“I never see me. I see us.”

During this weekend of waiting, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith, about the story of her and Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s quite beautiful, and I was surprised to find myself crying at the end. I mean, I knew what was coming. Of course, it could just be late pregnancy hormones, and the fact that Patti was pregnant when Robert first got ill. At one point, he was photographing her for her next album, and she writes, “He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life. We were both aware of that, I know.”

The book is dizzying with all the encounters the two young artists had with famous artists, poets and rock stars in NYC, often in the Chelsea Hotel. What a crazy amazing time that must have been. But I think what most intrigued me about the story was how long it took both Smith and Mapplethorpe to find their voices. Or maybe it’s not about the amount of time, but about the fact that they didn’t embark on a clear plan of action. And seemingly chance encounters with individuals had huge impact on their journeys. It’s fascinating.

Smith has great insight into Mapplethorpe’s work and photography too. About the portrait Mapplethorpe shot for her first album, Horses, she writes, “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.” 10 years later, her husband remarked on the same thing: “I don’t know how he does it, but all his photographs of you look like him.”

For the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking that all photographers are voyeurs. But Smith has me thinking twice about that now:

“Robert was not a voyeur. He always said that he had to be authentically involved with the work that came out of his S&M pursuits, that he wasn’t taking pictures for the sake of sensationalism or making it his mission to help the S&M scene become more socially acceptable. He didn’t think it should be accepted, and he never felt that his underground world was for everybody. [...]

“And yet when I look at Robert’s work, his subjects are not saying, Sorry, I have my cock hanging out. He’s not sorry and doesn’t want anybody else to be. He wanted his subjects to be pleased with his photographs, whether it was an S&M guy shoving nails in his dick or a glamorous socialite. He wanted all his subjects to feel confident about their exchange.

“He didn’t think the work was for everybody. When he first exhibited his most hard-core photographs, they were in a portfolio marked X, in a glass case, for people over eighteen. He didn’t feel that it was important to shove those pictures in people’s faces, except mine, if he was teasing me.”

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