Icon Spotlight: Norman Seeff’s Vintage Photographs

Norman Seeff has had a very interesting life.  He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and was trained as a doctor eventually working as an emergency doctor under apartheid in the Black township of Soweto.  Due to the political climate at the time he thought it best to leave South Africa in 1969.

Arriving in New York he began to experiment with photography and at the bar Max’s Kansas City he was introduced to Andy Warhol, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.  As Seeff later recalled “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?’”

Norman Seeff photograph of Andy Warhol

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Andy Warhol, 1969 | Estimate: $3,000 – $5,000

Norman Seeff photograph of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, 1969 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

It was at this time that Seeff met Bob Cato, a meeting that would change the course of his life.  Bob Cato was the creative director for Columbia Records and thought that he would take a chance on this novice photographer.  Cato asked Seeff to photograph The Band for their album Stage Fright.  The shoot did not go well and Seef was positive it would be his last.  He arrived at Woodstock three hours late, the band was annoyed and then he ran out of film within the first 30 minutes.  Seeff was so ashamed of his job that he just slide the final prints under Bob Cato’s door.  It turned out that The Band and Cato liked the photograph so much that it became a collectible poster included with the album.

This launched Seeff’s career as a photographer of musicians and celebrities.  Relocating to Los Angeles In 1971, he became the Creative Director of the United Artists Records where he photographed over 400 album covers including the Rolling Stones.

Norman Seeff photograph of The Rolling Stones

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | The Rolling Stones, 1972 | Estimate: $3,000 – $5,000

The key to Seeff’s success was being able “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. 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.”

An example of this technique is Seeff’s photograph of Carly Simon where he used her love of yoga as a way to get the perfect image for the album cover of Playing Possum in 1974.  After leaving United Artists Records he set up his own studio on Sunset Boulevard.  Bob Cato moved from New York to take over Seeff’s former job and the pair continued to collaborate as Cato hired Seeff to shoot covers for the record label.

Norman Seeff photograph of Carly Simon

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Carly Simon, 1974 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

As Seeff refined his approach to his photo shoots he brought in a film crew to record what he called his “Sessions” the first of which was Ike & Tina Turner in 1975. These “Sessions” became a form performance art attracting as many as 1000 spectators.  Seeff thought of himself as “an explorer of the creative process from the inside out.”

Vintage Photographs by Norman Seeff is a rare opportunity to acquire unique original photographs.  This is only the second time that the Norman Seeff Archives have offered a selection of works by the artist on the market.  By the very nature of the way Norman Seeff worked to create these images many of them are unique through the spontaneous nature of the photo sessions themselves, such as Kiss’ album cover, Hotter than Hell.

Norman Seeff photograph of Tina Turner

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Tina Turner, 1983 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Norman Seeff photograph of Kiss

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Kiss, 1974 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Norman Seeff photograph of Cher, 1976

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Cher, 1976 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Van Halen, 1979 | Estimate: $2,000 - $3,000

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Van Halen, 1979 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Diane Keaton, 1975 | Estimate: $2,000 - $3,000

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Diane Keaton, 1975 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Aerosmith, 1989 | Estimate: $2,000 - $3,000

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Aerosmith, 1989 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Norman Seeff photograph of Whitney Houston, 1990

Norman Seeff (South African, b. 1939) | Whitney Houston, 1990 | Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

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 personalities. Vintage Photographs by Norman Seeff  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.”

Posted by Nigel Russell

Director, Photographs

  1. There’s certainly a great deal to find out about this topic.
    I like all the points you made.


    1. Hello, Thank you for leaving a comment. We appreciate your feedback.


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