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02 December 2023

Mapplethorpe's work shocked me: Patti Smith


By Craig Seligman

Robert Mapplethorpe shot the unforgett-able image, at once cocky and fragile, of Patti Smith on the cover of her first album, the 1975 Horses. He was always taking pictures of her; it's well known they were close. Smith remembers how close in her beautiful memoir, Just Kids.

She arrived in New York (from south Jersey) on July 3, 1967, 20 years old and carrying not much more than a few drawing pencils, a notebook and a copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations. The friends she went looking for in Brooklyn weren't there. What she found instead: "On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled." Soon the two were living together, though Smith is gratifyingly discreet about their sex life. She has more to say about their art. They were sure of themselves, more so of each other.

"Oh, take their picture," a woman who spotted them in Greenwich Village one afternoon urged her husband. "I think they're artists."

"Oh, go on," the husband said. "They're just kids."

Within a couple of years they were living in a tiny room at the Chelsea Hotel, renowned as the home of geniuses and junkies. The rent was $55 (Dh201.85) a week. The money came mostly from Smith's day job at Scribner's bookstore on Fifth Avenue; Mapplethorpe got the occasional gig as a moving man.

Since the skin magazines he was cutting his collage images out of were pricey, she prodded him to do his own photos. He urged her to sing; he liked her voice.

By now he had begun coming out, a process more difficult for him than his outrageous later photographs would lead you to think. Smith took it in stride, supportive but bewildered when his sexual trips began turning extreme: "I really didn't want to know. It wasn't so much denial as it was squeamishness... He often did work that shocked me."

Both of them worked other jobs until they had finally forged real, if dissimilar, careers, founded on very different visions. Mapplethorpe's photographs, even at their most aggressive, are refined, perfectly lit, carefully controlled. Smith's songs are edged with a roughness that signals her openness to inspiration; she's always ready for the hand of God to touch her.

Just Kids describes their ascent with a forthright sweetness that will ring true to anyone who knows her work. One evening around the time of Woodstock she found herself at the restaurant attached to the Chelsea, in a room with Janis Joplin and her band, Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish and Jimi Hendrix: "When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people, though I had no way to interpret my feeling of prescience. I could never have predicted that I would one day walk in their path. At that moment I was still a gangly 22-year-old book clerk, struggling simultaneously with several unfinished poems."

Smith's account of Mapplethorpe's death (in 1989, from AIDS) in her final chapter does full justice to her feelings. "I learned to see through you," she wrote him in a late letter, "and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together."

They saw very differently, but each was always in the other's field of vision.


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