Norman Seeff has photographed many of the great bands and musicians including Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, The Band and Joni Mitchell. Seeff also photographed a young Patti Smith – the "godmother of punk" – with her then lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Seeff is one of five photographers whose photographs of Patti Smith are on show at Sydney's Blender Gallery. Seeff shot Patti Smith around April 1969 soon after she had moved into room 207 of the Chelsea Hotel with Robert Mapplethorpe. This was six years before Patti Smith's debut album "Horses". It was before Robert began experimenting with a Polaroid camera, which led later to his famous photography dating from the mid '70s onwards.
In a rare interview, Seeff spoke with Fairfax Media about this particular series.
Norman, can you tell me about the context, how did your shoot with Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe come about?
I arrived in New York at the end of 1968. It was the middle of a cold snowy winter, a shock after leaving Johannesburg in the summer. The reality of trying to start a new career hit hard and pretty soon I'm questioning why I had given up the "important" work of being a medical doctor for the "trivial" life of a photographer. After about four months of not getting any work, I made up my mind that I would do a photo session every day. I realised I had to build a portfolio with what I would call "an American sentiment" – the feel of being in New York. I had brought some photographs from South Africa that were good but didn't relate to the subculture of NY. So the approach was to create a portfolio that people would recognise as "this is us, this is our lifestyle". I was really starting from scratch. The process was also about finding what my voice was – how to bring a sense of authenticity to my images beyond the technical aspects of being a photographer.
How did you come to know Patti? What is she like to photograph?
I would just go to wherever I could find interesting people, like Max's Kansas City, a bar downtown that was a subculture hub. Andy Warhol and his mob were there and that's where I met Robert and Patti. It was a chance meeting and I didn't know anything about either of them. But we hit it off instantaneously and they responded positively to my request to do a session. I may have shown them the images that I was putting together in my portfolio at the time. Even after I worked with them I was still unaware of anything about them, other than we were just having a great time together.
I found Patti absolutely fascinating, both of them really. I was thrilled with almost every shot from that session. They were both extraordinary. But I think the most extraordinary aspect was the way [they] related to each other. They were so willing to provide me with anything I asked for, to which they added their own creativity. They quickly got on a roll, moving from one way of relating to each other to the next and I was literally in an ecstatic state, capturing hundreds of wonderful images.
When taking portraits, like those of Patti, how do you try and connect with your subject?
My approach is to create an environment in which the artist feels they can trust me. This is based on the idea of me being open and emotionally vulnerable first. Once that first stage is accomplished, the artist feels like we're in a collaborative process. Once the experience feels real and authentic, I just document it. The outcome is based on the fundamental process of collaborating with the artist in a beautiful intimate relationship.
Would you approach taking a portrait of Patti now any differently than before? If so, how?
I would be excited to do a new session with Patti. I would like to think I have grown in expertise (laughs) and in personal depth since that time. I actually believe it would be different in the sense that the communication around the inner journey of creativity would be the focus of the shoot. At the same time, that would provide me with the spontaneity of imagery that I look for.
Any funny or memorable moments in these images? They must spark some good memories, Norman?
I found the entire experience magical from beginning to end. Robert told me he was an airbrush artist and asked if he could take one of my images and work on it. I was skeptical having not seen his work but I gave him two images and about a month later he showed me these two absolutely gorgeous pieces of artwork. His ability to integrate what he did in combining airbrush with photography absolutely worked. Also, he said he really wanted to be a photographer and asked if I would mind him watching me shooting. He came a couple of times after that and would hang out in the background as I was working.
How was it photographing Patti and Mapplethorpe together? The expressions they have are quite intense.
I don't attempt to create an expression. Instead I create a relationship with the artists and when they feel these feelings for each other, they just become part of the experience. As I said earlier, it's really the experience first. I guess a new definition of intense for me would be to be in the "present tense" – to be fully present in the moment. In that way, they too were fully present. I found it was beautiful, smooth and effortless and if I learned anything from working with them, it was to create an experience that feels effortless. For me, that's getting into the zone.
You can see more of Seeff's iconic work here: normanseeff.com