Picks and Pans Review: Sessions!

updated 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Photographs by Norman Seeff

Seeff left medical school and his native Johannesburg in 1968 to see if he could fulfill his dream of becoming an artist before the malignant tumor growing in his neck cut him down. After three years of treatment and scuffling on the streets of New York City, camera in hand, he got a big break and then a bigger one: He was chosen to shoot the cover for the first album by a little-known group called the Band, and his cancer went into remission.

Seeff writes that the illness was really his wake-up call, and his decision to make "a radical life change" was the true agent of his apparent cure. His brooding, almost chiaroscuro portrait of Dylan's former backup band—seeming, like the group's own music, to spring from some vanished, low-tech past—is one of the defining images of the '60s. But ironically it did not begin to define the visceral, kinetic style that Seeff soon made his own.

Some celebrity photographers seem to conspire in the deification of their subjects and end up embalming them in their own air of superiority, entitlement and cool. Annie Leibovitz brings a visual sumptuousness and a sly wit to her often elaborate setups. Seeff is a kind of human particle collider. The photo session is his laboratory. Releasing his intense and confessional inner energy, he triggers a chain reaction in which the star's own energy and spirit is unharnessed. Seeff's pictures of Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, Carly Simon and many others show their spontaneous, sensual surrender to his lust for sheer life force.

In his sessions, Seeff celebrates his own liberating credo—that you can dodge death by embracing your boldest dreams—and he gets his subjects to revel along with him. (WhaleSong, $39.95)

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