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Patti Smith: "Camera Solo" Photo Exhibit Gently Inspires

D. Asal Ehsanipour |
October 23, 2011 | 1:57 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Patti Smith is most commonly celebrated as an avant-garde American musician, effervescent poet, and most recently, a memoirist in her National Book Award winner “Just Kids,” which chronicles her journey with soul mate and photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. 

But Smith is a photographer in earnest, as well.  Her latest photography exhibit “Patti Smith: Camera Solo,” opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT on Friday to fans and art aficionadas alike.  

As the Wadsworth Atheneum attests, the exhibit marks “the first large-scale presentation of [Smith’s] visual work in the United States in nearly ten years. The exhibition will include seventy photographs, one multi-media installation and one video work.”

Oscar Wilde once noted that a work of art not only exposes the subject, but the artist’s soul as well. Smith’s exhibit—much like her other creative artistic mediums—reflects just that; the exhibit is to read her diary; to tip-toe into her most sincere artistic and existential inspirations. 

“When I first started taking pictures, my ambition was that they would be the kind of photograph that someone would want to hang over their desk,” Smith recently told "Vogue" “If they were writing or reading and they looked up, the picture would please them.” 

Notable pieces include “Robert’s Slippers,” 2002, an off center portrait of the late Mapplethorpe’s black shoes, with the initials “RM” carefully stitched on the surface. Another captures Mapplethorpe’s ring-laden and ever-creating hands at work in “Robert Mapplethorpe Chelsea Hotel,” 1969. Though black and white, the photo is muted; the focus is Mapplethorpe’s most powerful physical feature.

Others include, “My Father’s Cup,” a simple photo of a white cup sitting on an empty shelf with initials elaborately drawn on it.  Another is a self-portrait of Smith’s famously gamine face. 

Her children are frequently featured throughout the exhibit as well. Perhaps these pictures are the most intimate. One, “Jesse in Bed,” features Smith’s daughter calmly lounging in bed, eyes toward the camera. A similar photograph, “My Son Jackson Sleeping,” NYC, 2007, shows her son asleep on their family’s couch. Their home is exactly as “The Godmother of Punk’s” should be; cluttered with acoustic and electric guitars, musical equipment, and a seemingly vintage rug draped over a hardwood floor. 

Another of Smith’s home, entitled “Workspace,” N.Y.C., 2002, is an undemanding image of the narrow hallway at the edge of Smith’s studio. The room is youthfully untidy with photos shabbily tacked to the wall. Lasting shadows evoke a strange complexity within the photo’s meekness, and just like that, it becomes art. 

“I have no mastery of light, but I understand the best light for my camera,” Smith told "Vogue." “I am a master of my camera. It has been my friend, it’s been all over the world.”

Smith, whose drawings and painting have hung in galleries around the world, dabbled in photography since adolescence. It became a more professional endeavor, however, in 1995 after the death of Mapplethorpe, her husband, and her band’s pianist. 

“I was so emotionally devastated that I found it very difficult to work,” Smith told "Vogue." “I had an old Polaroid camera and one night I just started taking a few photographs…I took a photograph, and I liked it.”

It remains clear that Smith’s photos, all from her 1967 Polaroid Land 250 camera, are for herself alone—“art for art’s sake.” She likens them to 19th-century “amateur” photographers such as Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron. All photos are in black and white and evoke an inveterate purity impossible to stage.

Possessions which belonged to her artistic inspirations are also prominently featured throughout the exhibit. 

One such muse is 19th-century French poet, Arthur Rimbaud—or Smith’s “lover,” as Susan Talbott, director and curator of Smith’s exhibit, calls him. Though Smith honors the late libertine writer every year with a concert on his birthday, this year Smith chose to celebrate with the opening of “Camera Solo.” 

The exhibit’s opening included music performed by Smith, her daughter, Jesse, on piano, and her band mat of 40 years, Lenny Kaye, on guitar. The three alternated harmonies on Smith’s classic ballad, “People Have the Power,” which she dedicated to occupiers on Wall Street, and “Because the Night,” her 1978 sensation co-written with Bruce Springsteen. 

Music was interspersed between carefully selected poems and prose by Rimbaud, Virginia Woolf and William Blake whom are also paid homage in the exhibit. Smith photographed Woolf’s cane in one photo and a stone from the river where she died in another. A photo of Blake’s headstone, Walt Whitman’s tomb in New Jersey and a teacup in London at Charles Dickens’ home were included as well.

Lastly, Smith read her famous letter to Mapplethorpe, which she wrote to him as he was dying from AIDS, and which he never had the chance to read.

Smith’s exhibit is a giant leap forward from when she and Mapplethorpe lacked the money to visit museum exhibits while living in New York together. Collectively, the exhibit is characteristically Patti Smith: antique, gentle, and without pretense. 

“I don’t have any revolutionary ambition,” Smith told "Vogue" about her photographs. "However, that’s precisely where the beauty stems. It’s their innocence, haunted-ness, which does it."

With Smith’s pioneering musical career, written victories, and now her exhibit’s positive reaction, she’s evolved into exactly what she’s always believes a true artist should be: one “who transformed his time, not mirrored it,” she says in "Just Kids;" "that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”

Patti Smith's "Camera Solo" exhibition will be open at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford, until Feb. 19, 2012.

Reach reporter Asal Ehsanipour here. Follow Asal Ehsanipour on Twitter here. 

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