Robert Mapplethorpe's photography has posthumously adorned the LP covers of a wide variety of performers, including The Kronos Quartet, The Swans, Astor Piazzolla and The Scissor Sisters. He also shot several portraits specifically for use as an LP graphic: Laurie Anderson, Phillip Glass, Television, Joan Armatrading, Slow Children, Taj Mahal, and several for Patti Smith. Her 1975 debut, Horses, is perhaps the most iconic.
Mapplethorpe took the image of his ex-lover in the Greenwich Village penthouse of his then-recent lover, the collector Sam Wagstaff, who he would be together with until his death in 1987 (Mapplethorpe himself died two years later). The photographer chose Wagstaff’s apartment as the location for the shoot as it was large, had white walls and was bathed in natural light. He had noticed a mid-afternoon triangular patch of sunlight on the wall, and was determined to incorporate it into the album cover portrait. Smith later recalled Mapplethorpe rushing her out of a Bleecker coffee shop declaring in a panicked voice "Let's get out of here. We can't lose the light."
"I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That was all," Smith wrote in her 2010 memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. She also downplayed its significance in an interview with journalist Michael Bracewell: “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.”
She told NPR in 2010 that "The only rule we had was, Robert told me if I wore a white shirt, not to wear a dirty one. I got my favourite ribbon and my favourite jacket, and he took about 12 pictures. By the eighth one he said, 'I got it'."
Other images from the series are now featured in the Tate Britain collection, and the cover has been heralded as a classic. In their November 1991 list of the top 100 album covers of all time, Rolling Stone placed Horses at number twenty-six. The following year, Camille Paglia described it in her book Sex, Art and American Culture as "devastatingly original" and "the most electrifying image I had ever seen of a woman of my generation."
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 'moustache'.
"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."
Below: Mapplethorpe in front of a Horses promotional poster and various images from the same session/era.