06/14/2012 09:55 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

Patti Smith, Polaroids & Post-Mortems

Volumes have been written about photography's connections to death. Intuitively aware of this relationship, Patti Smith's first major American museum exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts feels decidedly funereal. The exhibition title, Camera Solo, comes from the name of a room in Italy's Longhi castle: "I was told that this was the count's own room and that no one was to enter." Smith's own room, currently the Albert and Peggy De Salle Photography Gallery, is anything but solo. It is a mausoleum inhabited by the dead and the memorialized living.

Smith's art recalls the genre known as post-mortem photography. Instead of a dead body, she selects a symbolic object -- her father's cup, Herman Hesse's typewriter, Robert Mapplethorpe's mirror; she then snaps a shot with her Polaroid Land Camera. The resulting photograph preserves an echo of the object owner's aura. Sometimes Smith will crop the image and even reprint it as a small series of 10 silver prints, but always the final photograph becomes a reliquary. Each image houses a precious object that stands in for its former custodian.

Ironically, the objects Smith photographs are as much about herself as the objects' owners. Such a process allows the artist to identify with the other by projecting herself into the object. For example, the breathtaking shots of cherubs, Cupid & Psyche, and St. Sebastian allow the artist to identify with the good in those figures. One is struck by the resemblance of Smith's own self portraits to her photographs of Christ. This is not narcissism: like Albrecht Durer's self-portraits inspired by the Imitation of Christ, Smith fashions her interior life by asking these objects for spiritual counsel.

Smith includes six glass vitrines which house a variety of actual objects. These installations invite the viewer to participate in her own photographic process. Viewers are asked to listen to the objects, to hear what lessons they have to tell. Pope Benedict XV's slippers speak of careful, deliberate footing. A cabinet dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud shows how the avant-garde poet deeply influenced the singer-songwriter early in her career. Most striking, though, is the actual guitar of her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith. At a concert at the DIA, offered in tandem with the show, Patti Smith encouraged the audience to visit the guitar, but her remarks seemed more geared to music fans. In the DIA's gallery, however, the guitar looks nothing like a pop culture display at a rock and roll museum. It lies like a saint's body in a glass coffin, and it takes a central position in the solemn gallery. This is a place for pilgrims to pay their respects to one of Detroit's most celebrated musicians, a member of the influential band, MC5.

Smith's photographic memorials are meant to be joyous, too, and not all of her objects are from the deceased. She also photographs family and close friends. The images work like lockets into which objects are placed for posterity, just as a mother saves locks of hair or pressed flowers from her children. Her intensely beautiful photographs and installed objects share with us the people who have inspired Patti Smith's rich, diverse career as a musician, writer, artist and filmmaker.

John J. Corso teaches art history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He strives to write criticism that is 'partisan, passionate, and political.'