“Each picture is individual and I could tell a little story about every one of them.”
– Patti Smith
I must admit, I didn’t know much about Patti Smith (perhaps due to a generational gap) until I read news about her exhibition, Patti Smith: Camera Solo, in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Many know her as the “Godmother of Punk,” a long time rock-and-roll singer-songwriter from the 1970s, who toured the United States and Europe as popularity of punk rock grew.
Only few people would, however, recognize her as an artistic photographer. Though she began to pursue the art of photography following the death of her husband in 1994, this marks Smith’s first solo exhibition of her work – all taken in black and white with a Vintage land 250 Poloroid. Spanning decades, the exhibition captures the essence of the people and places she has directly and indirectly observed as a rock-and-roll singer, traveler, lover, friend, daughter, sister, and mother.
In the era of digital imaging and manipulation, Smith’s works champion the use of photography in its most classical sense: as a tool to document and capture a found moment.
As a rock star Smith traveled. A lot. But she must have loved it because she always brought her camera with her, just for those precious moments when she could snap some photos of the places she’s seen.
“Being a singer I’ve been in as many as 32 concerts in 40 days while on tour,” remarked Smith in an exhibition comment. “I always bring my camera and try to find something that speaks of each city. I try to capture an essence of a city in one shot.”
However impossible it sounds to capture the essence of an entire city in a single shot, Smith manages to nearly achieve it, carefully capturing the soul of her subject in her own unique way.
“Because I only took films in packages of 10 for each trip,” Smith remarked, “and as the Polaroid films are becoming more rare, I must think about each one of the pictures.”
The subjects of her photos range from portraits, to landscapes, to inanimate objects. Studying Smith’s snapshots of Paris, Ghent, Rome, Glasgow, Cyprus and other exotic places provoked wide-ranging emotions; I began to long for travel, envy her travel and dream of going to those places someday, though they exist in a different time on film.
Smith’s photos of inanimate objects spoke much about the famous individuals associated with them; for instance, a photograph of a chair owned by Roberto Bolano (a Chilean novelist), evokes the endurance and persistence of the great writer who sat for hours on end writing his masterpiece, 2666.
Smith was clearly interested in the lives of long-gone artists, seen through photographs of Frida Kahlo’s Dress, a bear with a calling card tray in Tolstoy’s home in Moscow and Hermann Hesse’s typewriter. Interestingly, she herself made rock-and-roll history, yet she recorded – and maybe wanted to live – the history of other artists.
In addition to the inanimate objects of other artists, Smith also captured objects of a more personal note, symbolizing her love for her lover(s), children and family.
“It’s a fine porcelain coffee cup issued for Charles Dickens’ centennial that I bought for my father at Dickens’ house in London,” remarked Smith in a comment found below My Father’s Cup. “My father loved it and nobody was allowed to drink from it. When my father died, my mother gave it to me. It’s in a special glass case, and though I often take it out and look at it, I would never drink from it.”
What particularly caught my attention, however, were the photographs of beds and tombs. Though not juxtaposed on the same walls of the gallery, both the bed and the tomb images convey similar themes of a space that is at once lonely and completely one’s own.
“I took the image of Jim Carroll’s (1949 – 2009) bed days after he had passed away on September 11th in NYC,” remarked Smith in a comment below Jim Carroll’s Bed. “He was my friend and the most beautiful poet of my generation.”
Beds once occupied by Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo, Victor Hugo, and John Keats were also photographed, and eerily all made out of wood and covered in white sheets. Contrastingly, photographs of the Pere Lachaise and Montparnasse cemetaries in Paris display tombs that are beautifully decorated with statues of Psyche and Cupid standing nearby.
The last image of the gallery is of a room called Camera Solo in Castello Longhi de Padio di Furore, where Pope St. Celestine V was imprisoned in solitude before his death. Fascinated by the idea of “myself alone,” Smith then decided to name her exhibition after this somewhat gruesome place.
But though the exhibition is titled Camera Solo, Smith shows through her art that she was never in fact “solo” while photographing. Rather, the exhibition displays her love of people, of traveling, of family and friends; essentially, Camera Solo is entirely dedicated to not being alone and instead involving oneself in the beauty of other lives and relationships.
Patti Smith: Camera Solo is also available as a photography book.
This article was originally published in Art Animal.