Monday, June 4, 2012

Patti Smith: Photographer In Search of Lost Time

Patti Smith, Arthur Rimbaud's Utensils, Charleville, 2005, gelatin silver print. (Courtesy of the artist and Robert Miller Gallery, New York. Image credit: © Patti Smith.)
During the media preview for the show of her photographs that opened June 1 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, musician, author, and artist Patti Smith responded to a question about her most enduring memory of the 14 or so years she lived in suburban St. Clair Shores, just northeast of Detroit. She told of taking her two children, son Jackson and daughter Jesse, at the time 10 and 5 respectively, for a morning walk on a crisp autumn day. The sun was shining up ahead, the sky was clear, the birds chirping. The two children walked ahead holding hands, perfectly silhouetted by the light. She remembers thinking to herself, "This is a perfect moment and soon it will be gone." That statement is an apt description of the sentiment underlying the relationship of photography to human existence and it's a pretty good guidepost to some of the key ideas in "Patti Smith: Camera Solo."

The show is the first traveling museum exhibition of her photography and it comprises an intimate self-portrait of the artist and her influences and interests in a career that has spanned over 40 years, from her early days as a starving artist in New York City to her emergence as a significant figure in the punk music scene in the mid-1970s to her current position as a doyenne of indy culture. In addition to some 60 black-and-white images, the majority taken with a vintage Polaroid Land 250 camera, the exhibition contains a number of personal artifacts that often appear in the photographs.

The show is installed in groupings that articulate several themes. A large segment of the exhibition is devoted to artists and their creative surroundings. There's a photograph of the chair in which Roberto Bolano sat when he wrote and another of Herman Hesse's typewriter. There's an image of a jar of brushes from the studio of Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant. A large section is devoted to the poet Arthur Rimbaud, including several images shot at the museum dedicated to him in Charleville-Mezieres in northern France. One image that gives pause is a view of the River Ouse taken from the bridge under which Virginia Woolf's body was retrieved three weeks after she had drowned herself in March 1941. In a display case next to the photograph is a rounded rock Smith collected from the river similar to the ones Woolf had filled her pockets with in order to prevent herself from floating, thereby ensuring the success of her second attempt at suicide. There is of course a section devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe, about whose deep relationship with Smith is chronicled in the best-selling awarding-winning memoir Just Kids. In the DIA installation, it constitutes the bridge between the external world of artistic influences and the internal realm of personal emotion, which takes form in pictures of Smith's family and their associations.

In his seminal, if under-appreciated 1927 essay on the subject, "Photography," Siegfried Kracauer compares the medium with what he terms the "memory-image," a comparison that resonates in considering this show. "Compared to photography," Kracauer writes, "memory's records are full of gaps." He further notes: "Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory-images retain what is given only so far as it has significance." Which is to say that a photograph captures and records what is present at the place and time that is within view of the camera's mechanical apparatus while the memory-image is highly selective based on the subjective import accorded the scene by the individual perceiver. The photograph fixes what consciousness sometimes lets slip away. So had a camera been present at the episode Smith recounted at the media conference at the DIA on the morning of Thursday, May 31, 2012, that perfect moment now gone would still be available for us to see.

And yet the photograph is only a specter of the reality it presents, a ghost image of the once seen, a trace of a fugitive moment that, however perfect, is gone in the instant it is captured, a condition that becomes ever more pronounced as the distance from the point of origin increases. An old photograph, Kracauer observes:
has been emptied of the life whose physical presence overlay its merely spatial configuration. In inverse proportion to photographs, memory-images enlarge themselves into monograms of remembered life. The photograph is the sediment that has settled from the monogram, and from year to year its semiotic value decreases. The truth content of the original is left behind in its history; the photograph captures only the residuum that history has discharged.
The chasm between the dead physical gelatin silver print and the living memory-image is something that Smith seems to want to close. This is where the artifacts in the installation, the actual things that inspired some of the images, in a sense come into play. At one point in her guided tour of the gallery, Smith pointed to objects around the room -- her father's cracked teacup, her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith's cherished 1964 Mosrite "Ventures"-model electric guitar, an unadorned red marble cross left to her by Mapplethorpe -- and pronounced each "priceless" in its turn. And indeed each thing by its continued presence sustains a relationship that loss has threatened to take away; the objects serve as talismans of a reality that is photographically destined to remain unredeemed.

In writing the essay on photography, Kracrauer was influenced by Marcel Proust, who meditated on the vicissitudes of memory for a better part of his illness-plagued abbreviated life. Proust's notion of involuntary memory (that cathartic release triggered unintentionally by a chance encounter, the episode of the madeleine from In Search of Lost Time being the most famous example) at first blush stands in contrast to the apparent superficiality of the photographic image. But upon further consideration, the photograph, through the capturing of certain details, has the potential to open up what Walter Benjamin in One-Way Street terms the "optical unconscious," a more broadly available memory-image, a cultural, i.e., a collective one, that not only conveys meaning for the creator but for others as well. And for both Kracauer and Benjamin (who were contemporaries and friends) this provides photography entry into the realm of art.

One of the details in "Camera Solo" comes from thinking about the juxtaposition of artifacts in the gallery and the images Smith took of artifacts of artists and other figures she admires, many of whom were dead long before she became an artist herself. In particular are the images taken around the Musee Rimbaud, shrine of perhaps the most significant influence on Smith's creative development. Arguably, the most important image in this regard is that of Rimbaud's eating utensils, shot in 2005, more than a century after he last used them. These prosaic items, tools used to sustain life, are transformed in the photograph into sacred objects, fetishized in a way they likely never were when the poet sat down to use them in an evening's repast. The mediated condition of the fork and spoon (which are probably still set at table in a room in a small French town "over there") provides a phenomenological distance that allows them to enter into a cultural discourse that the physical artifacts, as personal mementos, cannot. The distinction is one of intentionality, which separates works of art from mere things.

There's a lot more that could be said about this exhibition. One line of discussion might investigate how the show is a essentially visual memoir of Smith's travels, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically. Another might be how the Romantic notion of authenticity plays throughout. In that regard, the choice of Polaroid serves an essential function. Unlike traditional film, the latent image of the Polaroid develops in daylight before our very eyes. The elusive reality lost at the instant of tripping the shutter is miraculously brought back to life, albeit virtually, almost immediately authenticating the moment one has sought to preserve. (Digital does the same thing of course, but the subsequent image is easily susceptible to alteration in a way Polaroid prints are not.) The fact that the more recent images are being shot on expired film provides another, if unintentional, authentic effect. The dropped-out sections of deteriorated emulsion and other imperfections foreground the mediated aspect of the image, acknowledging the photographs as artifacts in their own right. (The actual prints in the show are images of the original images, printed on gelatin silver paper for archival purposes. But that's another discussion altogether.)

While that perfect moment in St. Clair Shores is gone about 20 years now, "Patti Smith: Camera Solo" is here and now at the DIA. Catch a glimpse of it before it slips away.

Patti Smith: Camera Solo" is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue in Detroit until September 2. Go to or call 313-833-7900 for information.

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