Bob Seidemann, 75, Photographer of Rock Stars and Aviators, Dies
Bob Seidemann, who joined the counterculture scene in the mid-1960s in San Francisco, where he produced indelible photographs of rock ‘n’ roll powerhouses like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead — and who years later indulged his childhood love of airplanes by creating a series of portraits of aviation pioneers — died Nov. 27 at his home in Vallejo, California. He was 75.Posted — Updated
Bob Seidemann, who joined the counterculture scene in the mid-1960s in San Francisco, where he produced indelible photographs of rock ‘n’ roll powerhouses like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead — and who years later indulged his childhood love of airplanes by creating a series of portraits of aviation pioneers — died Nov. 27 at his home in Vallejo, California. He was 75.
His wife, Belinda Seidemann, said the cause was Parkinson’s disease.
Seidemann, a onetime photographer’s assistant in New Jersey, headed to San Francisco in his early 20s. He hung out at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore, attended concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom, and became a partner in a poster company that featured his photographs.
He thought of himself as a hipster, not a hippie, and was attracted more to the musicians than their music.
In 1966 he met Dave Getz, the drummer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, who had been a part-time cook at the Old Spaghetti Factory Cafe, a renowned restaurant. “Our friendship was his first ticket into knowing Big Brother, Janis and then the Dead and all the others,” Getz said in an email.
Getz introduced him to Joplin, the group’s lead singer, and soon after that Seidemann photographed the group at rehearsals. But it was a session the next year at his studio that produced his most memorable picture of her.
The plan was for Joplin to pose topless except for a velvet cape over her shoulder and strings of beads around her neck. The shoot was about to end when Joplin profanely declared that she wanted to strip off the rest of her clothes. In the resulting picture, which became a popular poster, she was looking intensely at the camera, one breast exposed.
Seidemann took the Grateful Dead — for whom he held the title of art director for a while — to Daly City, California, south of San Francisco, for a shoot. The five band members, all dressed in black, stood in the middle of a suburban street of look-alike houses, their faces illuminated eerily by light reflected from mirrors pointed at them by assistants.
To Seidemann, they looked like “mutant transplants from Jupiter, fresh out of their flying saucer,” according to “A Long Strange Trip: Inside the History of the Grateful Dead” (2002), by Dennis McNally.
Seidemann left San Francisco for England in 1968, disenchanted with unrest in the United States. He lived for a while at the home of Eric Clapton, whom he had met backstage at a concert in San Francisco.
After a year or so, Clapton’s manager asked Seidemann to create the cover for an album by the unnamed supergroup Clapton had formed with Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech.
“Technology and innocence crashed through the tatters of my mind,” Seidemann recalled on his website. “Only a thread of an idea. Something I couldn’t see. Something out there beyond my vision, an impulse rippling through the interstellar plasma.”
The vision crystallized when he spotted Sula Goschen, a 12-year-old girl (14 according to some accounts), on an Underground train. He asked if she would pose for the album cover, and she responded by asking if she would have to take off her clothes. Seidemann said she would, gave her his card and asked her to call him in the hope that he would be able to get her parents’ permission.
Sula turned out to be too shy to be Seidemann’s model, so her 11-year-old sister, Mariora, asked to do it. Her parents agreed.
“She was glorious sunshine,” Seidemann wrote. “Botticelli’s angel, the picture of innocence.”
He called the resulting picture of her, holding the model of a spaceship, “Blind Faith.” That became the band’s name, as well as the name of what turned out to be its only album. The cover was sensational enough — a bare-chested girl holding what some saw as a phallic symbol — that the album was released in the United States with an alternate cover, a conventional photo of the group.
More than 40 years later, when “Who Shot Rock & Roll,” a touring exhibition of 175 pictures, went to the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina, a group demanded that the Blind Faith cover be removed.
“It stayed in,” Gail Buckland, the exhibition’s curator, said in a telephone interview. “But it was still pushing buttons in 2011.”
Robert Emett Seidemann was born in Manhattan on Dec. 28, 1941, and grew up in Woodside, Queens. His father, Emil, managed speakeasies in Harlem before marrying Marion Ryan, a homemaker, and then worked as a milkman.
Because of undiagnosed learning disabilities, Robert struggled as a student. He graduated from the Manhattan High School of Aviation Trades, a vocational school (now called Aviation High School), but did not attend college.
A delivery job for a photo lab in Manhattan led to a job as an assistant to the photographer Tom Caravaglia. His work included herding sheep into a downtown elevator for a shoot. “Tom did some cornball calendar shoots,” Belinda Seidemann said.
In addition to his wife, the former Belinda Bryant, he is survived by a brother, Donald.
Seidemann never lost his fascination with aviation, which began when he was a youngster watching airplanes land at nearby La Guardia Airport. Years after he had established himself as a rock photographer, it became his main subject.
From 1985 to 2000 he produced portraits of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and Tex Johnson; military heroes like Gen. James H. Doolittle, who led a group of B-25s on bombing raids of Tokyo and other Japanese cities in April 1942; and Ben Rich, project chief for Lockheed Aircraft’s design of the F-117A stealth fighter.
He traveled to military bases, to the aircraft carrier Nimitz and to the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington. He also photographed aircraft, some in flight and some that had crashed long ago.
Of the thousands of photographs he took for the lengthy project, called “The Airplane as Art,” Seidemann produced boxed sets of 302 prints, some of which included the signatures of 75 of his subjects.
Airplanes represent “an ancient, primal dream made real, to fly,” he told Collectors Weekly in 2015. “The essence of the original desire to fly was, I believe, aesthetic. All subsequent uses of flying machines are byproducts. I look upon the machines themselves as objects of art, a result of the creative process.”
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