As part of an ongoing series exploring the relationship between photography and literature, this collection has taken direct inspiration from Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids.” A single turning point in her life which marked the transition of a meandering factory worker from New Jersey with aspirations to become an artist in New York City, Patti writes a poignantly detailed account of boarding the bus that started it all. The moment I read this passage below, I knew it could make a compelling series of images, it was just a matter of where and when.
Although my journey was not quite as dramatic, I distinctly recall leaving an interview for a corporate sales position at around the same age she was in this part of her story, and realizing I was never going to pursue that path, instead choosing to apply to art school.
There is no real concrete answer as to why I didn’t pursue a career in the corporate sector straight out of college because I didn’t really have much of a concept of what it meant to work there. The dominating thought was that I had just become absorbed in photography, 3/4ths of the way through my business degree and never had explored what it looked like to study photography in a formal setting. Most of my experience up to then was self-taught with a little help from the photo club at the liberal arts college I was at which consisted literally of a darkroom in a closet and one student who was kind enough to teach me how to print. I had a strong desire to go back to school and take a year’s worth of classes fully immersed in an art context before making any decisions about how to proceed in life beyond a framework of academia which was all I had known up to then.
Patti really put it all on the line, I can’t imagine the courage it took her to show up in such an overwhelming city with no money, no job, and no place to stay. It was this same attitude that eventually came out in her music, after a few years of odd jobs and developing her voice through writing and illustration first.
“It was a big blow that the fare to New York had nearly doubled since last I’d traveled. I was unable to buy my ticket. I went into a phone booth to think. It was a real Clark Kent moment. I thought of calling my sister although I was too ashamed to return home. But there, on the shelf beneath the telephone, lying on thick yellow pages, was a white patent purse. It contained a locket and thirty-two dollars, almost a week’s paycheck at my last job.” – Patti Smith, Just Kids
“Against my better judgment, I took the money but I left the purse on the ticket counter in the hopes that the owner would at least retrieve the locket. There was nothing in it that revealed her identity. I can only thank, as I have within myself many times through the years, this unknown benefactor. She was the one who gave me the last piece of encouragement, a thief’s good-luck sign. I accepted the grant of the small white purse as the hand of fate pushing me on.” – Patti Smith, Just Kids
“At twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old gray raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.” – Patti Smith, Just Kids
The initial image I saw in my head is the shot at dusk where she leaves the phone booth and gets on the bus, showing the long road ahead of her and hoping to tell as much of the story she wrote of with a quite literal approach. The portrait of her contemplating the money in the white purse she found was next on the list of priorities as far as building a series was concerned. Knowing both of those shots couldn’t take place until the sun was setting, I hoped to utilize the daylight to create a tableau of people on the bus and individual portraits in a way I had never really done before.
Having seen Patti perform live a few years ago and continuing to be astounded at her ability to keep going all these years later is a constant inspiration to keep creating at times we feel stuck in our routines or pressured by external factors to find alternative paths in our work. Passing through middle age recently and doing my damndest to continue working throughout the pandemic has made it easy to wonder if the best years were already behind me. Looking at an artist like Patti who is everyday making new work amidst a busy tour schedule and just living her life is a necessary reminder to keep showing up, day in and day out.