Norman Seeff Shares His Most Famous Photos in Patti Smith-Inspired Show

He fled South Africa to capture artists during one of New York's most exciting eras.

Norman Seeff, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith (1969).
Photo: courtesy of the artist.
Norman Seeff, Blondie (1979). Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Norman Seeff, Blondie (1979).
Photo: courtesy of the artist.

In 1965, South African-born Norman Seeff arrived in New York with a camera and without any job prospects.

He befriended Soho artists while he met his one-photo-session-a-day goal. His career took off when he was introduced to Bob Cato, then creative director of Columbia records who saw his work and gave him his first commercial shoot—photographing Robbie Robinson and the Band in Woodstock.

“He looked at my portfolio and I saw tears running down his face,” Seeff told artnet News in an interview. Since then, he has photographed the likes of Patti Smith, Ray Charles, Steve Jobs, and Joni Mitchell, among other cultural figures.

Seeff’s iconic photos will be heading back to his original New York stomping ground—the Chelsea Hotel—to be exhibited during “Cowboy Mouth: Young Artists at the Chelsea“, a 10-day show inspired by Patti Smith and Sam Shepard’s original short play by the same name.

Below, artnet News talked to Seeff about some of his most iconic photos.

Norman Seeff,  Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith (1969). Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Norman Seeff, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith (1969).
Photo: courtesy of the artist.

“I was hanging out at Max’s [Kansas City] and bumped into Patti Smith. I didn’t know who she was, and then I met Robert Mapplethorpe. At that point I had started making some money, so I got myself a place at the Chelsea Hotel, where they were also staying. This picture was taken at a friend’s apartment on 72nd and Amsterdam; they had a studio there, and they let me use it. This was after a photo session we did; we were just hanging out.”

“What was really profound was the depth of love the two had for each other. There was a piece in the book [Just Kids] about how she [Patti] wanted to get him a present for his birthday, it ended up being this skull necklace he’s wearing in the photo. She bought them [the skulls] separately and strung them together.”

(see Patti Smith’s Resilience of the Dreamer; Robert Mapplethorpe Takes Over Paris; and Patti Smith To Release Second Memoir, M Train)

Norman Seeff, Debbie Harry (1979). Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Norman Seeff, Debbie Harry (1979).
Photo: courtesy of the artist.

“There was something about [Debbie Harry] in terms of pushing a style way of dressing, it was quite sophisticated but had a punk feel to it. At the time she was young and adolescent in her behavior. The session started out tough, but ended up with everyone working together in a beautiful way.”

Norman Seeff, Johnny Winter (1970). Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Norman Seeff, Johnny Winter (1970).
Photo: courtesy of the artist.

“I was sitting at Max’s [Kansas City] one night with a guy that had long white hair, and he tells me he’s got a band, and I had no idea who he was. And of course, it was Johnny Winter.”

“I was new and I didn’t know much about who was who. It was only after I did the session with him [Johnny Winter] that I listened to his music.  I was stunned at how brilliant he was.”

“Cowboy Mouth: Young Artists at the Chelsea” will be at 222 West 23rd Street from June 10 – 20, 2015.


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