Photographer Steven Sebring on His Patti Smith Documentary
January 6th marked the opening of Objects of Life, a collaborative multimedia installation between legendary artist, singer/songwriter Patti Smith, and renowned filmmaker/photographer Steven Sebring, at the Robert Miller Gallery. The gallery’s opening partying attracted the likes of Michael Stipe, Terry Richardson, Zac Posen, Calvin Klein, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard. The exhibition focuses on the “experience, process of discovery and revelation in uncovering artifacts of existence,” using objects, photographs and video from Sebring’s acclaimed documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life, an immensely intimate portrait of Smith. The documentary, which was recently televised on the PBS series P.O.V, traces 11 years of Smith’s private life, experiences on the road, performances, creative ventures and passions. BlackBook spoke with Sebring about his career, his muse, the decade-long process of filming Dream of Life and this exciting new exhibit.
Tell us a little bit about the filming of the documentary and the 11 year commitment. It never was planned, and I never intended to make a movie of Patti [Smith]. It started around 1995, when I was dabbling in film. I sort of financed it throughout the years. I just brought a camera, showed up once and a while, and filmed her. A lot of people don’t realize how private she is. Over the years we got closer and closer and had a lot of trust. There was interest in the film and I’d gathered enormous amounts of footage. I started saying to Patti, “What do you think? Should we turn this into something?” There was one point when I was financially just broke, so I went back to work shooting fashion, sort of got back on track—to the point where I could take a year off and edit the piece. I worked with a really great editor, Angelo Corrao, and turned it into a feature length film.
And it played at Sundance and now P.O.V. I did a deal with PBS years ago, just because it was public broadcasting. For me it was really about getting Patti’s message out. If I can get into people’s homes and it’s free for them. That was my whole motivation.
How did you first meet Smith? She was coming into the scene in ’95. Fred [‘Sonic’ Smith], her husband died, and she went through all kinds of chaos with people dying around her. She was still in Detroit and Spin Magazine was doing a big feature on her. I was on the list of photographers and she wasn’t really sure of who she wanted to work with, because she was nervous about it. She doesn’t like to shoot photographs much. She was actually doing a song called “E-Bow the Letter” on R.E.M.’s album at the time and she asked Michael Stipe, ‘Who should I work with?’ He said, ‘Steven Sebring.’ And so she went with me. We hit it off immediately.
You’ve mentioned several times that Smith is an extremely private person. Describe some of the difficulties in capturing her intimate side. It happened really naturally. I wasn’t motivated to financially gain from anything. If anything, I lost enormous amounts of money making this film. I was just there. If there was a moment that it was a bit stressful, I’d just turn the camera off. It was more like just hanging out or having coffee. She’d go some place; ask if I wanted to come. It got to the point where she’d ask me to come with her to see her mom and dad in Jersey. She and I are so much alike so it was very easy to collaborate. She really let me do what I wanted with the film. She still says it’s my movie, it’s not her movie.
What about Smith inspires you the most? I’m inspired by her work ethic. I’m inspired by her as an artist—a true visionary; a mother. I just found her to be quite extraordinary. There’s not a woman that I know that’s like this. Because she’s not trained [professionally] as a musician, she calls herself a performer. She will stand onstage and say something and not give a shit about what people think. Even people of high power that have a huge fan base don’t do that. They’re too worried about loosing fans or a million dollars. Instead of saying something that would be helpful, she takes a stance. And at the end of the day that’s to be respected.
What should one expect at the installation in New York? The Robert Miller Gallery puts Objects of Life on steroids. It’s massive. We have the whole place for a month. So we took Objects of Life and did more. We actually recreated scenes from the movie. Objects are the brain of it all. You’ll see “Strange Messenger”, which she was painting in the film and then next to it is the movie still of her staring in front of it. Then below will be a monitor playing the scene of her painting it. There are portraits of Patti that I’ve done in the past, other archival prints, silver prints, movie stills. They’re artifacts that needed to be documented, and they have stories within themselves. Sebring, as a photographer, has worked with numerous magazines, artists, and celebrities, in addition to having shot campaigns for labels such as Lanvin, Ralph Lauren, DKNY and Coach. His published work includes Lalanne (2006), Bygone Days (2005), and Naked Flowers Exposed (1997). Sebring’s collaborative installation with Patti Smith, Objects of Life, exhibits at the Robert Miller Gallery (524 West 26th St, NYC; 212-727-2220) until February 6th. More information