Eagle woman. Painter. Dancer. Jock. NORMAN SEEFF spent the '70s and '80s photographing the ever-changing Joni. As a book of his portraits arrives. JOHN MULVEY hears about their creative relationship, then - and now!
NORMAN SEEFF FIRST MET Joni Mitchell in 1974. A South African doctor, he had arrived in the US in 1968, "in a hurry to get out of the apartheid system." Working as an emergency medic in Soweto, he also ran a safehouse where Nelson Mandela's associates hid, but in New York he reinvented himself as a photographer and designer. By 1972 he was directing The Rolling Stones for the sleeve of Exile On Main St., and living at the notorious Hyatt House hotel in Hollywood. "My first walk was along Sunset Boulevard and I saw this line of rock'n'roll, billboards," he remembers. "And I went, Oh my God, this is an urban art gallery. I want my stuff up there. Within a year, I would have four to five billboards in a row."
Seeff 's energy and creativity made him an artistic force in '70s LA, where he soon fell into Joni Mitchell's orbit. Over 15 years, he photographed her 13 times, a potent relationship that's memorialised in his new book, The Joni Mitchell Sessions. "Every time I worked with her, she'd arrive as a different character," he says. "One time she arrived very contentiously in blackface [for the Don Juan's Reckless Daughter cover shoot], which caused a lot of consternation. The next time she's this gorgeous, fair-haired woman in a diaphanous floral dress, then she's in an electrified cage that we had to build where she's interacting with wolves.
"Beyond being the most incredible lyricist, songwriter and actual musician, she's a painter, a performance artist, a conceptualist. We usually had a little battle every time, because she'd have this preconceived idea and I was sort of resistant to preconceived ideas. But I learned ultimately to embrace her ideas in a spontaneous way. And while she was sometimes explaining to me what her idea was, I would start shooting. She was very animated in the way that she would tell me the story, and then she would often get pissed off that I was shooting while she was talking. We ended up with a reluctant appreciation of each other's approach."
In a Rolling Stone cover story from 1979, Cameron Crowe describes a session where "Mitchell lectures [Seeff] on how 'you try celebrities here, you push them to the limit, test them against your Zen training.'" After their first shoot around the release of Court And Spark, Seeff "had no idea Joni would come back". "She has complained at different times that I pushed too hard," he continues, "but for some reason she always returned."
Seeff's sessions at his studio next to the Chateau Marmont hotel were famously social events, with crowds watching the action, and a film crew capturing the photographer's intimate conversations with Frank Zappa, or Steve Jobs, or Huey Newton. He is currently marshalling the thousands of hours of footage into a massive cross-platform project called Norman Seeff: The Power And The Passion To Create.
He has also, for the first time in 25 years, reconnected with Mitchell. "I was at her house about a month ago," he says, sharing news of the 75-year-old's recovery from her 2015 aneurysm. "She's still in a wheelchair, but she's beginning to walk a little bit on her own. She is going to walk again. Her mental capacity is pretty much back.
"I showed her the book for the first time and she loved it. We were looking at pages and, basically, you know that people's intellect is back when they can laugh at themselves and tell jokes, because it takes a certain level of comprehension to be funny. We had such fun, laughing, and she remembered everything. She's improving rapidly and I think that it's not going to be long before she's either painting or writing songs again.
"I don't know if she's going to sing, she might play piano, I'm not sure. But there's an incredibly touching story of a woman fighting, as she fought her way out of polio, back to living a normal life. It's pretty mind-boggling to observe."
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