It wasn’t long ago that I was introduced to the work of Patti Smith, not as musician, but as visual artist. Using narrative form and content in song lyrics, Patti Smith pioneered the Art Rock movement in New York City. Her debut album “Horses” became an instant classic that defined a generation. It also rocked my world to say the least. Apart from her music, Patti Smith has been exploring photography since she was a teenager, but it was alongside Robert Mapplethorpe that she began to explore the medium in depth. Her most recent photographs are the subject of an exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT.
Billed as the first large scale museum exhibit in the United States in nearly ten years, Patti Smith: Camera Solo isn’t a show of epic proportions, but rather a show of intimate moments. The exhibition highlights the relationship between Smith’s photography and her interest in poetry and literature. Approximately 60 new black-and-white silver gelatin photographs and multimedia installations created between 2002 and 2011 are exhibited.
Many of the works are small and require the viewer to make more of an effort in developing a personal relationship with these. As a whole, the exhibition is much larger than I envisioned it, as I personally think of Patti Smith as having contributed more to our culture as a musician and performer than as a visual artist. Yet, since 2002, Smith has had countless solo exhibitions in museums and galleries across the country.
Camera Solo is a deeply personal exhibition, an aspect I experienced firsthand listening to Patti Smith talk about her work at the Wadsworth. The photographs suddenly became meaningful as she discussed objects that belonged to Robert Mapplethorpe, or when she poked fun at her lack of technical skills while talking about her cameras. Those cameras are a Polaroid Land 100 and a 250 which she candidly referred to as having been “made for someone who is technically a moron.”
Smith doesn’t photograph her own things because she doesn’t have the “right camera,” she says, instead she photographs other people’s stuff. Patti Smith feels her photographs don’t need any explanation; they’re just her “sharing stuff.” That “stuff” is what curator Susan Talbott has termed “symbolic portraits” of things and people close to her heart, like Robert Mapplethorpe’s slippers which Smith says “taking a photo of Robert’s slippers is like taking a photo of Robert to me.” Her photographs are “similar to nineteenth-century amateur photographers.” Yes, some of Patti Smith’s works do come off as amateurish in technique (I’ve taken both a university level studio photography course as well as a survey course), but she obviously doesn’t have a problem with it and neither did I.