Discussing freedom and photography with punk pioneer Patti Smith and artist Steven Sebring

Discussing freedom and photography with punk pioneer Patti Smith and artist Steven Sebring

Discussing freedom and photography with punk pioneer Patti Smith and artist Steven Sebring

1 year ago

When it became evident during a Zoom call that patti punk – a single edition animated portrait of punk pioneer Patti Smith by artist Steven Sebring – would be minted on SuperRare in the same week as Christie’s CryptoPunks NFT auction, one well-intentioned party pitched an idea: Perhaps patti punk could be positioned in contrast to the Christie’s auction as a representation of, “the essence of a true punk”?

Immediately Sebring started to laugh. At the time, he was seated shoulder to shoulder with Patti as to both fit through a cell phone camera lens and, inadvertently, to provide Smith’s cat, Cairo, with double the lap space to sleep on.

“Let me stop you right there,” Smith said. “I started working with (Steven) in ‘95, which, obviously, was past the heyday of the punk movement.”

patti punk, 1 of 1, Steven Sebring

In ’95, Smith was just tiptoeing back into public life and many photographers she worked with were just aiming to recreate Robert Mapplethrope’s iconic portraits of her from the ‘70s, she said, like the portrait on the cover of her 1975 album, Horses.

“(Steven) just let me be myself, which to me was always the basic concept of what punk rock was,” she said. “(In the ‘70s), I had all of this energy and ideas about rock and roll and I wanted to transform. That’s what an artist does. Steven has never asked me once to go back to look like I did. He just lets me feel freedom.”

patti punk reflects this relationship: Sebring has transformed a Polaroid portrait from the late ‘90s that captured a pioneering artist in transition into an animated artwork to be sold through a transformative technology.

But first, some backstory

When Sebring met Smith in 1995, he’d never seen the “Godmother of Punk” perform. He hadn’t lived in 1970s New York during the poverty and the prolificacy of punk’s infancy. He didn’t read poetry at the Chelsea Hotel with the likes of Ginsberg and Burroughs. He hadn’t seen Smith’s foot go through an amplifier, at least yet.

When Steven met Patti, she was a widow living in Detroit, raising two children on a dwindling budget.

“I left public life in 1979,” Smith said. “My last concert was to 85,000 people in Florence, Italy and then, the next day, I walked away.”

In 1980 she married Fred “Sonic” Smith, guitarist for influential Detroit rock band MC5, and they moved to the suburbs of Detroit.

“I didn’t really intend to come back,” she said. “I intended to be a writer and a mother.”

But then, in 1994, Fred passed away, followed soon by Smith’s brother. 

Suddenly, “I really needed to find a more lucrative way to make a living, to take care of my children,” she said.

One option was to re-enter public life and to perform but, after so many years away? After such grief?

“It was daunting at first,” Smith said. And she was particularly uncomfortable about being photographed.

“I had almost a horror and sorrow of getting my picture taken,” she said, “because (in the past) Robert (Mapplethrope) would have been the one that I would have been working with.”

Mapplethrope, who had been a close friend and longtime collaborator, passed away in 1989.

“So, I asked Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.),” she said, “‘do you know a photographer who won’t come at me too aggressively like some rock and roll asshole, and will understand that, you know, I’m a widow with children?’ And he suggested Steven.”

“Steven was a young guy that didn’t know anything about me, and that was great because he had no preconception,” Smith said. “I could just be myself at that time of my life and also find who I was.”

“I was rediscovering myself through his lens,” she said.

In the 25 years that have passed since then, Smith and Sebring have grown close.

“We’ve done a lot of collaborating,” Sebring said. “We’re collaborating to this day, almost everyday.”

“An improvisational quilt that took 10 years to make”

Sebring, an Emmy-nominated director and self proclaimed “Photo-Scientist”, rose up through the world of fashion photography before pushing into filmmaking and digital portraiture. In NYC, his Sebring Revolution Media Lab experiments with three and four dimensional techniques to create interactive experiences.

“It’s real down rabbit hole stuff,” he said.

Nonetheless, at the root of his work, Sebring says, lies a bond with his subjects.

“It’s the most important thing,” he said. “If you don’t have a connection, you’re not going to get a good moment, you know? It’s all about trust and feeling it’s the right time.”

It was with this attitude that he first approached Smith back in 1995.

“When Patti and I met in Detroit she had to remind me to take a picture,” he said. “Most of the time I was just getting to know her. It was lovely. I shot some film and that was it. But I knew immediately that, you know, there was something special about this one.”

In 1996, Smith performed at Irving Plaza in New York. It was the first time Sebring had seen her live.

“And he was like, ‘that’s the same person that was folding laundry the whole time while we were talking in Detroit?’” Smith said.

Sebring proposed they work together on a film, a project that would unfold organically over 10 years, culminating in the release of Patti Smith: Dream of Life, winner of the “Excellence in Cinematography Award: Documentary” at Sundance in 2008.

“We did everything piecemeal,” Smith said of the film, “because I didn’t have any money at the time. He was just coming up. I was struggling. And the film that we used, sometimes it was 16 millimeters. Sometimes it was black and white. Sometimes it was semi-expired. (The project) was like a quilt, you know? An improvisational quilt that took 10 years to make.”

“We were exploring,” she said. “I learned a lot through that film.”

Enter patti punk

It was while working on Patti Smith: Dream of Life that, in 1999, Sebring shot a series of Polaroids for Smith’s Gung Ho album that would eventually become the single edition NFT, patti punk, being auctioned this week on SuperRare.

“I pixelated those (Polaroids) in 2005,” Sebring said. “So (the NFT) originates from individual polaroids – one-off polaroids.”

“I was really excited when scanners came around because I could scan an original Polaroid and reproduce it,” Sebring said. “And then I started getting into, you know, screwing up the images as far as making them interesting and pixelating them.”

It was Patti who first saw the pixelated portraits’ parallels with stained glass.

“It’s like beautiful stained glass windows when you’re up close to them,” Sebring said. “You don’t know what you’re seeing, but then you step away and the image comes to life.”

The essence of true punk

At the start of our Zoom call, after hearing Smith’s response to being labeled the “essence of true punk”, I had a question.

How could “punk” as a term – similar to “hippy”, “nerd” or even “millennial” – remain true to its origins as it aged and calcified around a series of agreed upon ideas and labels? Labels like leather jackets or spiked hair that are commandeered by consumerism and placed in advertisements so we can sell culture back to ourselves? Could punk live on as a paradox? In juxtaposition to itself?

“Well, first of all, I think that each generation translates for themselves,” she said. “They translate what rock and roll means to them, what punk rock means to them. Our culture is very appropriative. It’s fluctuant. And I stepped back because I believe that new generations should redefine what all of these genres mean. And if little kids want to dress up like punk rockers for Halloween and all, you know, I think it’s all great. Obviously there’s going to be iconic images that people identify with punk rock, and I think that’s fine.”

“I’m simply saying that the essence of punk rock is freedom,” she said.

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Luke Whyte

Luke Whyte is SuperRare's Editorial Director.

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