Lynn Goldsmith's best photograph: the Patti Smith Easter sessions

‘When she started putting her poetry to rock’n’roll, Patti Smith was electric. So I always chose colours – yellow, red, blue – that punctuated that aspect of her’

It was 1977 and I was shooting Patti Smith for the cover of her album Easter. I was thinking a lot about Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the palette he uses in his painting The Annunciation: white for purity, red for the blood of Christ, blue for the heavens.

Patti brought the white dress, which had been given to her by Robert Mapplethorpe. She brought the red scarf too – she still has it. And one of us threw in the feathers. The blue background is pretty much the exact blue in the Rossetti. That’s not what makes Patti’s eyes pop though. She has Elizabeth Taylor eyes. They always pop.

Patti has talked about how I brought her into the world of colour. Prior to me, any photographer she worked with had always shot her in black and white – even Robert, who was her lover, and before that Judy Linn. But when she started putting her poetry to rock’n’roll, Patti’s being was electric. Even now, at 72, she electrifies people. So I always chose colours – bright yellow, red, this blue, lime green – that punctuated that aspect of her.

Final choice … the Easter album cover.
Final choice … the Easter album cover. Photograph: Arista

If you know the album, you’ll know this isn’t the image we went with. During the shoot – against a different, brown background – Patti lifted up her arms. Easter was the album she worked on after she broke her neck and went through a very painful recovery. To be able to lift her arms in that way was like a resurrection of her spirit. So that’s the one we went with.

Sometimes on a shoot I might say, “Move to the left” or something like that, but with Patti you don’t really need to pull anything out of her. She’s a performance artist. She gets it. There is always a need to talk, but with Patti I can work in a quieter fashion than when I photograph someone for the first time. Then, it’s all about gaining their trust – when I look through my lens, I can see in their eyes whether they’re scared or questioning what I want.

People tend to limit me to “music photographer” but I’ve done everything from covers of Sports Illustrated and shoots for National Geographic to fine art with dolls and a book of self-portraits. I write songs too – in the UK, I’m known as Will Powers. I haven’t put new music out for some time, but in 1983 I had a lot of success with a single called Kissing with Confidence. So if people want to see me as a rock’n’roll photographer, or some famous person’s friend, I just think they’re limiting themselves, not me.

It’s the same thing with Patti. If you go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and there’s a drawing exhibition on, there might be a Patti Smith next to a Picasso. People don’t really talk about that or how she’s also an accomplished photographer and the writer of 15 books of poetry, as well as memoirs. If they want to call her the godmother of punk, she’ll take it, but is that really all she is? I don’t think so.

When I’m asked to do an album cover, I always want to hear it first. In some cases, the artist might not have done a full mix, might not have put down the vocals – and they’ll just offer to sing it to me, to my face, which can be great but also a little uncomfortable.

Patti likes to sing. She sings all the time. She sings when she walks up the stairs. We’ll sing lines together like: “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re goin’ to get married” or “Remember walking in the sand”. Patti is fierce, authentic, complex. She is a poet, in everything she does. I feel blessed to have a friend like her – and that’s what I see when I look at this image.

Before Easter After, by Patti Smith and Lynn Goldsmith, is published by Taschen.

Lynn Goldsmith’s CV

Lynn Goldsmith

Born: Detroit Michigan, 1948.

Training: “Life experience.”

Influences: “My mother, Joseph Campbell, Bob Dylan, Guy Bourdin, Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix.”

High/low point: “I don’t believe in highs and lows.”

Top tip: “Keep working. And stay away from sugar.”

Contributor

Interview by Dale Berning Sawa

The GuardianTramp

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