I first met photographer Norman Seeff in Laurel Canyon when I was a teenager living in Southern California sometime around 1972. I had no idea then who Norman really was, all I knew is that he had a wicked cool accent and the people hanging around his studio wanted to be him.
In 1984, Norman was called up to Cupertino, California and tasked with the assignment of photographing Apple's Macintosh design team.
It was that very session where Norman captured the image of Steve Jobs sitting on the floor in lotus position with the original Apple Macintosh centered on his lap.
That iconic image, featured on the cover of Time Magazine and on the back cover of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, is now being released as a collectible lithograph by Norman Seeff almost 30 years later.
By the time he arrived at Apple headquarters, Norman had already made a name for himself as the creative force behind emotionally engaging images from his sessions with Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, Johnny Cash and a glorious parade that featured some of rock 'n' roll's elite. His album covers include an unbelievable list of music innovators from 1969 through 1995.
But it was his work with Steve Jobs that captured my attention. There was something in his images of the young Jobs I wanted to know more about, something I hadn’t seen in any other shots. So, I called Norman and he was gracious enough to share with me how he was able to capture the very essence of the man who went on to change the lives of so many.
Norman explained to me that the moment he caught in that image was not a concept, nor was it a "posed photograph". It was a single frame captured during a spontaneous moment while shooting an extended session at Job’s Woodside mansion.
"We were two guys having fun goofing off. You know, that's the magic of the kind of photography that delivers these kinds of shots,” Norman said. "It's not like I have four contact sheets of the same shot and we go ok this is the best one — that's one shot!"
"And then there are shots on either side and each one of them is different. A lot of them, by the way, are equally good and can sustain but that particular one somehow, illustrated the multidimensional reality of the moment. We had no idea that this would end up on the cover of his autobiography — we were just having fun." Norman added.
To understand Norman Seeff's emotionally charged photography, you must first realize that he is a master at creating an environment for his subjects to be real and open by inserting himself into the creative process as a collaborator. His images come from his ability to create an experience and then document it as it's unfolding.
I found myself riveted as Norman recalled the moments that led up to his session with Jobs. I feel like I would do a great injustice if I do not share those memories as told by Norman in his own words, when we sat down recently for our own intimate conversation.
While it would be easier for me to simply relay the surface details about the launch of his Steve Jobs lithograph project, I'm convinced that the story behind this important piece of Apple history is a tale worth the telling. Seeing a 40-foot version of the same print commissioned by Apple to hang on campus during the memorial Celebration of Steve's Life, makes it even more meaningful.
After spending some 30 minutes making our own connection, Norman began to recall his experience with the young Steve Jobs and the Apple team as if 1984 was only weeks earlier. I was left with no doubt that there is a childlike authenticity to Seeff's deliberate investment in those he captures in photographs.
Norman recalled when he first arrived at Apple's offices to meet the entire Macintosh team — describing them as a “family”.
"So I decided to start with the team rather than Steve right out. They were like a commune, very different than what you'd expect in a corporation. There was a tremendous sense of family, a tremendous sense of shared innovative thinking that seemed to be future oriented." said Seeff.
"I got all of these people together in the room and I could see Steve in the background. You could see him thinking 'this looks like fun - I wanna play'. Every now and again he'd sneak into the room and he'd kind of glom on - if I was shooting 20 people together he'd run in and he wouldn't stand in the middle – rather he'd put his arm around someone on the edge and in that way, I was able to get a shot of him with the group."
"I wanted to get a sense of him," Seeff said referring to Jobs. "What I got is that he wasn't trying to be controlling with me. Instead, he looked like this kid who wanted to play, you know - like ‘you guys are having fun what about me?’"
Norman recalled informing Jobs that he wanted to shoot some individual shots with him after finishing with the team. He suggested shooting at Jobs' home.
"We drove over to his house and we sat in that large unfurnished living room and we were just in conversation. My fundamental approach is not to try and take photographs, but to create an authentic, honest relationship so that they forget that the camera is even there." said Seeff.
