Camera Solo features
more than 75 works of photography, objects and film, many referencing Smith's life and inspirations. Organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut and curated by its director and CEO, Susan Talbott, the AGO is the last stop on the exhibition tour, which, in 2012, had included a celebrated reception at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Known best for songs like "Because The Night" and "Dancing Barefoot", as well as her poetry-inflected lyrics, Patti Smith is also a prolific photographer with a keen eye for the elegiac, the sacred, and the meditative. The name "camera solo" comes from a sign the singer observed in the abode of Pope Celestine V, which translates from the Italian as "a room of one's own." The concept, of a female artist creating of, by, and for herself, so beautifully expressed in Virginia Woolf's famous extended essay from 1929
, is one Smith holds equally dear; indeed, it's central to understanding not only her photography, but much of her creative output across various media over the past four decades. One of the exhibition's walls is printed with Smith's thoughts on the matter: "When I'm on my own with my camera, taking these pictures, it feels as if I am in a room of my own, a self-contained world. The pictures in their simplicity offer that world."
There is an undeniable, wild sort of romanticism to much of Smith's work, evidenced here in photographic form. Carefully angled shots of angels, meticulously shadowed shots of graveyards, various ephemera -including programs, sketches, books, and the embroidered slippers of Pope Benedict XV -all create a romantic visual poetry that adds to the dreamy, deeply reverential atmosphere of the exhibition.
Smith has always had an interest in photography, as she told the BBC in 2012
; picture-taking was done for memory's sake, or for collage work in the 1970s. Following the deaths of her husband (Fred "Sonic" Smith), brother, pianist (Richard Sohl), and lifelong friend (and photographer) Robert Mapplethorpe in a relatively short time span (in the late 80s/early 90s), Smith experienced what she called the "loss of my creative process." She turned to Polaroids for their immediacy, and the fact "they didn't take too much energy."
This love of simplicity -and the meditative stillness that comes with it -infuse the works featured in Camera Solo
. Each print is based on an original Polaroid snap. As part of her 2008 photographic exhibition Land 250
at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, Smith remarked
I am not a photographer, yet taking pictures has given me a sense of unity and personal satisfaction. They are relics of my life. Souvenirs of my wandering. All that I have learned concerning light and composition is contained within them.
Many of these "souvenirs" of Smiths "wandering" are on display in Camera Solo
, twinned with Smith's lifelong devotion to poetry and writing. Visitors are first welcomed by a short black and white film Equation Daumal
, through which Smith narrates her own poetic meditation on the French poet Rene Daumal (1908-1944). Directed by Smith and camera work by New York-based filmmaker Jem Cohen, the work (shot in both super-8 and 16mm film) combines grainy slow shots of gravestones (many from Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris), haunting stills from the first World War, and vintage-inspired shots of a young man awkwardly looking around. The work is a lovely distillation of Smith's instincts for combining history, poetry, beauty, and social commentary. It's worth sitting in one of the wooden pews (arranged in front of the screen) for six minutes to absorb the piece's beauty and grace -those are two qualities that pervade every inch of Camera Solo
, belying their creator's punkish roots and hard-scrabble young life as a struggling New York artist.
Smith, who turned 66 this past December, is widely regarded as the so-called "godmother of punk" but Camera Solo
shows her to be an intuitive visual poet with a knack for capturing stillness and meditation, and for sensitively using light to explore the links between mortality, spirituality and creativity. Her fascination with Catholicism is evidenced not only by the shots of crosses (on gravestones, bedspreads, or reflected on mirrors), but through the sense of ritualism that informs and influences so much of the life and work of her favorite artists, and indeed, pervades so much of her own. A shot of paint brushes in artist Duncan Grant's studio from 2008 has the same spiritual weight as a shot of a scripture book from Glasgow Cathedral taken in 2007: each represents a sort of prayerful moment of silent human endeavoring, of seeking a sort of higher self through silent (and solo) activity, taking the viewer into a larger process that requests commitment, focus, concentration, meditation, prayer and solitude. Art as a higher calling is Smith's theme, and she provides all the signs and symbols of ritual in order to facilitate that pursuit, using a monastic simplicity and economy of light and shadow that recalls the early photographic work of Louis Daguerre, Georges Melies, and the Lumiere brothers.
Smith's fascination with death is highlighted too, with a quote high up on one wall that reads, "I have a strong relationship with the dead, even a happy one. I get pleasure out of having their things and sometimes photographing them." This receptivity to life in all its stages -including lack of it - reveals itself in not only the numerous shots of cherubs and gravestones, but of graves, and markers of death themselves. Various ephemera, like a smooth, round stone from the River Ouse (where Virginia Woolf drowned herself), or shots of Walt Whitman's grave, her father's teacup, Herman Hesse's typwriter, Frida Kahlo's crutches, and Rimbaud's utensils, all point at a sensibility that embraces the passing of life as the passing on of artistic legacy. Smith, one suspects, feels herself aligned with these artists on spiritual, mental, intellectual, perhaps even emotional planes. She confirmed as much in a recent interview with Reuters
, when she remarked (about the content of the photos in the exhibition) that
I'm not really a nostalgic person. I'm memory-oriented, so a sense of remembrance ... All of these things are to bring all these people and things up to date, to walk with us. These are artists, family, people that we love -- people that pass away. We can keep them with us always.
