smith was — and Robert Mapplethorpe at that point was just, like, an airbrush artist. I just thought they were fascinating looking and I didn’t think much about it, so I just said to them, "Would you mind if we did a session together?" And so he did.

In 1969, Seeff met Bob Cato, a photographer and graphic designer who was the creative director for Columbia Records. Enamored by his work, he commissioned Seef’s first photography assignment: producing images for The Band’s album, Stage Fright. He recalls driving to Woodstock and arriving three hours late to a host of cantankerous musicians in the fading daylight. And to make matters worse, he ran out of film so the session lasted only a half an hour. He was so embarrassed by the day’s events that he slipped his shots under Bob Cato’s door to avoid showing the photographs himself.

Norman Seeff, The Band, 1969

He shouldn't have worried. Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist and primary songwriter, adored the image. Bob Cato was so taken with it as well, that he decided to turn it into a poster that would be included in the record sleeve to accompany its release. The session became an instant classic and launched Seeff’s 50-year long career as a “rock photographer”.

Norman Seeff, Aerosmith, 1989

Seeff had a natural talent for creating visually interesting photographs. His challenge lied in the desire “to create images that had a spontaneity to them, that were vital, that were alive and somehow touched […] the soul or the essence of a person.” To do this he endeavored to become a photographer that could answer the question “how do I work with relationship as the art form?”

His solution was to delve into the personalities of the subjects he was shooting. “I needed to focus on creating the experience in the moment rather than aiming at a goal. If you want to create a spontaneous experience, you have to create a relationship with the artist and you have to be interactive. It has to be emotional and it has to be real.”

A classic example of this technique in action is Seeff’s work with Carly Simon where he used her love of yoga as the central imagery for the album cover of Playing Possum in 1974. The final shot is widely regarded as one of the most popular, and sexiest of the decade, album covers of their time and forms part of a series of images which typify Seeff’s ability to put his subjects at ease.

Norman Seeff, Carly Simon, 1974

Norman Seeff, Chaka Khan, 1977

Norman Seeff, Joni Mitchell, 1979

In 1971, after two years and a half years in New York, Seeff relocated to Los Angeles to become the Creative Director of the United Artists Records where he photographed a host of global bands, including the Rolling Stones.

Norman Seeff, The Rolling Stones, 1972

Seeff spent two years in the role before going independent and launching a studio on Sunset Boulevard. As fate would have it, Bob Cato relocated to LA around the same time, replacing Seeff at United Artists Records. The pair continued working together as Cato hired Seeff to continue shooting for the record label.

Seeff’s relentless focus on authenticity resulted in a new format for his sessions. When Cato commissioned Seeff, in 1975 to shoot Ike & Tina Turner, he brought in for the first time a film crew. By creating this “multi-platform experience” Seeff thought of himself as “an explorer of the creative process from the inside out.” The experience of this new format during his sessions became so popular that they turned into an artform of their own right, attracting at times, as many as 1,000 onlookers.

Heritage: Norman Seeff Vintage Photographs is a an extremely rare opportunity to acquire a unique and original Norman Seeff. Not only have the works from this auction never been displayed before, but this is only the second time that the owner of Seeff's Archives has generously put a selection of 50 works by the artist on the market. The photographs are printed on Agfa Portriga Rapid paper which has been out of production for decades and no longer exists today. Every single lot is unique whether through a variance in the exposure, tonality or paper or through the spontaneous nature of the photo sessions themselves, such as Kiss’ album cover, Hotter than Hell.

Norman Seeff, Kiss, 1974

In the span of 50 years, Norman captured and documented more than 500 sessions. Whether artist, musician, actor, writer, singer, politician, or athlete – his iconic images allowed viewers to relate and understand some of the 20th century’s most renowned personas. Heritage: Norman Seeff Vintage Photographs is a fantastic selection which depicts the artist’s most memorable sessions, perfectly conveying Seeff’s ability that the importance of an image is: “not the picture, it’s the experience.”

Artsy Editors