I’ve been a fan of Patti Smith for ages. My respect and admiration for her grew even more after the publication year ago of her award-winning reminiscence of life in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. As important as Patti Smith’s music is – both in its own right and for its critical place in the history of rock – we have known for a long time that Smith’s artistic vision encompasses a great deal more than rock music. Early on, even before she became so successful as a musician, she was admired (and tended to define herself) as a poet and visual artist. Then, with Just Kids, we learned what an accomplished and skillful, insightful and thoughtful, writer and memoirist she is.
Now, Patti Smith has published a volume of photographs, Patti Smith: Camera Solo (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art), drawn from a show itself drawn from images she has apparently been making in her travels for many years. Smith photographs mostly with a Polaroid camera, and her images are stunningly direct, personal, intimate. (Camera Solo website.)
Smith documents places she has been and people she has loved, not with traditional travel pictures or portraits, but with something much simpler yet more full or personal meaning – Robert Mapplethorpe’s hands, Hermann Hesse’s typewriter, Susan Sontag’s grave, a wreath in a window of a Moscow store, Susan Sontag’s grave in Paris. Smith photographs things that carry a connection to poetry and literature important to her.
The photographs are accompanied by a very entertaining and illuminating, candid, interview with Patti Smith by Susan Lubowsky Talbott. But it is not merely because of this revealing interview that one gets the sense viewing these images that one is looking directly into Patti Smith’s soul. She photographs almost as an act of love.
The nature of the Polaroid camera imposes certain limitations, and it is in Patti Smith’s personality to approach her images so directly and personally. But I think all photography would benefit if the photographer approached her/his subjects with such directness and simplicity. Smith’s images are not “street photography” by any means, but I’m reminded of the work of one such as Henri Cartier-Bresson (Masters of Photography Series), whose images I think were also characterized by a directness and intimacy that gives them much of their meaning for us.
In Smith’s case, the meaning and significance of the images is even greater because, unlike with Cartier-Bresson and others, we know that the images are ones that hold personal significance to Smith.
A most interesting work, highly recommended. (Patti Smith, Camera Solo. 2011. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Yale University Press. 95 pages. 70 images.)
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