Two sections in the show are particularly noteworthy for illuminating such an intimacy: the items related to poet Arthur Rimbaud, and those connected with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The French poet
was a seminal influence on Smith's life and work, his furious writing and young death serving as lifelong inspiration and creative fuel. As literary scholar Carrie Jaurès Noland has noted
Smith has foregrounded her debt to Rimbaud in several ways, explicitly referring to him as her major poetic influence and participating in a hermeneutic activity as she transformed his texts into her own. The poet has served as Smith’s most credible archetype of subversive behavior, and his work has provided the richest source for the development of her innovative aesthetic practices.
It's encouraging to see his role in Smith's life and work being given such prominent display among smith's photographic works. Indeed, the main room of the exhibition is focused around "Rimbaud's Litter", a large structure that is a recreation of the makeshift bed Rimbaud lay on as he was carried through Ethiopia in his dying days. Smith commissioned the piece after seeing a sketch by Rimbaud at the Musée Rimbaud in Charleville, France. Covered in heavy black fishing net, the litter's surface is inscribed with the poet's final words. The work is a deeply powerful symbol embodying Smith's twin artistic and spiritual sensibilities, capturing a grace, frailty, and beauty all at once. In its heavy simplicity, the litter simultaneously shrieks of the furious passion of living, even as it whispers at the inevitability (and acceptance of death), revealing a cyclical celebration that is a potent, perfect symbol of Smith's approach to her own work.
It's fitting then, that the section pertaining to Robert Mapplethorpe is so near to Rimbaud's. As anyone who's read the award-winning Just Kids
will know, Mapplethorpe played huge role in Smith's artistic development. Close friends, mutual muses, sometime lovers, and in many ways, creative mirrors for one another, the role of Mapplethorpe in Smith's emotional, intellectual, and creative lives cannot be overstated. It was Mapplethorpe who, in the midst of creating collages, began experimenting with Polaroids; he enjoyed their ease of use, immediacy of experience, and economy of cost. And it was Mapplethorpe who photographed Smith for her seminal debut album, 1975's Horses
, deftly capturing that sublime mix of toughness and vulnerability, courage and fragility that so caught the imagination of music and art lovers alike. It's telling that the only full portrait of Smith herself to appear in Camera Solo
is one taken by him, a sexy, youthful shot of Smith, all long limbs, burning eyes, and knowing smile. As Jonathan Jones rightly observed
in The Guardian in 2000, Mapplethorpe "photographed Patti Smith as the essence of every romantic icon, a savage heart on a highway to hell. Dark, shadowed and desperate, she burns herself into the picture." Years later, when Smith was one of TIME magazine's 100 honorees in 2011, she said
her soulmate's work "magnifies his love for his subject and his obsession with light." Mapplethorpe's portrait of Smith here shows that "savage heart" as well as that intense love, all at once. These qualities could easily apply to Smith's photographic work as well, so much shaped by Blake's twins, innocence and experience, so full of memory, sorrow, love, light, of living itself.
There is, however, a certain detached stillness to Smith's photographs of such "souvenirs" -Mapplethorpe's slippers, say, or her father's teacup -as if they're infused with a sort of sacred religiosity. You don't want to breathe when you're around them, or indeed, in any of the Camera Solo
space. You feel guilty if your boots make a midwinter squeak. The wooden pews, the photos displayed in the shape of crosses, even Rimbaud's Litter a kind of rough-hewn, netted cross of sorts -all work to create a distinct, holy atmosphere that hinges on contemplation of suffering and loss -but that doesn't mean Camera Solo
is divorced from a spirit of humanity, either; it simply asks you to slow down, and take your time, and look at the twin concepts of love and loss, and of course, the role of ritual. You don't have to be religious to appreciate these works. It does help, however, if you're interested in the literary. Many of Smith's photographs relate to writers (Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Herman Hesse), while other works are intriguing text-based art pieces that beg to be admired and embraced, as much as read and scrutinized. Smith loves language, but it's a language encompassing not only the written, A-B-C kind; it's a play of dark and bright, of a million hues of grey, moving past technique and onto a higher plane where celebration, inspiration, romance and yes, suffering, loss, and remembrance too, are all distilled into one silent moment embracing past, present, and future.
I emerged from Camera Solo humming "April Fool", Smith's song from her latest album, Banga
, released last year. The whimsical, light, tuneful song, in its simple joy of progressive pop chords, gentle plea, and rhythmic verbal interplay, felt like the perfect ending for such an exhibition, a song celebrating the simply joys of life, love, and art. "Come... on your rusted bike
." Stay quiet, say a prayer, and take your time.
Patti Smith: Camera Solo
continues through May 29th at the Art Gallery of Ontario; Smith will be in Toronto in early March for various related events