Patti Smith and photographer Lynn Goldsmith: Their portrait of an abiding friendship
Patti Smith wants to talk about collaboration. It’s a Tuesday afternoon and she is in a room at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, cup of coffee in her hand. In a few hours she will be on a small stage at the Taschen store in Beverly Hills, performing with longtime band mate Tony Shanahan; their five-song set will include “Ghost Dance,” “Dancing Barefoot” and “Because the Night.”
At the moment, however, she is reflecting on a different sort of collaborative effort, “Before Easter After,” a slipcased, oversize book of images by photographer Lynn Goldsmith, whom Smith has known for more than 40 years.
“Before Easter After” is a record of this friendship, which has always been a working one. Featuring hundreds of photos of Smith in her late 1970s punk glory, interwoven with lyrics and poetic riffs, the book grows out of a collaboration writ large.
“All the friends I’ve had in life since I’ve been 20, probably, my closest friends, have been collaborators,” Smith says. “I’m a worker, and I’m not that social, so my relationships, my long-term relationships, are usually work-centric, as well as love-centric, really caring about the person.”
The perspective is one Goldsmith shares. “I’m going to die, and I want to die having had meaningful relationships with people,” she says, laughing in her own room, just one flight down from Smith’s. “Before After Easter After” — published in a collector’s edition of 1,300 copies; the price is $700 — sits open on a table in front of her. The book is “the greatest gift,” Goldsmith continues, “not only the loyalty, but because doing it with people you know is really what life is about.”
The design of the book, its narrative, so to speak, reflects this; among its opening images is the first photograph Goldsmith made of Smith, a full body shot in mid-stride, as if she were walking into a future she can’t quite see. That, in fact, is what happened: The photo was taken in 1975, as Smith’s debut album “Horses” was about to be released.
Goldsmith, in other words, has been there since the beginning, or if not quite the beginning, then close enough. “I was in a different world,” Smith recalls. “And she was so helpful to me as I was entering the world of rock ’n’ roll.”
In part this is because Goldsmith was already established by the time she and Smith met; among other things, she had co-managed Grand Funk Railroad. “I was done with them,” she says. “So I strongly suggested they do an album called ‘Born to Die,’ and then I put them in coffins on the cover and shot them with flowers. When the shoot was over, I had the flowers delivered to my apartment and called Patti. ‘Come on over,’ I told her, ‘I’ve got all these flowers to play with.’”
The photos make up an early sequence in “Before Easter After”: Smith in a velvet cape, staring back into the lens from within a crush of blossoms, knowing and somehow guileless at once. “We were making our own imaginary films or imaginary scenarios,” Smith remembers. “But also, there’s a certain naiveté in these pictures because that’s how I was. It’s very important, I find, to maintain an aspect of one’s innocence. No matter what happens to you, no matter how many horrible things, or how sophisticated you are, to maintain some of that little drop of purity.”
This quality of innocence — or better yet, discovery — remains essential to Smith’s work. “I did it for poetry,” she enthuses in “Just Kids,” the 2010 memoir that won a National Book Award and established her as a writer of prose.
Her most recent book, “Year of the Monkey,” brings that innocence to bear in a different way, blurring the line between the waking world and the more elusive territory of dreams. It’s a necessary counterbalance, for like much of her recent work, the book addresses the losses she’s experienced, including the deaths of her husband and brother.
Such losses also make their mark on “Before Easter After.” Although nearly all the photos here were taken in the 1970s — the title is an homage to Smith’s third album “Easter,” for which Goldsmith shot the cover — the book ends with a set of images that commemorate the dead.
“Speak to me,” Smith writes, “speak to me shadow,” a line from her song “Paths That Cross.” The reference is fitting, not only because it connects “Before Easter After” to the larger arc of Smith’s life and work, but also because of the collaboration at the project’s heart. Taken together, after all, these images offer a story of redemption; this is their overriding narrative.
“Easter,” Goldsmith says, “is about resurrection. When I began to research, to look at religious paintings, I realized how much blue and red and white are used.” The influence of this palette is evident in the more than 20 images from the “Easter” cover sessions, as well as contact sheets, that are reproduced. At the same time, “Before Easter After” captures something else, which is the moment collaboration opens up to serendipity. In January 1977, Smith fell from a stage in Tampa, Fla.; she broke several vertebrae. Goldsmith was in the audience that night and photographed the aftermath, as well as her friend’s journey through physical therapy.
“I was calling the record ‘Easter,’” Smith explains, “and I wanted it to be like a holy card, and she figured it out. But then, as I was undressing, I was putting my hair up, and she took a shot I didn’t even notice, and when we were looking for the cover I saw this picture and I almost cried.”
Just months earlier, Smith hadn’t been able to raise her arms; now, her healing was complete. “That’s what Easter is about,” she elaborates. “Lynn saw the moment. And I thought: That’s the picture. You make all these plans, and then this unexpected moment comes, and that’s the shot.”
Something similar emerges throughout “Before Easter After,” which is less about Smith per se than Smith as seen through Goldsmith’s acute eye. “She freed me up,” Goldsmith insists, “because when she gets in front of the camera, she’s authentic.”
As for Smith, she sees it — as is only to be expected — from the other side. “What I like in the way Lynn’s put this book together,” she says, “is that it has an inner narrative. It’s like an aria. It’s our work together, but really, it’s her journey. It begins with the innocence of girlhood, and now look at where we are.”
Ulin is a former book editor and book critic of The Times.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.