What It’s Like Photographing Patti Smith and Other Cultural Icons

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Brigitte Lacombe, Patti Smith, New York, NY, 2014© Brigitte Lacombe

As a new exhibition of artists’ portraits opens in New York, its three featured image-makers reveal the stories behind their compelling depictions of Patti Smith, David Hockney and Michèle Lamy

When curating her latest show, Face to Face, for the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, writer and curator Helen Molesworth was inspired by her conflicting feelings about art openings, which arose during the Covid-19 pandemic. Having never really enjoyed the events, especially the small talk they required, she missed them deeply when they were no longer happening, namely because of the ways in which they connected her to what she describes in the exhibition catalogue, published by ICP and MACK, as her “baggy community: artists, writers, cultural folk”.

In Face to Face, she has compiled what she terms “an art opening without the small talk” – allowing visitors to get up close and personal with some of the world’s best-loved artists, from Maya Angelou, Richard Avedon and Louise Bourgeois, to Joan Didion, Kara Walker, and John Waters, via an array of photographs and films taken by three of the most influential portrait-makers working today: Brigitte Lacombe, Catherine Opie and Tacita Dean. All three have positioned themselves within the storied tradition of portraiture, while contemporising the genre in their own distinct way. As Molesworth notes, “Dean exploits cinema’s capacity for duration. Lacombe takes her cameras out on assignment [and] Opie works in the tradition of the studio photographer: her sitters come to her.”

Here, to coincide with the show’s opening, we speak with Brigitte Lacombe, Catherine Opie and Tacita Dean to discover the stories behind three of the show’s most captivating portraits.

Catherine Opie on photographing Michèle Lamy

“I’ve known Michèle [Lamy] since the early 90s when she owned a restaurant here in LA that was the big art party hangout. I’ve had a long and wonderful friendship with her; she’s known me since I was in my thirties and is very much a part of my life. I went to London to make these portraits of her. I specifically wanted to do Rick [Owens, her partner] and Michèle, both together but separately because they’re so iconic. Michèle’s got one of the most unique looks – there’s nobody who looks like her. She’s a fashion icon and she’s been in front of a camera a lot, but a lot of times there’s this quickness to fashion or street photography. I am somebody that really poses my portraits. I love to honour people with very formal portraits, and my artist portraits are also about documenting how we change and grow together as a community. 

“I really loved it when I started using the oval shape for portraits – how the body fits in an oval, these different relationships to what the oval does in the history of portraiture. The way that Michèle’s body works in the oval in this portrait, going one way and then coming upright, feels like she could lean on the edge at any moment with her hands clasped. It’s a really beautiful portrait of her. For me it’s about finding a point of connection, versus thinking about the personality necessarily, or who they are and their essence. It’s also about documentation and history. Photography has always acted as that extended family album in my mind.”

Tacita Dean on photographing David Hockney

“I first met David [Hockney] for dinner when I was an artist in residence at the Getty [Museum] in 2014-2015. It was terrifying, meeting an icon, but he’s very down to earth and welcoming. As soon as you meet David, you understand how fanatically protective he is of his right to be able to smoke. I was working on another film at the time, Buon Fresco, and I had these stills from it, close ups of fingers [painted by Giotto]. The next time I met David, we were at an event at the Getty and I was watching him on the terrace, smoking, and noticed his very idiosyncratic way of holding a cigarette. I thought, ‘Maybe I can ask if I can film him smoking a cigarette very, very close up.’ In the end, I didn't do it as close up as all that. I filmed him smoking five cigarettes, and each has a different personality in a way.

“When I went up to check the light in his studio before filming, for technical reasons, he was working on a series of portraits, which he showed at the Royal Academy. I was with my newly ten-year-old kid, Rufus, and David decided he’d like to paint a portrait of him. So Rufus was painted by Hockney over three days and, when I went up to make the film, there was the picture of Rufus still in the studio alongside the photographs of all the other portraits he was working on. I was making a portrait of David with these portraits around him, and these cigarettes with different personalities so I called the film Portraits, plural. David is such a wonderful guy; he makes any interaction very normal, which is kind of amazing. And he’s so curious as a painter. That’s what I always think about him.”

Brigitte Lacombe on photographing Patti Smith

“When I make a portrait, I try to approach it from the barest place possible, with very little styling, in a very neutral place where I can control the light. Patti Smith came to my daylight studio for portraits in New York. She came by herself, we had no hair or make-up. We just sat in front of each other and I started to look at her and take pictures. She was very kind and a little trepidatious, because nobody really likes to be scrutinised, but she was very present. I think this image represents the time I spent with Patti very well, and also her – there’s something super direct about the way she looks at you, but then she’s also using her hands in a way to perhaps protect herself a little bit – but I’m not sure if that’s true. I can only go by my instinct – what I recognise as being true to the person at that time, with me.

“It’s very helpful if somebody comes by themselves to be photographed, and not many well-known people do – they have an entourage. I often find that the most interesting people come alone – Meryl Streep, for example – and that’s the most interesting because then you’re just with the person, not with the personality. I really didn’t know Patti at all, but during the time I spent with her she was quite wonderful and trusting, and when she left, she said that she would love to come back and write in that room, because it was lovely and she felt so well in it, and that was such a good end to our sitting.”

Face to Face is on view at The International Center of Photography in New York until 1 May 2023. The accompanying catalogue is available now from MACK and The International Center of Photography (ICP).