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March 27, 2023

Outtakes From Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ Album Cover Photo Shoot

Horses is the debut studio album by Patti Smith, it was released on November 10, 1975. A fixture of the mid-1970s underground rock music scene in New York City, Smith signed to Arista in 1975 and recorded Horses with her band at Electric Lady Studios in August and September of that year. She enlisted former Velvet Underground member John Cale to produce the album.

The cover photograph for Horses was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe at the Greenwich Village penthouse apartment of his partner Sam Wagstaff. Smith, shrouded in natural light, is seen wearing a plain white shirt, which she had purchased at a Salvation Army shop on the Bowery, and slinging a black jacket over her shoulder and her favorite black ribbon around her collar. Embedded on the jacket is a horse pin that Allen Lanier had given her. Smith described her appearance as recalling those of French poet Charles Baudelaire and, in the slinging of the jacket, American singer and actor Frank Sinatra. She recalled that Mapplethorpe “took, like, twelve pictures, and at about the eighth one, he said, ‘I have it.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ and he said, ‘I just know,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’ And that was it.”

The black-and-white treatment and androgynous pose were a departure from the typical promotional images of female singers of the time. Arista executives wanted to make various changes to the photograph, but Smith overruled their suggestions. Clive Davis later wrote that he was initially conflicted about the image, recognizing its “power” but feeling that it would confuse audiences unfamiliar with Smith and her style of music. He put aside his reservations and approved the cover after coming to a realization that he needed “to trust her artistic instincts thoroughly.”

In 2017, World Cafe presenter Talia Schlanger wrote that “Smith’s unapologetic androgyny predates a time when that was an en vogue or even available option for women, and represents a seminal moment in the reversal of the female gaze. Smith is looking at you, and could care less what you think about looking at her. That was radical for a woman in 1975. It is still radical today.”

Smith herself stated that she had not intended to make a “big statement” with the cover, which she said simply reflected the way she dressed. “People have made a lot of stuff about the Horses cover. But a lot of what we do is bred on innocence. How people interpret it is up to them. I thought of myself as a poet and a performer, and so how did I dress? I didn’t have much money; I liked to dress like Baudelaire. I looked at a picture of him and he was dressed, like, with this ribbon or tie and a white shirt. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to break any boundaries. I just like dressing like Baudelaire... I know people would like to think that we got together to break boundaries of politics and gender, but we didn’t really have time for that. We were really too busy trying to pull enough money together to buy lunch.”

Clive Davis, the founder and president of Arista records, however, was appalled by the image, and pleaded with Smith to change her mind about using it. He objected to her unkempt hair, lack of make-up and man’s tie. He was also, reportedly, critical of the trace of facial hair on Smith’s upper lip. But Smith’s contract with the label afforded her complete artistic control, and she refused all of their advice, including the suggestion that the art department airbrush her ‘mustache.’ “I felt it would be like having plastic surgery or something,” she said. “I told them ‘Robert Mapplethorpe is an artist, and he doesn’t let anyone touch his pictures.’ I didn’t know that for sure, maybe he wouldn't have minded, but I would have.”


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