In the 1960s, Lloyd Ziff attended Pratt with Robert Mapplethorpe, and although the two were never particularly close—they were close enough to partake in a collaborative photo shoot that would eternalize a twenty-something Robert and his girlfriend, Patti Smith, in their pre-stardom, child-like innocence. After taking the first documented portrait of the couple, Ziff pursued a successful career in design and art direction, but after a heart attack began solely showing his photography. Suddenly—after over 40 years— Ziff has decided the time seems right to reach into his archives and share these iconic portraits in a new exhibition at Danziger Gallery.
Artsy: Can you tell us about your current exhibition and the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith? How did these images come about?
Lloyd Ziff: I was friends with Robert, not particularly close, but friends with Robert at Pratt in Brooklyn. Robert was living with Patti and I found them so unconventionally beautiful. Sometime in ’68 when I first started taking pictures, I asked Robert if I could come over to their apartment and take some portraits of them, and he agreed. You can see from the contact sheets hanging in the gallery that I was so inexperienced at that moment in time, that I only shot maybe 15 pictures on one roll of film. But they were good pictures, and I always knew that they captured the essence of Robert and Patti as I had felt it.
A year later, I moved to Manhattan and had an apartment in a basement on Charles street in the West Village, and Robert and Patti were living in the Chelsea Hotel or somewhere around there. At that time, Robert wasn’t yet taking pictures, and he asked me if I would take these nude pictures of himself and Patti. Patti writes about this in her book Just Kids; she says he wanted to make an animated film depicting them in “a tantric Garden of Eden”. As you can see, they’re not in any way sexual, and we knew each other well enough to totally trust each other—nobody was embarrassed or uptight. They just came over to my little apartment, we put a light on a chair—I didn’t know how to light, I still don’t really—we just shot the pictures and I believe I gave Robert a contact sheet and made some small prints for him. And then, as Patti also writes in her book, Robert lost interest in making the film and nothing ever happened with the pictures. “If you want to take pictures, you should really learn to do it yourself,” she wrote. I thought that was really interesting.
Artsy: How did these stunning photographs manage to remain largely unseen in all of this time?
LZ: Robert and Patti were my friends, and I was friends with Robert until he died. But I never felt at all comfortable about doing anything with the pictures until this last year when Patti wrote about the pictures in Just Kids, and I felt a sufficient amount of time—40 plus years—had passed, for all of us not to feel uncomfortable about them. Since they’re in no way sexual and I find them very beautiful, with the proper respect I felt they could be out in the world and everybody could see them for what they are—beautiful documents of a particular time before Robert and Patti became legendary figures in the art world.
Artsy: According to Patti, your portraits were the first photographs ever taken of the pair. At the time, did you have any sense of the legends the two would one day become?
LZ: That’s what Patti says in her book of the portraits—she credits me as taking the first portraits of them as a couple. But no. We were all 25 and under. We all felt that we were legendary in our moment, in our aspirations... They were beautiful, and intense, but Patti didn’t start recording until I think 1975, and Robert didn’t start exhibiting until 1975. It was seven years—at least—before their careers began to be noticed in the real world. But you could tell who was gonna become legendary by who carried themselves with an aura. They certainly did that.
Artsy: Have the images ever been shown or used elsewhere?
LZ: I gave Susan Sontag and Allen Ginsberg each a copy of the portraits from Brooklyn of Patti and Robert, so they’re in their estates. I knew Susan because of her relationship with my good friend Annie Leibovitz, and she asked me for a print of Robert and Patti, which I gave her. I was also lucky enough to have dinner with Allen Ginsberg in the early ’90s and show him my portfolio, and he asked me for a print of Patti—just small prints, like the ones that are in the show.
Artsy: What are you working on these days?
LZ: I’m working on a book right now called New York/Los Angeles with the pictures that I’ve shot in both places from 1967 to the present.
I have been constantly shooting, constantly editing, constantly trying to get my pictures out in the world, which is why it’s so thrilling for me to have them at James Danziger’s gallery because it is one of the very best galleries. I’ve known James since we both worked at Condé Nast in the ’80s. For him to give me the validation to show these pictures is so touching to me. It really makes me happy.
“Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith” is on view at Danziger Gallery through May 4, 2013.Portrait by John Van Hamersveld