Patti Smith: Camera Solo @Wadsworth Atheneum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 70 black and white photographs, generally framed in black and matted, and hung in a series of four connected gallery spaces. All of the prints are gelatin silver prints taken with a Land 250 Polaroid camera, available in editions of 10; dimensions were not available. The images were taken between 1995 and 2011. The exhibit also includes 1 sculpture, 1 video (in a separate darkened room), and 4 glass cases containing poems, drawings, books, letters, Robert Mapplethorpe’s slippers and marble cross, a prayer cloth, a stone, contact sheets, a camera, a portrait of Baudelaire, Pope Benedict’s slippers, and her father’s china teacup. A monograph of this body of work was published by Yale University Press in 2011 (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Patti Smith’s photography is full of ghosts. Not the scary spectral beings or spooky monsters of a horror movie, but the gentle, ephemeral imprints of lives now gone that have remained deeply resonant for her in one way or another. Her pictures are brimming with objects infused with personal significance, together a kind of artistic diary or the map of a life long journey, where ideas and influences pile up like loose memories and everyday objects become a source of spiritual inspiration.

The vast majority of the photographs on display are deceptively simple, sometimes dull, black and white still lifes or interior scenes, often taken in the available light and left grainy and shadowy, full of subtle beauty and immediacy. The show reads like a parade of heroes or a puzzle of aesthetic (I hesitate to use the word “poetic”) connections: Rimbaud’s fork and spoon, Keats’ bed, Woolf’s cane, Nureyev’s slippers, Tolstoy’s stuffed bear, Hesse’s typewriter, Bolaño’s chair. As if communing with the dead, she earnestly searches out countless graves and tombstones: Sontag, Whitman, Blake, Baudelaire, Shelley, Modigliani, Brancusi. Other pictures document her children, her guitars and workspace, religious icons and cherubs, landmarks from Paris and Vienna, with treasured items from her life with Robert Mapplethorpe never far from view. Every item is symbolic, every seemingly insignificant thing a talisman or relic.

In the hands of one less talented, these same pictures might have been cloying, pretentious and suffocatingly arty; instead, Smith’s images are modest, sincere, and surprisingly lyrical. She seems altogether unaware of the danger of cliche, walking right up to the line and somehow coming away with pictures that are altogether genuine. There is a sense of deep respect and honor in these photographs, of mundane personal effects made special, and of an intense, meaningful pilgrimage made to linger in their presence and to be moved by their strength.

This is one of the more inward looking shows I have seen in quite a long time, and there were moments where I felt a little claustrophobic being allowed in so close. Together, these images are the visual journal of a solitary artistic life, each item a tiny fragment of her searching persona. I can almost image the collectors of this work placing the same kind of obsessive energy into these prints, capturing a piece of the essence of Patti Smith in the pictures, to be placed on a shelf like a beloved shrine.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are, of course, no posted prices. Smith’s photography has virtually no secondary market history, so gallery retail is likely the only viable option for interested collectors at this point. She is represented in New York by Robert Miller Gallery (here).

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Read more about: Patti Smith, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Yale University Press


  1. Anonymous /

    Nice review, it captures pretty well Patti Smith not only as a photographer, but as a musician and writer. Definitely a unique artist and one who has always been in a profound dialogue with history.
    I don't understand how Polaroid prints could be in an edition of 10unless they were scanned and printed digitally. In which case they would be silver gelatin prints. Unless they made a neg from the scan and then made prints.

  2. Anonymous /

    I meant “would not” be silver gelatin prints.

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