Polaroid: Robert Mapplethorpe

In 1967, Patti Smith moved to New York City from South Jersey, and the rest is epic history. There are the photographs, the iconic made-for-record-cover black-and-whites shot by Smith’s lover, soul mate, and co-conspirator in survival, Robert Mapplethorpe. Then there are the photographs taken of them together, both with wild hair and cloaked in homemade amulets, hanging out in the glamorous poverty of the Chelsea Hotel. It is nearly impossible to navigate the social and artistic history of late ’60s and ’70s New York without coming across Smith. She was, as she still is, a poet, an artist, a rock star, and a bit of a shaman. But it is her friendship with Mapplethorpe where her legend begins—and like most beginnings, this one has been romanticized to the point of fantasy. How is it that two such beautifully feral-looking young people with no money or connections, who later would go on to achieve such extreme success—Smith with her music and Mapplethorpe with his photography—found each other? It is a myth of New York City as it once was, a place where misfits magically gravitated toward one another at the chance crossroads of a creative revolution. That’s one way to look at it. But Smith’s memoir, Just Kids (Ecco)—which traces her relationship with Mapplethorpe from their first meetings (there were two of them before one fateful night in Tompkins Square Park) to their days in and out of hotels, love affairs, creative collaborations, nightclubs, and gritty neighborhoods—paints a radically different picture. In this account, the two struggle to pay for food and shelter, looking out for each other and sacrificing everything they have for the purpose of making art.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in New York, 1970. Photo: Norman Seeff.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in New York, 1970. Photo: Norman Seeff.

Patti Smith at photographer Judy Linn’s Brooklyn apartment, circa 1969. Photos: Judy Linn.

Just Kids portrays their mythic status as the product of willful determination as much as destiny. Smith’s immensely personal storytelling also rectifies certain mistaken notions about the pair, revealing specifically that they were not wild-child drug addicts but dreamers, more human and loving than their cold, isolated stares and sharp, skinny bodies in early photos lead one to believe. Smith left New York for Detroit in 1979 to live with the man she would eventually marry, the late former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, just as Mapplethorpe’s career as one of the most shocking and potent art photographers was reaching its apogee (his black-and-whites of gay hustlers, S&M acts, flowers, and children were headed to museum collections and a court trial for obscenity charges). By then Smith had already produced Horses and had risen to international fame. Her book follows Mapplethorpe all the way to his death in 1989 from complications due to AIDS, but it’s mostly about two kids who held on to each other.

Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chelsea Hotel, 1969

Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe / Photo: Sam Wagstaff

(L) Robert Mapplethorpe in front of his cover for Patti Smith’s Horses, 1975 / (R) Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Patti Smith’ 1979

Article originally published at Interview Magazine

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