Norman Seeff Lecture- The Power & The Passion to Create

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Sleepy John Estes



I arrived in a small house far beyond the outskirts of Memphis. My guide asked Sleepy if I could photograph him. Sleepy replied, “Okay, but he’s got to buy beer.” I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying – his southern accent was so extreme – and my hippy guide had to act as an interpreter. I ended up buying a lot of beer. People from all around the neighborhood rolled up and it turned into a big party.

Rolling Stones

RollingStonesLos Angeles

Mick had the idea of the Stones coming down the ramp of a ship ‘defecting’ to France – for tax reasons. Rather than risk shooting at the Long Beach docks, I decided to build a set. The session began at midnight. One of my assistants, in period costume, impulsively turned to kiss Mick and lost her footing and they both came down. I captured a sequence of shots that we turned into postcards of classic ‘Stones’ moments.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles, Los Angeles 1985Los Angeles

My session with Ray Charles was a seminal turning point in terms of going inward into the depth of an artist’s inner process. There this beautiful moment where he says, “If you can think of it, see that’s the key, to create it in your mind.” All the while, Ray was playing and demonstrating the power of emotional expression on the piano. At the beginning of the session he was quite ‘testy’, but by the end, he was calling me ‘brother’.

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe


New York

Soon after my arrival in New York, I met Robert and Patti at a downtown Manhattan bar. I thought they looked cool and asked them to do a session with me. The authenticity and emotional depth of their love was exactly what I was looking for in my images. 40 years later these shots, which were simply a way for me to build my New York portfolio, have been in great demand for book covers and television & magazine stories around the world.

Miles Davis


On the road

I was asked to shoot a calendar for a Japanese client on American jazz artists and found myself at a club somewhere in middle America. The club was very funky and Miles is sitting in this manager’s office, doubling up as a changing room. He had just come off stage. He had recently had some vocal chord surgery and I could see that was in a lot of pain. I’m looking through the lens and I’m thinking, ‘this is the another face of the romanticized life of the musician’ that people are often not aware of.

Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger, Los Angeles 1972

Los Angeles

I collaborated with John Van Hammersveld on creating the EXILE ON MAIN STREET album package. Mick was very hands-on and the final decision maker. One afternoon, we sat at a table and asked Mick to hand-write the liner notes, which we pasted onto the album layout. We created the album package design right there in that moment.

Martin Scorsese


New York

By the time I shot Scorsese, I was in the early phase of conceiving the seven-stage dynamic of the creative process as a template for communication with artists. I saw that he was nervous. So I said to him, “I always get nervous in the beginning of the session. How are you doing?” And he said, “Oh yeah, I’m nervous”, and we were in an intimate communication instantaneously because we connected at an emotional level right out. So we have this amazing conversation, exploring his creative journey. “If I can forgive my characters, why not forgive myself when I sense the same feelings in myself?” he tells me.



Los Angeles

When KISS first came into my studio, I was astounded. What are adults doing dressed up like this? I soon found out. They had an almost uncanny ability to interact and improvise without running out of ideas. It reminded me of Kabuki Theatre and so I decided to art direct their HOTTER THAN HELL album in a Japanese theme. This was seminal in opening their popularity in Japan.

Keith Richards

Keith Richards, Los Angeles 1972

Los Angeles

The big prize as a photographer was to get a job shooting the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. I got an invitation to shoot the Rolling Stones – and that was ideal for me. They were more edgy for my tastes. Keith is the quintessential rock star. He was quite happy to leave all the responsibilities to Mick and just hang out and have fun. Looking at Keith through the lens said it all. It was immediately clear to me that in its simplicity, this could be an iconic rock image.