Picturing Patti Smith


He never thought a photograph could be art.

You tell the policeman that when he asks why you did it, but he doesn’t write it down.

‘Anything else?’

He’s shaking his foot against the table. You watch the water in his drinking glass ripple in agreement with the disturbance.

You clear your throat.

‘As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag,’ you say, in your best affected accent.


His question is a dare. You lean in and steady the table. He stops shaking his foot and furrows a brow at you, heavy with slick, grey hairs.

‘Patti Smith said that,’ you say. ‘And I agree.’

You lean back, hoping you have risen to his challenge.

Authority is his, no matter what Patti says.



He never thought a photograph could be art.

‘It’s just pointing and clicking,’ he says, sitting too close to you now.

You study the lines on your father’s face: tokens purchased with sleepless nights and easy lager. The way his lip curls when he’s begging you to take the bait. The way his face reminds you of your own when it’s stubborn and shining.

He hands you a pile of prints. You see these moments as though they have been carved in marble, filled with paperwhite smiles.

You used to sacrifice your smile to that camera as though it were a God.

‘I took most of these ones didn’t I?’ he’s saying, rubbing the corner of his eye with a flaking thumb. You do that when you’re drunk, too. ‘Reckon I’m an artist like you, Hannah Banana?’

You want to tell him that he could be if he wanted to, but you don’t. Instead, you take the bundle and push the corners together, straightening the pile in your hands. Your thumb brushes over a picture of him, years younger and shades lighter. He winces.

‘Don’t get your grubby fingers on them! These are the only copies I’ve got!’

You cough an apology and straighten up, taking care to only touch the edges from now on. Your fingers dance around corners.

You tell him that you like them, but he knows that you don’t. He never let you hold the camera when you were young.

Someone on the television show you were half-watching screams. He doesn’t seem to hear it. Sometimes you wonder if he’s just staring at the box, which burns on into the night, never taking in a thing.

‘Some good times there girl,’ he says, shifting closer to you. His leg is still too close to yours. His breath is sour and hot. ‘Some good times we’ve had.’

There’s the two of you in Spain. You, spinning wildly in the pool; him, reading John Grisham beside it. Who captured this blurry memory you wonder, if not the two of you?

There you are in Spain again – a different part of Spain of course – and you’re grinning with a cocktail umbrella behind your ear. What were you then – eleven? Twelve?

There are no pictures of this house, you notice. There are no pictures of your mother from back then. No. He only takes pictures far away from home, where with enough cheap cerveza, he could be happy to have a daughter like you.

There’s the two of you in Majorca.

Maybe you were fifteen?


You put the pictures on the table, and he glows. His point is made.

‘See what I mean Banana?’ he says, leaning back on the sofa. His knee knocks into yours. ‘You should listen to me. Anyone can be a photographer. How much are they asking for that course?’

You say it’s a little over nine thousand and he scoffs.

‘You should spend that money on something real,’ he says, turning back around to face the television. ‘No daughter of mine is going to be a poncey photographer.’

The prints go back into the box. You know he’ll never give you the money.



When you shut the door behind you, you breathe out. That pain gone from your chest. Those pins and needles laying off.

You’re happy to be away from your street, with its cobbles and used needles and neighbours.The women trying to be your mother now you don’t have one anymore. The men wondering what you’ll look like when you’re older, and if they’ll be that much older too.

Your street is all red brick and net curtains. You pass a corner shop with yellow cardboard for windows.You watch as they queue, turning their dole money into brown liquor. You pass a field where shrubs and weeds grow around empty coca cola cans. The air is thick with the smell of nothing.

The bus takes you into the town. You pass tourists in tartan, desperate to decorate their body in what they think is the uniform of a country. You want to tell them it isolates them, but instead you just stare out of the window, watching the shapes the world makes when it’s moving.

You head into the National Gallery and thumb through the catalogue. There’s a newer one online, but it’s nice to hold something in your hands.

You see the sheep in formaldehyde and wonder how it still looks so soft. You think of your mother bathing you and wrapping you in a towel, and wonder if she’d ever been here.

You see Peploe’s painting of rocks on Barra, and think how ordinary it is.

You see the Lichtenstein, and think how ugly it is.

Then you see her: Patti Smith.

Patti Smith.


Your mother loved her, and so did you. Two women in formaldehyde, listening to spinning disks.

That night all those years ago, ‘People Have the Power’ was playing in the background. You can’t listen to that song now.

As you watched from the bottom of the stairs, from behind crisscrossed fingers, he pleaded his case.

He told her those women meant nothing, but she laughed and said ‘I mean something,’ and you remember nodding in agreement even though she couldn’t see you. Even though she didn’t know you were there.

You wonder why she didn’t take you with her when she left. You wonder if she’d have paid for the course. You wonder if she still loves Patti Smith.

You study the photograph again. Light peaks through windows and frames her naked body. She is crouched and she is beautiful. You’ve always loved black and white.

Patti Smith looks beautiful in black and white.

You realise you’ll never take a photograph this beautiful as long as he lives. You want to see art in people the way that others do. You want more than a handful of prints. You want angles and lines and to capture a moment in life so rare that it will last forever.

Patti Smith looks so beautiful in black and white.

Patti Smith was brave, you think. Patti Smith did what she wanted, you think.

Patti Smith just looks so beautiful in black and white.

You take the blade from your bag as carefully as you can.

You whisper an apology, and drag the edge across every inch of the thing you have stared at for weeks.

The paper peels and hangs. Patti’s images blisters and shreds. Somewhere an alarm sounds.

The photograph clings to the wall as if to cling onto life.

You slip the knife back into the bag, and think of your mother.

It’s ruined, you think, and you smile.

He never thought a photograph could be art.

You tell the policeman that, when he asks why you did it.



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