Patti Smith: Camera Solo

By Peggy Roalf   Friday August 24, 2012


If you are anywhere near the Motor City, don’t miss the chance to see Patti Smith: Camera Solo, on view at Detroit Institute of Arts until September 2. The pioneering musician, poet, and artist who became a legend of the downtown scene, and who won the 2010 National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids (Ecco 2010), writes about her life-long attachment to photography as part of her artistic process:

When I was eight my mother gave me Songs of Innocence by William Blake, a collection of his poems and drawings. I was enthralled by it and began writing and illustrating my own little stories. In my early twenties I made large drawings entwined with language. At some point I wanted to hear what I had written, so I performed my work, merging the words with electric guitar. Language, image, and performance, all striving for the same thing — a desire to communicate.

I first took Polaroids in the early 1970s as components for collages. Most of them are lost. In the 1980s I took photographs with a German Minox 35EL. In 1995, after the death of my husband, I was unable to center on the complex process of drawing, recording or writing a poem. The need for immediacy drew me again to the Polaroid. I chose a vintage Land 100.

The instantaneous method gave me a sense of release and served my creative needs. In 2002 I switched to a vintage Land 250. It is a folding pack film camera with a single-window rangefinder made by Zeiss Ikon. Though it can be slightly idiosyncratic, I like the technical simplicity. Near/far. Dark/light.

For a time I had a room of my own on MacDougal Street in New York. It had been a butcher shop for decades and then a laundromat. It was a great pleasure to have a space to do my work uninterrupted. I focused on objects, seemingly humble, precious to me. When I lost my little studio I ventured out into the world, the Land 250 always close at hand.

I am not a photographer, yet taking pictures has given me a sense of unity and personal satisfaction. They are relics of my life. Souvenirs of my wandering. All that I have learned concerning light and composition is contained within them.

Patti Smith: Camera Solo, continues through September 2 at Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI. The exhibition will be on view at Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, February 9 through May 19, 2013. Toronto is the last stop on the tour of the exhibtion, which was organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. The exhibition catalogue includes 70 images in the show, including the photograph above.


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