Interview by Richard Brody and Jeanne Flanagan
Photographs by Judy Linn
Recently Nippertown contributor Richard Brody and Esther Massry Gallery director Jeanne Flanagan had an opportunity to chat with photographer Judy Linn about her artwork and her current exhibit, “My Land/Patti Smith and Other Things, Photographs by Judy Linn,” which is currently on view through Friday, February 28 at the Esther Massry Gallery at the College of Saint Rose in Albany.
In conjunction with Albany’s First Friday (February 7), the gallery will host Linn for a book-signing (4:30-5pm) and art reception (5-7pm), followed by an artist lecture at 7pm across the street at the College of Saint Rose’s Saint Joseph Auditorium. These events are free and open to the public.
Q: Your exhibition presents two distinctive bodies of work: Detroit suburban life in the early 1970s and Patti Smith and friends honing their identities in New York City. Can you talk about these experiences?
A: The Detroit suite of prints comes out of a time when I was working for The Detroit Area Weekly News, a shopper. It was the summer of 1972 and the locations were the first ring of white suburbs around Detroit City including Roseville, St. Clair Shores, Grosse Point, Warren, Fraser and East Detroit. By the winter of 1973, I became bored with the job, too many handshakes and checks being passed, and returned to New York City. But I always knew I had something.
This past summer, I digitized the negatives and made all of the prints for the exhibition. So actually, this is the first time this body of work has been shown other than appearing in the newspaper at the times they were shot. My employment agreement allowed me to keep the negatives, and the quality was very good. I was amazed at how much film I shot. I would hang around shooting and was generally ignored. Nobody took me seriously, and that was an advantage. I was invisible, and I had access. I was called for newsworthy events like baby squirrels falling out of a tree.
Patti came to Detroit for a visit in the summer of 1972. We met Lester Bangs (music journalist, author and musician who wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone) as Patti had written rock criticism for Creem magazine. Lester was an excellent writer, but he lived a wild life. He died trying to clean up.
Q: What else comes up with your past, the time period, the social strife around segregation, busing… was that part of it?
A: I tried to encounter my subjects without a predetermined point of view. I wanted to see what was there. I grew up outside of Detroit and because I was brought up in it, I was not aware of how racist it was. Culturally, the segregationists, by excluding others, were severely limiting their own culture.
Q: Let’s talk about your perspective on the Patti photos.
A: Patti and I were friends, but we actually didn’t spend that much time together. She had a lot going on and was much more ambitious than I was. But when we were together, I took pictures. I was learning about photography, and Patti liked to be photographed. However, there were times that Patti specifically asked me to take pictures. Some of the pictures of Patti and Robert (Mapplethorpe) were to show the jewelry they made with the hope that it would sell. And the pictures of Patti and Sam (Shepard) were at Patti’s request.
Q: There are narratives in your images. Do you think of yourself as a storyteller?
A: You have to have a visual narrative if want people to engage. You want a story. That’s how we engage emotionally. Narrative is the basis of emotional engagement. You want people to respond emotionally to an image.
It is sheer hell to write about my work, but I do like the process once I get going. It is not real. I am always making it up.
Q: It is like a parallel universe, making the work and writing about it.
A. And if they ever jive up, I am lucky!
Q: Your book, “Patti Smith 1969–1976, Photographs by Judy Linn” (2011) took 40 years to publish. Why wait so long?
A: Patti was living in Michigan with her husband, (Fred “Sonic” Smith, a member of the seminal band MC5), and two young children and did not want the photos published until they were grown and out of school. So I agreed to wait until that time.
Q: Tell us about the picture, “Patti with Bolex, 1969.” Was Patti photographing you?
A: The Bolex was my camera. Years later, it was stolen, and I used this picture for the insurance claim. I asked Patti to stand in front of the window where the light was good. It was a very pretty camera.
Q: We think about our students, particularly art students, going out into the world and starting up their lives and careers, like Patti and Robert. What is your long view on this subject?
A: It is important to be curious, energetic and to develop a fascination for a lot of things, your work and your world. It’s about paying attention to where you are. Taking pictures is a way of remembering. Samuel Pepys, (English naval administrator and Member of Parliament) is now most famous for the diary he kept for a decade while still a relatively young man. His diaries are about paying attention to his life. It’s a science; it’s really important to document where you are and what you do. Patti was easy, she became well known. I had a leg up there.
Another Judy Linn exhibition, “As If It Is, As It Is Of,” will open Saturday, February 22 at Feature, Inc., 131 Allen Street, New York City, and will feature her current photographic work.