Capturing legendary cultural figures on film and video

Film shot by photographer Norman Seeff while taking some of the most iconic pictures in the world show revealing sides of his famous subjects the public rarely sees

The name Norman Seeff may not click with you right away but his photos surely will. He has photographed some of the most significant cultural figures of the past half-century.  Many of his photo shoots were also filmed. It's a collection like no other but we were surprised to learn that a lot of those films were never developed…and are stacked high in a Hollywood vault. Tonight, he opens that vault for 60 Minutes so we can have a look at some his greatest works -- shot intimately on film and video. We begin with a photo session of the great Ray Charles.

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60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan interviews photographer Norman Seeff.

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Norman Seeff: How old were you when you first started playing the piano?

Ray Charles: How old I was when I started playing the piano. I'd say three years old maybe. But I'm still doing the same thing I did back then, trying to learn how to play the damn thing. All the instruments whip you, believe me, 'cause sometimes they don't do what you want them to do.

Ray Charles: The instrument talks back, you know? It just sits there and dares you to play it.

This session in 1985 is an example of Norman Seeff's style of taking photos, making his subjects feel comfortable with questions about their music.

Norman Seeff:  Have you ever whipped the piano back?

"The instrument talks back, you know? It just sits there and dares you to play it." Ray Charles

Ray Charles: Not really, you never can overwhelm an instrument. You understand? You will never get out all that's in this piano -- what's in here.

Norman Seeff: Absolutely.

Ray Charles: An instrument will bring you to your limits.

Norman Seeff: Isn't that what creativity in a sense is all about?

Ray Charles: Yea. If you can think of it. See, that's the key. Create it in your mind.

Norman Seeff: It's the tool for transformation of ..

Ray Charles: YES!!

Norman Seeff:  Great.

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Ray Charles, 1985.

Norman Seeff

Ray Charles: Now you got it. That's a great way to put it. Now, why didn't I think about that?

Out of that conversation came this classic photograph: Ray Charles as he'll always be remembered. Yet, as Norman recalls, that was not how their session began...

Norman Seeff: He didn't really wanna do the job. So when he came in and I was saying, you know "Hey, Ray, let me-- walk you over to your piano. Here's your chair-- your coffee cup." And he was, like, "Get out of my face. I know what I'm doing." And I'm going, "OH, my God," you know.

A few hours later…

Ray Charles: Are we back at you again?

Norman Seeff: I'm back at you.

It's one artist talking to another.

Ray Charles: If I'm singing a sad song, I become sad, right. I become happy, when I'm into….  (plays upbeat music and laughs)……And then you might decide to say something silly and make everyone laugh.  And you go, (plays music) "big-legged woman, keep your dress tail down!" (music…) You know what I mean? So everything has its place. The name of the game is to be able to get the sound, get the feeling, get the mood of whatever you're doing. And that's what I do. Now you got it!

Lara Logan: He's sharing completely, you know, the secret to how he creates and what he creates.

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The Blue Brothers' Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi

Norman Seeff

Norman Seeff: But no one's been asking him. So this was what hit me. Everyone is responding to the output, you know? And it's great. But the fascination for me became can I go inward like that? And what I found, to my surprise, is artists were saying, "Please, would you come?"

He had a way of capturing artists in their most authentic moments…the Blues Brothers' Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, Carly Simon, Mick Jagger, Cher and Gregg Allman, Johnny Cash, the Jacksons….Steve Jobs in 1984, the year he launched the Macintosh computer.

"But the fascination for me became can I go inward like that? And what I found, to my surprise, is artists were saying, "Please, would you come?" Norman Seeff

Norman Seeff: So we're sitting on the floor, then we started to talk about creativity, he said, "Oh, I wanna show you something." And he sort of jumps up. And he runs out. And he comes back. And he plops down into this lotus position with the Mac. No one's seen it.

Lara Logan:  You'd never seen one?

Norman Seeff:  No, I didn't. I didn't even know they existed.

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Steve Jobs with Macintosh, 1984

Norman Seeff

His picture became the cover of Time magazine in 2011 when Steve Jobs died.

There's something distinct about a Norman Seeff photograph, but in his film there's also a story. This one with John Travolta, at age 22, the year before the movie Saturday Night Fever came out.

Norman Seeff: He's telling me, "You know, I'm doing a movie." And I said, "Oh, you're doing a movie." He said, "Yeah, and I'm gonna be dancing." And I said, "Yeah, you're gonna be dancing?" He says, "Yeah, what do you think about this pose?" So…

Norman Seeff:  And thank God, you know, what I did-- I said that's fabulous, you know and that pose became the ultimate icon of the dance, yeah—

Lara Logan: Of disco, right. It still is—

Norman Seeff: Yes. Right.

Norman has been sitting on his archive for most of his career. He hadn't even seen this footage of Travolta until just before he showed it to us. It hadn't been developed since it was filmed in 1976. In those days, Norman said he struggled to pay for the film, let alone develop it.

Norman Seeff:  And then I got to the point where we were so out of money-- I said, "Look, we can't even afford to develop the footage. Let's take the film out of the camera, re-can it, tape it up and put it in the vaults." So we have close to 1,000 rolls of undeveloped footage with names like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and...

Lara Logan: That you've not seen?

Norman Seeff: That are undeveloped.

Lara Logan: Sitting in a vault in California.

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Photographer Norman Seeff takes Lara Logan inside the Hollywood vault that stores his undeveloped footage.

