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Patti Smith 

A Rock 'N' Roll Legend Discusses art and music

Patti Smith: photographs

Through July 3

New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, 658-4100;

Patti Smith became an instant American music icon with her great debut LP Horses in 1975. She also is a noted photographer who just donated 45 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. She soon met Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom she lived in the legendary Chelsea Hotel years before he became a world-famous photographer. They stayed close even as their lives took very different trajectories. Smith was in town recently to attend the opening at NOMA and perform.

Gambit: 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?

Patti Smith: 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.

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.

You became interested in photography when you were 7 years old?

Well, photographs — images.

And then 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 at things quite differently. But we both embraced the idea of photography as one of the great fine arts.

Tell me what you think about the element of magic in a work of art.

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, I just think it 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 then pouring out. That's the part of the alchemical process that is also part of the performing process and the creative process.

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Speaking of Patti Smith, New Orleans Museum Of Art


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