"He was so inspired in that moment and said ‘I'll be right back’ and he ran out of the room and he came running back in with the new Mac and he just plopped on the floor."
"So we didn't think of an idea, we just had a moment. What was encapsulated in that box was his baby. Now if we had conceptualized it and said ‘let's put you in a lotus position so that you look like a guru and let's put the Mac on your lap and let me get the right angle and now look at me’ — but none of that happened."
"He walked in and he fell into that place in one second and I got the shot, it was that easy. I didn't tell him what to do, he just did it. There isn't any other process that works unless it's collaborative, that's the foundation of working with innovative people - you don't ‘do it’ to anybody — you participate with them."
"That's why I want to make the distinction - this was not a concept, this was a spontaneous moment that he just went clunk - there he was and I just went flash — got it!" Norman added.
Several other images of Jobs captured during that same session include one where he looks very relaxed with a beer bottle at his side, another shows him with his hands over his face, there’s a shot with Bill Atkinson and one that Norman recalls where Steve begins performing yoga exercises.
"Later on I've got shots of him where he takes his leg and puts it over his shoulder and then he's lying down and he's wiggling his toes into the camera with his head between his feet — these are shots that maybe no one will ever see.”
So why produce a lithograph of that image now? I asked Norman what it was about this particular photograph that compelled him to reproduce it for the masses so many years later.
"People were extremely emotionally affected, not so much by the picture, but there's this emotional connection to Steve because he has impacted people's way of living, and it ripples out to every culture." said Seeff.
"People feel a certain intimacy with him, and it was Charles, he was the one taking all the calls and telling me; 'I've got people on the phone who are getting quite emotional asking how can they get this picture' said Norman referring to his business partner Charles Hannah.
"I'm more interested in the fact that there are certain shots you put out that for some reason touch something very deep in people's sub conscious or unconscious and it relates to some emotional experience." Seeff added.
"It was Sue, Norman's wife who nailed what I was hearing on the phone," said Charles Hannah. What she said was; 'It embodies everyone's promise, this image makes people think, wow I could be that person! I could be like him.’ They look at him with this thing of beauty on his lap and there’s an intimacy that is evident in the photograph that people relate to."
Irrespective of what you believe this image actually embodies, I'm certain this photograph will be only the first of several original shots we could see released from Norman Seeff’s significant collection. Each lithograph will retail for $75 and then Norman intends to sign the back of the initial run of 300 and sell them for $125 each — the dimensions measure 26 x 34 inches. For this piece Seeff added color to the Apple rainbow logo on the front of the Mac. It’s a wonderful bit of detailing that adds a special quality to the black and white image.
If you haven't already realized it, Norman Seeff himself is a creative icon and truly an innovative force to be reckoned with. But what I found rare with this great South African-born innovator, is that he remains committed to esteeming others higher than himself. He continues to invest himself in enriching the lives of others through teaching and by distilling his unique and timely observations about the inner dynamics of the creative process. If you dare to listen and train your ears to hear, there is an untapped goldmine of creative brilliance.
"I'm emotionally connected to the experience of working with a person and the images come out of the experience. I never try and ‘make’ a photograph." said Seeff.
"We were having an inner experience," Norman said about his session with Steve Jobs. "This photograph is the electromagnetic rendition of what was going on, but there's that slight Mona Lisa quality to that little knowing smile and there is a look in his eye like he is envisioning how what he has on his lap is going to impact the future."
"You can't legislate moments like that, or when he's sitting on the floor and he's got that impish look and he's got that beer next to him. It's because he's having an emotional experience and the emotional experience becomes body language."
"All of those energies of that emotional state are actually in that picture. So it becomes indefinable, it is not just a picture." © 2012 iphonesavior.com
My exclusive interview with Norman Seeff continues in Part 2 — where he talks about his lunch with Steve Jobs, their conversation on creativity and the impact of iPhone.
© 2012 iPhoneSavior.com Photos © Norman Seeff All Rights Rights Reserved