Across four decades, photographer Norman Seeff has snapped some of the most iconic portraits of the biggest names in music, art, and showbiz — from Andy Warhol to Frank Zappa, from Michael Jackson to the Rolling Stones. But even the most expressive portraits offer only a quick glimpse into the mood, interactions and drama surrounding the shoot. Here, the photographer — in his own words — offers a rare peek behind the lens on some of his most famous images.
Where: Chelsea, New York City
What you don’t see: Deborah Harry showed up late to the shoot and she was in a funk when she got there. The beginning of the shoot was a little tense and at some point she walked off. Everyone relocated to this tiny balcony of the Chelsea [Hotel] and that building is old; I was concerned that we might all fall, but the attitude started to change and the shoot turned out great. Deborah was so gorgeous, especially at that time — you couldn’t help but take a fantastic image.
After the shoot: Everyone sort of congratulated each other on getting some wonderful images and I think we were all just glad that we had successfully done the shoot and turned the feeling of the day around. We all dissipated afterward.
Where: Los Angeles
What you don’t see: Diana asked for this shoot and what really struck me with this session was the tender relationship between Diana and Michael. I’d worked with Michael before and found him to be very shy and quiet. Shooting with Diana, though, he was clearly more comfortable and open with her there. It was really adorable to see what happened between them.
After the shoot: Well, I don’t think Michael was ever known for going out too much, and we didn’t. However, I sold the negatives of the whole shoot to Diana and Michael, which is an unusual situation because I never sell my negatives.
Who: Johnny Cash
What you don’t see: I was invited to his house and, first thing, I found myself hanging out in the kitchen with him, June and their daughter. They said, “If you want something to eat, grab it from the fridge.” It was so informal and down-home, he was so easy-going. We hung out at the lake and just took shots. He was already so iconic and larger than life and the power of his presence was so high, but I found him very warm and emotionally present. […] What I really noticed was the sense of humility in Johnny. He was an incredibly real person and I adored him.
After the shoot: He invited me to stay after the shoot and we hung out in the studio while he laid down tracks. I ended up calling my film crew in and recording the session. Who knows what’s still in the temperature-controlled archive, but that video footage must be.
Who: Frank Zappa
Where: Los Angeles
What you don’t see: Frank came in and he was quite unique because he had a duel quality. He was relaxed in front of the camera but not a “hang out, casual” kind of guy. He seemed to have a very mental process behind it, going from one thing to another, almost posed, but very imaginative. I ended up with dozens of fascinating shots, with his wry sense of humor about them. I saw my strobe reflect in his glasses as he looked at me, and it was so Frank Zappa.
After the shoot: That first shoot we didn’t hang out afterward, but later I would end up forming a long-lived connection with Frank and his family — with the kids, Moon and Dweezel. Frank couldn’t be anything but creative and irreverent with that unusual sense of humor.
Who: The Rolling Stones
Where: Los Angeles
What you don’t see: Mick wanted to do a picture of them coming down the ramp of a boat. We wanted to shoot on the docks, but if you put the Rolling Stones on a dock somewhere, there’s going to be a riot. Instead we built a set in my Hollywood studio. The session started at midnight, so we got gallons of cheap wine [beforehand] and built sets. We were pretty happy by the time the Stones arrived, but I saw Keith coming and thought, “No problem, we’re all in the same boat!”
After the shoot: We were quite drunk and shot until the sun came up. There was a female assistant dressed as an extra for the session. She tried to lean over to kiss Mick and ended up sending them both summersaulting off of the set! I caught 12 shots and ended up turning them into tear-off postcards [inside] the album.
Who: Andy Warhol
Where: New York City
What you don’t see: This was shot in the Factory. Andy never said anything — he wouldn’t even answer people sometimes. He followed my directions but didn’t talk. At first I thought it was something I had said or done, but I came to find that it was just Andy and the Warhol persona. In those days people were icons of themselves. They were creating exaggerated personas of their actual personalities.
After the shoot: Andy wandered off and I ended up shooting other people at the Factory. There were just always so many fascinating subculture icons [there]. Because Andy had started making these films, the people that hung out at the Factory were playing characters of themselves. It was a very exaggerated environment — creative and over the top.
Dozens of Seeff’s vintage silver gelatin prints are being featured now in a Christie’s online auction.