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Norman Seeff: --sitting in a vault. But it wasn't in the early days. I was carrying this archive from garage to garage.

This is the vault where Norman keeps his undeveloped footage -- a state-of-the-art facility in the heart of Hollywood. Inside, it's an icy 45 degrees, which helps preserve the film in these fire, theft and earthquake-proof storage units...

Norman Seeff:  Here, can you do my code…1, 2, 3, 0

For the past 15 years, his film has been sitting on these shelves, still in the original cans.

Norman Seeff:  This is, let's see what that says.

What you see here is about a third of his archive.

Lara Logan:  Steve Martin.

Norman Seeff:  Steve Martin.

Lara Logan: Joni Mitchel here -- two, three, four, five…

Norman Seeff: This is all the sound.

Lara Logan: Fleetwood Mac up there.

Norman Seeff: Fleetwood Mac.

Lara Logan: Van Morrison.

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Seeff estimates it will cost close to half-a-million dollars to develop all the film he's stored.

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Norman Seeff:  Yeah.

Norman said it'll take close to half a million dollars to develop it all.

He can't be sure it's survived the years, until he brings to this post-production facility in L.A., to be processed.

Norman Seeff: Would you mind putting a little sharpening on this? Push it. Let me see how far you can go… nice.

Dave Cole: Let's try to reduce that a little bit.

He's working with experienced colorist Dave Cole to slowly recover every scene.

Norman Seeff: The sharpening etches the blacks, which I like.  See, it looks sharper. It's looks as if…

Dave Cole: There is contouring.

Norman Seeff: Yeah, that's great.

Norman Seeff: Do you still dance?

Bob Fosse: Yeah, sure, not like I used to, but, sure I dance.

Norman Seeff: Great, so I can get some shots of you dancing.

Bob Fosse: No.

Norman Seeff sees himself not as a photographer, but as an explorer -- of some of the world's most creative people, like choreographer Bob Fosse. He's planning on turning the best of his films into a documentary series.

Norman Seeff: Great. Lift your head up a little. I got it… I'm fine I got it.

Norman Seeff:  I'm just at the beginning of my dream. I'm finally at the place now for myself where I feel my true voice has a potential of being expressed out in the world.

Lara Logan: At 78.

Norman Seeff: At 78.

Norman grew up amidst the violence of apartheid South Africa and became a doctor, like his father. After three years, he quit, bought a one-way ticket to the U.S., and landed in New York in 1968 with his camera and twenty five hundred dollars, his life savings.

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Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith

Norman Seeff

Norman Seeff: I'm looking at this huge city with, you know, thousands and thousands of really competent creators on every field. And I'm this guy with this one little camera with the hubris of, like, "I can be a photographer," you know. And there was one moment where I went like, "I think I've made a big fat mistake here, and I don't see any way out." When you lose hope, that's when the despair comes in. But at the same time, I was having so many incredible challenges. And then I started meeting amazing people.

When he stumbled across these two in a bar, Norman said he had no idea who they were. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were lovers at the time he photographed them. They introduced him to Andy Warhol, who Norman also photographed. He said, Warhol didn't a say a word the entire shoot. But it was this picture he took of 'The Band,' in 1970, that made Norman Seeff one of rock and roll's photographers of choice.

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Group shot of The Band from album Stage Fright. Date: 1969

Norman Seeff

Norman Seeff:  I looked to the left and there was a sign on the wall that said, "For Rent."

He set up shop on a seedy stretch of Sunset Boulevard in L.A. in the mid-1970s.

Norman Seeff: We shot hundreds of major artists in this place. So--

His old studio, once a magnet for music and movie stars, is now a bar...

Norman Seeff: And on my, my very first film session, which was Ike and Tina Turner. Tina is sitting here doing makeup.

Here is Tina Turner at that table from the session in 1975.

Norman Seeff: I wanna get some close up shots…

Norman asked her and Ike to perform. This was the last time Norman photographed them together. Tina Turner left Ike the following year, ending the abusive relationship.

Norman Seeff:  I took the film, and developed it and looked at the dailies. And I knew instantaneously what I was gonna do from then on.

Norman decided to film his sessions, like this one with Lily Tomlin, as often as he could.

He said he had a different approach with every artist. Steve Martin's session, for example, began like this…

Steve Martin:  But don't you know, I'm a wild guy, having some fun here tonight…

Norman Seeff: Comedians are the most challenging people at that point for me to shoot. Because you're not actually in the dialogue with them, they are performing.

Norman Seeff: OK, another double, please, from the bar...

Norman Seeff: When I work with a comedian, I become their audience.

Steve Martin: Hey, Norman. I'm getting a little pissed about this drinking thing. Sure, I am on this stuff...But if you don't dig it, hey, I'll leave and you can take pictures of this wall back here all night.

Lara Logan: Is he messing with you?

Norman Seeff: Well, you never know when you're in the middle of it.

Norman Seeff told us he remembers all his sessions. But it meant the most to him, when he made a personal connection with his subjects, as he did with Ray Charles. 

Norman Seeff: You know what? I think we got the sessions.

Ray Charles: OK, baby. Yay. 

Produced by Max McClellan and Ali Rawaf. Alex J. Diamond, associate producer.

  • Lara Logan

    Lara Logan's bold, award-winning reporting from war zones has earned her a prominent spot among the world's best foreign correspondents. Logan began contributing to 60 Minutes in 2005.