Taking good portraits isn’t as easy as it looks.
The instant a camera appears people change, they stop being themselves and attempt to become someone else.
Sucking in cheeks, arching an eyebrow or tilting their head to the preferred angle.
Take a look at the profile pictures on Facebook, they look like they were taken a split second after someone popped a balloon behind them, or they’ve just spotted a long-lost friend from Junior School, surprise seems to be ‘in’ at the moment.
The one thing they don’t look like is those people in the flesh.
A friend of mine recently took a picture of Giorgio Armani, before the shoot he was given the ‘Armani angle’, the one and only angle that he was allowed to shoot.
The skill of a portrait photographer is to talk them down from this ledge and to just be themselves.
Richard Avedon, one of the best portrait photographers ever, would sometimes ask his sitters this question a second before clicking the shutter; ‘what scares you?’.
They would stop posing and start thinking.
I can’t guarantee you that he used that technique on this bunch, but when you look at the expressions it’s possible.
Unfortunately that technique isn’t very helpful when shooting album covers, record companies rarely want their artists looking like they’re mulling over the effects of a nuclear holocaust or pondering being caught up in a terrorist attack.
Generally they want their artists to look authentic and cool.
A portrait is a collaboration between the person in front of the camera and the one behind it.
The key piece of equipment on this kind of job is as likely to be a bottle of Jack Daniels or a copy of The Beatles ‘White Album’ as it is a particular lens or a ring flash.
Mood is everything.
I don’t know any photographer who make their subjects look cooler and more relaxed than Norman Seeff.
I don’t know what he does, maybe he’s just a ‘great hang’, (as the kids say), but the people in the pictures look like there’s nowhere in the world they’d rather be.
His album covers capture people being the best version of themselves, whatever the mood.
2. A PARTY MOOD.
3. A FUN MOOD.
4. A CHILLED MOOD.
5. A REFLECTIVE MOOD.
6. A SERENE MOOD.7. A SERIOUS MOOD.
8. THE ‘YOU LOOKIN’ AT ME?’ MOOD.
Here’s a few outtakes that give a sense of the relaxed vibe Norman creates in the studio.
Whilst putting together this post I noticed two things about Seeff’s albums:
1. An incredible amount of them have hand written titles, my guess is that the art director is reflecting the humanity in the pictures. (Some seem to have an identical, idiosyncratic elongated style that I would imagine is Seeff’s hand.
2. An incredible amount of the albums featured another, even more relaxed portrait of the artist on the back, again I can only guess that the art director, when going through the contact sheets have found images they thought were too good to waste.
IMPORTANT: Norm, if you’re reading this; can we have a chat about how you do what you do for this blog? Also, if I ever release an album would you mind shooting the cover?
7 responses to Hands Up Who’s Heard Of Norman Seeff?
Thanks Dave, another great post. Your blog should be made compulsory in all colleges teaching advertising/design/photography.
Btw, The Stones’ Exile On Main St cover art was done by Robert Frank.
Really great to see all these Albums together, Dave, is this your personal collection? Great taste in music if so, and reminds me of spending hours on a Saturday flicking through the genres in The Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street. My favourite? Santana, Inner Secrets and Rufus, Rufized. Personally, I think this genre style hit saturation point quite early on, and I remember judging an album simply on whether the artist’s cover shot seemed genuine – fickle, I know. But interestingly, and of course pre-internet and MTV, this would often be all a fan had to flesh out their musical hero unless they were lucky enough to see them live or on the tele. Would love to have been a fly on the wall when decisions on album art where made: “George Benson; do we go portrait or conceptual?” It seems for the best part, an artist or groups personality and soul won the day. Thank you for sharing. Marko
I have a surprising amount of these on vinyl:
Rickie Lee Jones’
‘Give Me The Night’
‘Regatta De Blanc’
‘One Step Closer’
‘Into The Music’
‘Nighthawks At The Diner’
‘Full Of Fire’
‘Now We May Begin’
‘Eat To The Beat’
‘In The Pocket’
But Norman has shot hundreds, if not thousands more, so I’m sure I’ve got more of his stuff that I don’t realise.
My favourite covers are probably ‘+djustments’, ‘Playing Possum’ and ‘Best Of Johnny Taylor’.
What a great post Dave. Some fantastic covers and songs that go alongside them. Top work.
Wonderful. Great to see these again. Thanks Dave.
He was on my list of photographers to contact when living in LA ’79-80. Never materialised but always respected his work. Thanks for the unexpected reminder.
The depth of his work is what is so admirable. Great post !