"Perfection has never been my beat," said Patti Smith, the rocker, writer, artist and legend of the downtown New York City arts scene who later made her home near Detroit.
The self-described "amateur in the highest sense" is (arguably unfairly) dismissive of the technical quality of her captivating black and white images that comprise "Camera Solo," opening at the Detroit Institute of Arts Friday. It's the second stop for the exhibit after closing at the organizing museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, in Hartford, Conn., and the first U.S. exhibition of Smith's photography.
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DIA Associate Curator Nancy Barr said the museum made every effort to remain true to the original layout of the exhibit, which is separated into loose categories, like travel, family, writers and artists. This iteration brings new pieces: a photo of Frida Kahlo's dress, which Smith associates with Diego Riviera and therefore Detroit, as well as the guitar of her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, former member of the Detroit rock band MC5. Throughout the exhibit, objects infused with symbolism rest in cases, almost like altars: the guitar, Pope Benedict's slippers, items belonging to longtime friend and work partner Robert Mappelthorpe.
It's from Mappelthorpe that Smith learned to be confident in her work, and therefore unassuming.
"He extinguished my doubt," she said during a media preview for the exhibit on Thursday. "I don't doubt my core mission or core gifts."
Smith's reverence for objects and their owners continues into the images. The near 70 photographs are recent work, taken for the most part within the last 10 years, but you'd never know it. A flower, the paintbrushes, gravestones and beds of some of her idols, like Virginia Woolf and Herman Hesse -- Smith's reverent gaze imbues each of her subjects with resonance and memory, whether the photograph is of her children or a simple teacup. The show is reminiscent of the attention to detail in Smith's recent memoir, "Just Kids."
Shooting with a vintage Polaroid Land camera (the images are reproduced as small, silver gelatin prints), Smith said she enjoyed the unknown quality and immediacy of the final product, something that gave her a sense of accomplishment when she was focused on raising her children and grieving her husband. She started using the Polaroid routinely then, finding writing too difficult, though she has been taking pictures since she was a kid.
Smith is content with the imprecision of her images, which are sometimes out of focus, taken on expired film. Those artistic choices give the photographs the soft, dreamlike quality similar to two photographers Smith cites as favorites: Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron, both of whom she has admired since she was a child.
In some ways, Smith is the ultimate fan. Devotion to her muses and inspirations forms the basis of much of her art, be it writing, art or music (songs dedicated to Johnny Depp and Amy Winehouse make appearances on her forthcoming album). But her photographs go beyond mementos, talismans or homages to other artists. It's Smith's artist eye that shines a light on the simple objects of the everyday.
"Camera Solo" shows at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue, from June 1 to September 2.
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