The story behind Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith’s first portraits together

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As a new exhibition delves into the legacy of his vintage photos of the two iconic artists, Lloyd Ziff tells us how those shots came to be and what, 53 years on, they still mean to him

Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1942, Lloyd Ziff first left his hometown in the mid-60s to pursue a Graphic Design degree at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Little did he know that, what began as every other art student’s nerve-racking journey into the teeming-with-talent jungle of the Great Apple, would soon lead him to lens some of the most captivating portraits ever taken of groundbreaking photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and revolutionary “punk poet queen”, author and artist Patti Smith. The first ones to have ever been taken of the two then-lovers together.

Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, "Frame 20A", Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, "Frame 20A", Photography © Lloyd Ziff

Shot in 1968 and 1969, the photographs show Mapplethorpe and Smith all caught up in their youth romance. While the earliest shots candidly portray the delicate signs of affection the artists would share with each other, the later ones – taken upon Mapplethorpe’s request  – shed light into the uncompromising, art-fuelled life that, already at that time, permeated the universe of the soon-to-become cultural icons. As Ziff recalls in his book DESIRE (2019), “they were always working, making paintings and drawings and sculptures, and the walls of their apartment were covered with their work.”

Ziff, who after graduating from college boasted a successful career as the design and art director of some of the greatest magazines of all time, started out at a now-defunct women’s title in NYC to then get his first full-time job as an album cover designer at CBS Records a couple of years later. “It was the late 60s,” he tells Re-Edition during an extensive, lively phone call. “Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin were both on the label and everybody had their own office with a record player: it was heaven.”

Having worked his way up to direct some of his dream publications, Ziff, who counts legendary image-maker Lee Friedlander among his closest friends, kept photography as a hobby for most of his life until a heart attack convinced him to brush up his negatives and showcase some of the memories he had captured along the way. Among some of his most suggestive photographs are, of course, those he took of Mapplethorpe and Smith during his college years which, besides featuring in his DESIRE monograph, are also the focus of an eponymous exhibition currently on view at Santa Monica’s Danziger Gallery.

Below, Ziff talks about capturing Mapplethorpe and Patti’s young bohemian love, reflecting on the friendship that bound him to the photography pioneer up until his premature departure.

Re-Edition Magazine: You’re best known as the art director of a number of coveted magazines. Yet, your first love, the one you came back to full-time in 2000, was photography. How did it all begin?

Lloyd Ziff: I was the best artist in my class at high school but when I got to Pratt, everybody there used to be the best in their class. I wasn’t a really good painter nor was I a good enough illustrator. At some point, I discovered magazine reproduction and decided that graphic design was the path I wanted to pursue. I was good at it and I really enjoyed it. I never thought about photography until the last months of my college years, when my roommate loaned me his 35mm camera and showed me how to use it.

Having become fascinated with the medium, I took a photography course during my last semester. The module was held by Arthur Freed, who taught me that photography isn’t as much about technique as it is about having a good eye. I never learned how to use a light meter or how to light in the studio but I loved walking around taking pictures. My friend had told me that the 35mm camera I used to shoot with was quite forgiving and that, if set to infinity, everything would be in focus. To save money, I would process the film myself, which is why some of the photos I took of Robert and Patti went ruined when some light leaked in.

oyd Ziff’s Desire, "Frame 15A", Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, "Frame 15A", Photography © Lloyd Ziff

RE: Launched on October 6 at Santa Monica’s Danziger Gallery, your exhibition DESIRE breathes new life into the world-famous series of photographs you took of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe back in the 1960s – the first portraits ever taken of the two of them. Let’s start from the beginning: do you have any memories from the very first time you saw them?

LZ: Robert and I were in the same class at Pratt and, though there weren’t many people in it, we weren’t really close friends. Still, we recognised each other and talked on occasion. I remember how beautiful he was. It was the mid-60s, 1968 to be precise. Most people at that time did not openly talk about being gay, provided they even knew they were. I don’t know if Robert knew he was gay, and I surely didn’t know that about myself but, somehow, we recognised something in each other that we didn’t want to talk about.

I saw how charismatic and beautiful he was. He was with Patti, who is not classically beautiful but certainly beautiful, and they had a little apartment around school, in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, only a couple of blocks away from where I used to live. One day, I ran into them on the street and decided to ask them if I could swing by their place to take their picture. That was shortly after I had first got into photography and, because I couldn’t spend much money, I only shot half a film roll.

A year later, Robert called me saying he wanted to make a movie and that, in order to put it together, he needed some photographs of Patti and himself in the nude. We weren’t intimate friends but we were friendly enough not to feel embarrassed about it. Plus, it was the 1960s. As soon as they arrived at my little basement apartment on Charles Street, in the West Village, they took off their clothes. Then I stuck a light up on a wooden chair and took the pictures they had asked for.

Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Photography © Lloyd Ziff, book Interior images: ©NJG Studios
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Photography © Lloyd Ziff, book Interior images: ©NJG Studios

RE: What happened next?

LZ: Though I was very much aware of them, the shots remained in my personal archive until 2009, when I received a call from Patti. She was publishing her book, Just Kids, and wanted to know whether she could use the pictures I had taken of her and Robert. Of course, I gave her the photographs but when the book came out, I was surprised to find out that she had actually written about me taking those pictures.

