Patti Smith on Photography, Music and Magic

Interviewed by D. Eric Bookhardt

Patti Smith became an instant American music icon with her great debut LP, "Horses," in 1975. She is also a noted photographer who just donated a collection of 45 of her black and white prints to the New Orleans Museum of Art. Raised in New Jersey, she was 21 in 1967 when she moved to New York City, where she soon met Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom she lived in the legendary Chelsea Hotel years before either became famous. They stayed close even as their lives took different trajectories. On a balmy April morning, it was a great pleasure to discuss art and life with Patti Smith in a lush French Quarter courtyard.      

Although you’re best known as a musician, you have been interested in photography for a long time. What is the relationship between your photography and your music?

There isn’t any real, specific, relationship, except that I take a lot of my photographs while I’m on the road. So how music has affected my photographs is that as a singer I tour the world so I have a unique opportunity to take images in various places. But in terms of its connection with music itself I haven’t really noticed any significant thread.

Ok, let me toss something out and you can tell me if there’s anything to it. I find that your style of music and photography both hark to the originators. You’ve said that you were most influenced by the 19th century photographers, and although your music was radical and revolutionary when it first appeared, if you look at its roots…

Yes, very R&B and simplistic…

In the sense of going back to the origins? The originators of R&B were a lot like the originators of photography in some ways, which may be stretching a point…

No, that’s an interesting concept, it’s just I’m not a very analytical person; I wouldn’t have made that correlation myself, but it’s an interesting idea to pursue. I just do my work, but yeah, there’s some validity in that. Everything begets something else. Everything comes from one’s creative impulse, and how you magnify your creative impulse comes out in different ways. And sometimes my energy precludes me just sitting and writing a poem. That’s how I started performing poetry, because I’d be writing and wound up desiring to take the word off the page. I wanted to perform like Gregory Corso and our great performing poets. And then even that sometimes wasn’t enough, so I added an electric guitar. But my photographs come from a more meditative place.

So you became interested in photography when you were seven years old?

Well, photographs—images.

And then later as a young adult you were very close with Robert Mapplethorpe…

My interest in photography was historic and image-based. And Robert became very interested in the process. But I went into photography my way, and he went into it his way. I don’t think either one of us deeply influenced or affected the other’s approach because aesthetically we looked things quite differently. But we both embraced the idea of photography as one of the great fine arts.

Ok. So tell me what you think about—and this is totally off the wall—what do you think about the element of magic in a work of art. I mention it because I think it’s definitely there in some of your music and some of your…

Well, there’s definitely a shamanistic aspect to creation because, you know, a lot of creation is partially one’s own ability and intelligence, one’s sense of vision. Another aspect is the channeling aspect. That’s where mysticism comes in to play--channeling what people call God, or nature; or if you’re performing, channeling people in the audience. Or you might be channeling Michelangelo, or Walt Whitman or Jesus Christ. Many of the artists and the people we believe in have even offered this. Christ said, “Lo, I am with you always even until the end of the world.” Walt Whitman said, “Young poet, two hundred years from now, I am with you.” In terms of creating, the word magic is a beautiful word, and certainly I’m aware of that all of the time. But I don’t rely on it because sometimes we’re on our own. I can look at the photographs I take and some seem like they have an extra thing that makes them special. Even recording, when I recorded “Horses” I can tell you that in “Birdland,” specifically, I felt entered by this thing--it doesn’t mean that the other songs are lesser, it just means that “Birdland” was the song I was performing when I felt entered by this specific energy.

So it was a doorway?

Yes, a certain portal. So absolutely, it’s not even something to believe or disbelieve in, it just exists as a kind of alchemy where you transform nothing into something. Or, as a performer, it’s when you transport people’s energy into something else. There are times when I’m performing when I want them to give me some of their energy, not to control them, but I so can transform it and give it back to them. It’s like the figure eight, the infinity symbol, the pouring in and the pouring out. It’s the part of the alchemical process that is also part of the performing process and the creative process.

That’s beautiful. Thank you.

Photographs in order of apearance: Self Portrait, Tulips, Actor, Walt Whitman's Tomb