FEATURE INC. | MARCH 16 – APRIL 10, 2011
Picture this: It’s 1969, you’re just out of art school, and you’re with two friends, born under a star. Of the two, your girlfriend is ambitious and hardworking. Both definitely like to have their pictures taken, which is good, because you’re an aspiring photographer. No one in the room knows how it’s going to turn out, or even that there is a story developing. Myth and history-making aren’t on anyone’s radar screen, consciously, at least not yours. It’s just these frozen moments, the darkroom and the monochromatic excitement of silver salts swimming on paper.
You, of course, are photographer Judy Linn, and your friends and subjects are Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. The pictures were taken between 1969 and 1976, before and after Smith’s rapid emergence as a punk phenomenon, and before and just as Mapplethorpe was recognizing his sexuality, and emerging as an artist. Many of these mostly silver gelatin printed photos were taken at the Chelsea Hotel, where Mapplethorpe and Smith lived. Others were taken at the beach; a final set was taken in 1976 at the time of Smith’s Radio Ethiopia recording session. Exhibited at the Feature Inc. gallery on the Lower East Side, they are excerpted from the book Patti Smith 1969-1976, Photographs by Judy Linn, newly published by Abrams Image.
These photos are ingenuously primitive, containing just a hint of Nan Goldin’s later sexual intensity, and none of Annie Leibovitz’s consummate conceptual contrivance. Still, Linn’s candid acknowledgment of her own incalculation isn’t entirely obvious in the photos, which, while imbued with offhand vérité, also reveal an emerging professional eye. The frequently-posed subjects seem quite aware of the transfixing lens’s potential for conferring longevity. In Linn’s photos, Smith and Mapplethorpe play Keith Richards and Jim Morrison rockstar dress-up in skull necklaces, leather pants, a crucifix, teeth and feathers cascading waistward. Smith’s hair is bed-wrecked English shag; Mapplethorpe’s Adonis is all waves and ringlets. Indeed, one of Linn’s most lyric photos is an upper body shot of Mapplethorpe in seaside light, his hair defining the edge of the gorgeous gray shadow around his shoulders.
Mapplethorpe’s unclad upper torso figures into several of these intimate, crashpad portraits, contrasted against shiny black leather pants, and bulging briefs. Smith’s body is also well-explored, revealing an emaciated “slendor” that may look good in photos but probably indicates real undernourishment. It accentuates her photogenic breasts, which star in numerous scenes, including the litely humorous Left Tit and Right Tit, singly exposed in otherwise fully clothed, frontal torso mug shots. Likewise, in the hilarious Laundrobag (Patti as Bob Dylan) (early 1970s), Smith is seated in a white chair holding a full-page photo of Bob Dylan over her face, looking quite like him in his Little Lord Fauntleroy bellbottom period.
Of course, it’s Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s starry eyes that captivate. Mapplethorpe’s winning optimism fairly jumps off the surface (he hadn’t taken to the bullwhip yet), along with the magic self-assurance arrogated by established celebrity. In Smith’s case, it’s the hunger. In the slightly out of focus Patti, Maybelline, Myrtle Avenue (1969), Linn says Smith is “putting a pencil in her eye, like making a drawing” of herself, the cosmetic act itself self-creative. This photo of the edge of the back of Smith’s head, her face, and Linn’s arm and camera is a pre-performance documentary of a star being born, before being so, practicing for the onstage act ahead. And Patti with Bolex (1969), one of Linn’s most striking compositions, asymmetrically poses a made-up Medusa with a prop—the movie camera Linn was using to film her. In this photo, the typically uncontrasty Linn benefits from the noir elements of Smith’s hair and the handgun camera’s black lens barrel and trigger.
A third presence in this set is playwright Sam Shepard. The sandy, long-haired Shepard, already a rising star, is clearly enjoying the experience, seated in one photo, with Smith, in a timeless bohemian interior.
Contrast, if not composition, is the main feature of the Radio Ethiopia shoot. These photos, one of which was used on the album cover, have a spare and cursory flash snap quality recalling journalistic crime scene photos, or Helmut Newton without misogynist frisson. In “Patti with pipe” (1976), Smith sits splayed in an oriental floor-length dress, holding a fishtail pipe as if holding her breath.
Perhaps it’s fitting that these photos are black and white, to capture vanished shades. Mapplethorpe died at 42 in 1989; keyboard player Richard Sohl at 37 in 1990. Smith made a passage of a different sort in 1975, with the release of “Horses,” into the parallel universe of celebrity. Linn says that these photographs have taken on qualities she didn’t imagine at the time. For her, they represent memories of good days, and happy friends loving life. Before the meteors and fame befell.
DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet and author of the upcoming memoir My Adventures with la Belle Jeune Fille; L'Oubliette, or Plan A; and e*sequiturs. Website: Interrupting Infinity-davidstlascaux.com.