I thought, “well, I’m not really part of their lives anymore, I wouldn’t see why she would include me in Just Kids. But if you read the paragraph about the photographs we took in the 60s, you will find she says something really insightful (and quite funny). Apparently Robert wasn’t really happy with the photographs I had taken of them, so she told him, “You know Robert, if you wanna take pictures, why don’t you learn how to do it yourself?”

RE: We all know he did learn eventually… and how! How did the idea for your DESIRE show and book first come about?

LZ: After the pictures were published in Just Kids, I realised that, though I had kept them for over 45 years, I had never done anything with them. So I thought, “why not try and exhibit them?” I knew that an old friend of mine, James Danziger, whom I had met while working in the magazine world, had a gallery in New York, the Danziger Gallery, so I asked him if he was interested in showcasing my portraits of Patti and Robert and he was enthusiastic about it. The exhibition launched in May 2013 and was very successful.

A few years later, Nicholas Groarke, who then became my publisher, called me from London to say he wanted to turn those same photographs into a book. I thought there wouldn’t be enough pictures to make it a monograph, as I had only shot a couple of film rolls. But Groarke told me to trust him and, having come all the way to my house – which is 100 miles from New York City – to take a closer look at the images, he promised me he would find a way to make it happen.

He suggested we used some of my old photographs of New York City – all shot in the same years as the ones of Robert and Patti as a prelude and epilogue to the black-and-white portraits I had taken of them. A documentation of a moment in time, those shots would provide readers with additional context on the portraits and the 1960s New York that served as their background. DESIRE came out in 2019 in a signed limited edition. People loved it.

RE: What about its iteration, which is on view at Danziger Gallery, Santa Monica, through October 22, 2022?

LZ: DESIRE launched shortly before COVID hit, which meant that most of the book launch-related activities, including three book signings in Paris, London and Los Angeles, had to be scrapped. When James Danziger opened a new gallery in Santa Monica last February, we thought that could be the right opportunity to organise a new book signing along with an iteration of the DESIRE exhibition. The show opened last Thursday, October 6, and will continue through the end of the month. I am excited to share these photographs with the world once again and thrilled to see what people will think of them.

Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff

RE: Was 1969 the last time you saw Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, or did you stay in touch with them? What aspects of this story are still untold?

LZ: I was friends with Robert right up until he passed away and, while working at different magazines, I was lucky enough to commission him to take, among the others, portraits of famous people’s homes and apartments all around the world, from London to New York and beyond. I was happy to give him assignments and he loved lending his eye to some of the greatest titles of the time. Occasionally, we would have dinner.

As for Patti, when she got married, she moved to Detroit and lived there until her husband unexpectedly died in the early 1990s. After that, she moved back to New York and revived her career. I would still occasionally see her; for example, there was a memorial for Robert at the Whitney Museum which we both attended, and she is a really good friend of my friend and fellow photographer Annie Leibovitz who, from time to time, updates me on her life.

I was always absolutely thrilled to know that both she and Robert had become so iconic and that they were once my friends. I am proud of my career and the brilliant people I got to know through the years.

RE: The portraits featured in DESIRE are more than 50 years old, yet they continue to speak to generations of established, emerging and upcoming artists as well as to the wider public. What makes them so special?

LZ: A lot of photographs, especially when 50 years old, are very interesting as a capsule of a given moment in time. The pictures of Robert and Patti are particularly powerful because they portray two people who, then little more than teenagers, suddenly grew to become two of the most influential cultural icons of the 20th century. I love to look at the photographs I took of them when they were just starting out in their artistic career, even though there is just a few of them.

While looking at the portraits, you can probably see what my professor Arthur Freed meant by saying that taking a loving picture of someone is a much harder job than taking one that makes them look terrible. I loved Robert and Patti, they were my friends, and that really comes through in the pictures. I made them look good ‘cause I loved taking pictures of them and they loved posing for me. And after these first portraits, they loved posing together for posterity.

RE: The portraits also remind everyone wanting to make their dreams come true that, if they persevere in their endeavours, they might eventually fulfil their goals – a message that is especially relevant if we consider the current climate.

LZ: Making your way into the creative world has never been easy. You have to love the work. Out of all my classmates at Pratt, I was the only one who went looking for a job straight after graduating because I didn’t have the money and, at that point, I had already worked as a waiter, a postman and whatnot. I wanted a real job and, in the long run, my dedication really paid off. But you got to believe in yourself, in your drive and your ambition, just like Robert and Patti did.

DESIRE is on view at Danziger Gallery, Santa Monica, through October 22, 2022

Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, "Roll 2, Frame 15", Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, "Roll 2, Frame 15", Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Untitled, Photography © Lloyd Ziff
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Photography © Lloyd Ziff, book Interior images: ©NJG Studios
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Photography © Lloyd Ziff, book Interior images: ©NJG Studios
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Photography © Lloyd Ziff, book exterior images: ©NJG Studios
Lloyd Ziff’s Desire, Photography © Lloyd Ziff, book exterior images: ©NJG Studios

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