In this black and white portrait photograph the singer-songwriter Patti Smith is framed from her waist up and stands against a plain white background. She wears a loose white shirt which is roughly rolled up at the sleeves, with the top buttons undone. A thin chain hangs around her neck, the rest of which is tucked under her shirt, and a thin black band is worn on her right wrist. A black ribbon with a dulled shine and frayed ends is draped loosely around her neck. Smith tugs one end of the ribbon with her left hand, gripping it with two fingers. This introduces a diagonal to the composition that contrasts with the dark vertical line down the centre of the image where the ribbon falls from Smith’s neck in front of her body towards her waist. The singer’s right arm is raised and bent at the elbow. Her wrist bends delicately towards her face while her fingers form a loose fist. This raised arm causes the axis of her body to slope diagonally in the same direction as the ribbon she is holding. Smith looks directly at the camera. Her eyes are narrowed very slightly and her mouth is partially open. Her dark tousled hair frames her face and neck, while her fringe covers her forehead.
This photograph was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1975 at Sam Wagstaff’s penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue, New York. Sam Wagstaff was a private art collector and was one of the first to collect photography in the early 1970s before there was a serious market for it. Mapplethorpe was Wagstaff’s lover and protégé until the collector’s death in 1987. Mapplethorpe chose Wagstaff’s apartment as the location for the shoot as it was large, had white walls and was bathed in natural light.
The portrait was taken during a session in which Mapplethorpe was shooting the cover image for Patti Smith’s first album Horses (1975). Smith provides an account of this shoot in her autobiography, recalling details such as her choice of clothing and how she and Mapplethorpe waited for the perfect light. According to Smith there was no discussion about what the resulting image should look like or what they would do: ‘I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That was all.’ (Smith 2010, p.251.)
Smith looks relaxed in this photograph, her informal pose testifying to how at ease she was in front of Mapplethorpe’s camera. Smith herself chose Mapplethorpe to photograph her album cover image as she wanted it to be ‘true’ (Smith 2010, p.249). It is clear that Mapplethorpe consciously created Smith’s pose and was aware of the dynamic angles created by the composition. As he said, ‘It’s always been that way when I put things together. Very symmetrical’ (cited in Didion 1992, p.3).
This is one of many portraits that Mapplethorpe took of Smith during their lifelong friendship (see also Tate AR00495 and AR00186). Indeed, apart from his self portraits, Smith was Mapplethorpe’s most photographed subject. During this particular shoot twelve pictures were taken, one of which was used as Smith’s album cover. In 1988 Mapplethorpe also shot the cover for Smith’s album Dream of Life.
Richard Marshall, Robert Mapplethorpe, London 1988.
Joan Didion, Some Women: By Robert Mapplethorpe, London 1992, pp.1–3.
Patti Smith, Just Kids, London 2010.
Susan Mc Ateer
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.