The Genteel
April 23, 2021


Patti Smith by Edward Mapplethorpe. Source:
Virginia Woolf's Bed I by Patti Smith.
Photograph courtesy of the AGO.

"I awoke early, and as I descended the stairs I knew that he was dead. All was still save the sound of the television that had been left on in the night. An arts channel was on. An opera was playing. I was drawn to the screen as Tosca declared, with power and sorrow, her passion for the painter Cavaradossi. It was a cold march morning and I put on my sweater." (Just Kids)

Patti Smith notices the little things: details, discreprencies and quantities are recorded, stored and meditated on. This became apparent while I was reading (and re-reading) Smith's memoir, Just Kids, and was confirmed through her photographs being exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). The AGO's Patti Smith: Camera Solo exhibition is displaying 75 works of photography, objects and film that avow the poetics in her thoughts and ease of self-expression. 

Primarily taken with a Land 250 Polaroid camera, her photographs are of every day objects that are all around us - cutlery, loafers, bedspreads - but have become so knitted into our lives that they now escape our attention. For Smith, these wee things may just be the most important symbols of our lives.

Smith, who by all measures has led a full and successful life - 12 albums released, six books published and the Commandeur des Arts et de Lettres earned - has probably come across far more glamorous scenes and objects to photograph, but has consciously (or subconsciously) chosen to fixate on everyday objects; curator of the AGO exhibit Sophie Hackett shares her thoughts to Smith's approach: "In some ways, I think the objects and the photographs are equivalent for Smith. They are what remains of a person, a time, an experience."

The glamour of success doesn't interest Smith, and is actually contrary to her work as an artist. Smith is first and foremost a labourer, a worker devoted to the arts, and her photography is as humbling as her literary work. In each, she presents herself as Patti Smith the person, not Patti Smith the revolutionary rock 'n' roller, author and visual artist.

Patti Smith's Camera Solo is tranquil, focused and full of gratitude and admiration...

Her profound appreciation for other writers and artists is also palpable in her work. Hackett explains: "Many of the places and things Smith has photographed are related to writers and artists she admires: Arthur Rimbaud's utensils, Virginia Woolf's bed, Susan Sontag's grave. She has said: 'I have a strong relationship with the dead, even a happy one. I get pleasure out of having their things and sometimes photographing them.' The photographs are a way of paying homage to them but also a way of forging a connection and acknowledging that they are still alive in her mind."

In Just Kids, Smith reveals her endless inspirations, many of which served as a blanket of comfort and security: "It was for him [Arthur Rimbaud] that I wrote and dreamed. He became my archangel, delivering me from the mundane horrors of factory life. His hands had chiseled a manual of heaven and I held them fast. The knowledge of him added swagger to my step and this could be stripped away. I tossed my copy of Illuminations in a plaid suitcase. We would escape together."

Smith reveals her humble nature as she marvels at other creatives, and the feel of Camera Solo follows suit; it's modest and intimate, the photographs are primarily small, black and white, and soft-focused. Hackett is on point when she notes that Smith's old camera, "also has a number of imperfections which means that happy accidents can happen, like the double-exposure in the photograph of Carlo Mollino's bedroom in Turin, where the image of the bed is overlaid with the leopard print wallpaper and butterfly specimens." 

Arthur Rimbaud's Utensils by Patti Smith. 
Photograph courtesy of the AGO. 

At its core, Smith's work is honest. Mundane objects belonging to prominent writers like Virginia Woolf aren't embellished; they're down-to-earth and photographed as is, humansing both the photographer and the objects and the people they belong to. Smith's photographs dismiss the romantic notions of creativity and genius that society has pinned on the successful artist, writer and musician. "…Smith is very good at giving the old or the overlooked a continued relevance - something she does here [in the exhibit] technically, with the Polaroid, but also with her subjects, important writers in their time that may not be familiar to many today," distills Hackett.

Perhaps it seems absurd to say that Smith's spoons, forks, bedspread and loafers are enchanting or emotionally charged, but they are. When I ask Hackett what her favourite photograph is in the exhibit, she doesn’t hesitate to say, "I find her photograph of Rimbaud's fork and spoon very moving. The utensils are simple in their design and she focuses on the spoon's shallow bowl and the fork’s tines. These are of course tools for the poet to feed himself, for sustenance. Smith seems to link that with more spiritual sustenance, her own as she has experienced Rimbaud’s writing."

Patti Smith's Camera Solo is tranquil, focused and full of gratitude and admiration - it creates the perfect atmosphere to meditate on the little things, the details that we may have forgotten or taken for granted.

Alina Kulesh goes behind the scenes of Camera Solo for frank by The Genteel to capture some exclusive photos and quotes from Patti Smith. Click here to view the experience. 

Camera Solo runs from February 9 to May 13, 2013 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.



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