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Patti Smith, 1975 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

The Cover Uncovered: The purity of Patti Smith's pioneering punk album 'Horses'

Patti Smith’s stunning 1975 album Horses will go down in history as one of the most iconic LPs to come out of the New York punk scene. In fact, you’d have a good argument to suggest that this album was one of the scene’s very foundational stones. The seminal record from Smith wasn’t only a sonically incredible experience, full of visceral moments of spoken word rock, but its cover has remained one of the most iconic images of the 1970s. The story behind the stark and beautiful image is a beautiful reminder of love and friendship.

However iconic the image may be, with Patti Smith in black and white standing strong and confident against a blank wall, the beauty of the image is held in the truth of the relationship of Smith and her photographer and boyfriend/partner of the time — the legendary photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. It is their relationship which, when you peel back the layers of the image, becomes a searing piece of its iconography.

In Smith’s memoirs ‘Just Kids’ she recalls the vibrant love affair of minds and bodies, all with a beautifully delicate and adoring tone. She was offering up her side of the story of an integral time for creativity within the New York bubble. Not only is the book a fantastic read, but it provides an insight into the Horses photoshoot which we had to share.

When writing about the shoot, Patti Smith confessed: “I had no sense of how it would look, just that it should be true. The only thing I promised Robert was that I would wear a clean shirt with no stains on it.” That ‘clean shirt’ was specifically selected from the Bowery Salvation Army with the monogram of ‘RV’ with the hope it had belonged to Roger Vadim shot in Jean Genet in 1947, a perfect touch that only adds extra musk to the proceedings.

It may sound trivial, but the outfit is something which does elevate the shot. Smith looks every bit the punk-crooner she’d show she was on Horses. Complete with braces that mean business and the steely gaze of a determined soul and an emboldened spirit. “I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.”

Mapplethorpe and Smith took their time to ensure they had the right lighting and famously ate eggs and grits at the Pink Tea Cup cafe before making their way to their friend (and Mapplethorpe’s lover’s), Sam Wagstaff’s, penthouse apartment to capture the image.

“I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That is all.” She continues later “Within a few days he showed me the contact sheet. ‘This one has the magic,’ he said.” It’s a beautiful vision of their simple and robust love, perfectly captured within the image.

Smith offers the most telling review of the cover you’d ever need. This wasn’t a jaded star trying to look fresh, or a photographer trying to create an edge. This is a truth that can’t be untold, and the singer’s explanation is authentic and beautiful.

“When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.”

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