Behind the Iconic and Androgynous ‘Horses’ Album Cover by Patti Smith

Artist Patti Smith has managed to stay an icon over the decades of her career.

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Born on December 30, 1946, the 76-year-old Smith boasts a hit record (the Bruce Springsteen-penned “Because the Night”), street cred, and artistic authenticity, and is a best-selling author on top of it all.

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For the Chicago-born Smith, who made her name in New York City, so much started with her 1975 album, Horses. The rock record, which was as much poetry and social commentary as it was entertainment, remains standard listening for anyone trying to figure out the world around them.

Smith, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, also earned the National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids. Today, we’re going behind Horses. So, let’s dive in.

The Album Cover

The cover of Smith’s debut studio LP is not bombastic or salacious. Instead, it’s understated. It’s also subversive in its plainness. It features Smith posed with a blank stare, wearing a white, almost work-shirt-like top (purchased from a nearby Salvation Army) and a black ribbon resembling suspenders as she holds on to a dark coat over her shoulder. At first glance, she could be your limo driver, high school best friend, or first date. In this way, Smith, one of New York’s then-most talked about songwriters, poets, and performers, was all of us. We were all her.

The album draws you in and plays with both a sense of identity and even sexuality. All of this was intentional and expertly done in the photograph, which was taken in a Greenwich Village penthouse apartment by longtime friend and collaborator, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Upon closer look, you can see a horse pin on the slung-over jacket.

Of the experience, Smith said Mapelthorpe, “Took, like twelve pictures, and at about the eighth one, he said, ‘I have it.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ and he said, ‘I just know,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’ And that was it.”

The Album

Smith recorded the album at Electric Lady Studios in New York City (founded by Jimi Hendrix). The Velvet Underground’s John Cale produced it.

While the music is rock and roll, it is almost more of a bed to deliver Smith’s views on life in language and cadence. Today, the album is considered stripped-down, minimalist rock, a product of proto-punk rock in many ways.

The record made the Top 50 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, but more importantly, critics adored it. Smith was exalted as a queen of New York art and culture. And in many ways remains so today.

Lasting Impact

While the music on the album continues to impact rock and roll today, the album cover has a legacy of its own.

[RELATED: Patti Smith Moves Through Song and Stories During Electric Lady Studios Performance]

Smith has said her intention with the photo was not to make a “big statement” but she instead just wanted to portray herself accurately. She told The Guardian in 1996, “I wasn’t thinking that I was going to break any boundaries. I just like dressing like [poet] Baudelaire.”

Nevertheless, writers like Camille Paglia in the 1992 book Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays, have called the photo “one of the greatest pictures ever taken of a woman.”

At first Smith’s record company wanted to change the photo. But she didn’t budge. And in the end, she had her way, much to the joy of her legions of fans.

Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Bob Dylan Center

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