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Patti Smith, the American rock and roll musician, visual artist, author/poet and photographer, opened her exhibition Patti Smith: Camera Solo at the Detroit Institute of Arts on June 1, 2012 with a live concert performed with her son and daughter. It seems that everything she does in public includes the personal. The exhibition collects seventy black and white gelatin silver prints including several vintage Land 250 Polaroids. Smith lived in Detroit during the 1980’s with her late husband and guitar player for the Detroit rock and roll band MC5, Fred “Sonic” Smith. His famous Mosrite guitar awaits viewers beautifully displayed in a glass case and her return conjures feelings of nostalgia. Known for her early “Alternative Rock” approach to music and her longtime relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, looking back upon the career of a woman whose roots come from south New Jersey, one finds an abundance of prolific artwork, twelve albums and a host of literary work, including the best selling memoir, Just Kids. Now her first major photography exhibition comes to the Detroit Institute of Arts from the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut and curated by the director Susan L. Talbott.
Whether the French Poet Arthur Rimbaud’s fork, Robert Mapplethorpe’s slippers, early snapshots of her children, or her father’s monogrammed tea cup, these photographs operate as reminders of people and events that have personal meaning to Smith. The photos do not study light, a moment or time, or compositional motifs but objects of adoration. Robert Grave’s hat, the cross at Mapplethorpe’s grave, or a Jean Genet manuscript; all serve as reminders of important images that she wants with her. Essentially, through her photographs she chronicles her eclectic life with friends, family, artistic influences and bits of religiosity.
Even though the photograph of Chilean novelist Robert Bolano’s Chair, a most-liked author of Ms. Smith, comes the closest to art for art’s sake the composition and light remind the viewer of André Kertész early work in Paris and linger far beyond the author’s name and literary recognition. For Smith, one gets the impression that the subjects document intimate artifacts from her travels and critical moments from the most private parts of her life. Some will wonder about the influence that may have come from her closest friend, the celebrated Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work has taken a significant place in the history of photography. In contrast to Mapplethorpe’s work which transcends content in search of a classic aesthetic form whether a penis or a tulip, Smith’s photographic work provides us with a trove of soft black and white autobiographical images seeming both tortured and romantically naïve.
One might not expect the memorabilia on display but a collection of artifacts including Smith’s early 250 Land Camera, religious slippers from the Vatican and various collected photographs compliment the exhibit. The rich experience of Smith’s exhibition does not provide illumination into the history of photography yet gracefully introduces its audience to her life.
Ron Scott is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Detroit area. View more articles by Ron Scott.