DetroitJune 21, 2012
Patti Smith’s Polaroids find the extraordinary in ordinary objects
By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer
DETROIT — In an era rife with digital alteration and airbrushed perfection, there’s something raw, real and immediate about the images that make up “Patti Smith: Camera Solo.”
Shot with a vintage Polaroid Land 250 camera on film that isn’t even produced anymore, the un-retouched photographs are sometimes a bit out of focus, and their subject matter — a cup, a bed, slippers, a chair — are the unglamorous stuff of everyday life. But their power lies in their simplicity, as Smith, 65, celebrates symbols of the people who are important to her, from friends and family to influences like Arthur Rimbaud and Virginia Woolf.
“These intimate photographs provide a fascinating look at the world as seen through Patti Smith’s eyes,” said DIA Director Graham Beal in a prepared statement. “Both longtime fans and people newly exposed to her work will be impressed by her truly touching commemoration of the artists, poets, authors, family and friends from whom she draws inspiration.”
“Camera Solo” is the first traveling photography exhibition for Smith, a groundbreaking musician who’s also celebrated for her poetry, prose and art. Her 2010 memoir, “Just Kids,” won the National Book Award for nonfiction; the book recounts her memories of her relationship with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe during the 1960s and 1970s. Her most recent album, “Banga,” was released June 5; Smith said it’s named after Pontius Pilate’s dog, a symbol of love and loyalty.
Nancy Barr, associate curator in prints, drawings and photographs at the DIA, said the show features more than 70 images, many of which have been shot over the last 10-15 years, along with personally significant memorabilia, including a Mosrite Ventures guitar played by her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, complete with a custom case designed by Steven Sebring.
“This was the exact perfect museum for it,” Smith said of the guitar, which she said is being shown “with all the dignity it deserves” at the DIA.
Smith and her husband, a metro Detroit native, spent years locally, quietly raising their children in St. Clair Shores.
“This is sort of a homecoming for her, and the DIA is very pleased and proud to have her here,” Barr said of Smith and her work.
Most of the photos are of objects, including Smith’s 1957 Fender Duo-Sonic guitar, a commemorative Charles Dickens china coffee cup she purchased in England for her father and a granite cross once owned by Mapplethorpe that the artist gave her. Smith said her photographs are printed “exactly as they are,” with no digital manipulation. The only difference between the originals and the prints is that the prints are given a matte finish, she said.
It’s difficult for Smith to name a favorite image among the collection, especially as the images all have personal significance for her.
“Different pictures evoke different memories,” she said.
Born in Chicago in 1946 and raised in southern New Jersey, Smith said she used to retrieve Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar from the trash when she was a child, so she could study the images inside.
“I’ve always been attracted to photographs since I was a young girl,” she said.
She started taking Polaroid shots in the late 1960s, and said she and her late husband always had a Polaroid camera. But it wasn’t until after her husband’s death in 1994 that she said she became serious about her work as a photographer. Wracked with grief and unable to create as an artist, Smith said she picked up a Polaroid one day in 1995 and snapped a photo.
“The immediacy of the Polaroid made me feel I’d done something,” she said. “It gave me a sense of accomplishment as a worker, and it didn’t invade my mother duties.”
Because Polaroid went out of business and the cameras and their film are no longer available, Smith is down to about her last 100 shots on expired film. But she said she appreciates the grainy quality the old film produces.
“I don’t like digital (photography) … for art,” she said. “I like the unpredictability and the instability of the Polaroid.”
Smith lived in St. Clair Shores with her family for about 14 years, starting in 1980, and said her life in metro Detroit was critical in her development as a writer.
“I learned to be disciplined as a writer in St. Clair Shores,” she said, noting that in order to juggle family responsibilities, she established a schedule for writing from 5:30-8 a.m. each day. She and her husband retired from touring and public life to focus on raising their son and daughter.
“I wouldn’t have been able to write my book, ‘Just Kids,’ if I hadn’t learned that discipline,” Smith continued. “As a human being and wife and mother, they were the most beautiful years that I spent.”
Smith said having the exhibit at the DIA was important on a personal as well as professional level. For her husband, the DIA “was the greatest museum in the world,” she said.
Her husband also longed to have his Mosrite guitar shown in a museum because he felt it was a work of art, said Smith.
“We were able to give Fred his dream and bring the guitar home. … No one’s played it since Fred, and his spirit is in it,” Smith said.
“Patti Smith: Camera Solo” will be displayed through Sept. 2 at the DIA, 5200 Woodward in Detroit’s Cultural Center. Admission is free for DIA members or $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4 for those ages 6-17. For more information, visit www.dia.org or call (313) 833-7900.
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