Art and Politics

Patti Smith: Photographer in Search of Lost Time

During the media preview for her show of photographs at the Detroit Institute of ArtsPatti Smith spoke of her most enduring memory of the 14 or so years she lived in suburban St. Clair Shores, just northeast of Detroit. She was taking her young son and daughter for a morning walk on a crisp autumn day. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, the birds chirping. The two children walked ahead holding hands, silhouetted by the light. She remembers thinking, “This is a perfect moment and soon it will be gone.” That statement is an apt description of the nature of photography and some key ideas in “Patti Smith: Camera Solo.”

The first traveling museum exhibition of Smith’s photography, the show features some 60 black-and-white images, the majority taken with a vintage Polaroid Land 250 camera. The exhibition also contains a number of personal artifacts, several of which appear in the photographs.

A large segment of the exhibition is devoted to artists and their creative surroundings. There’s a photograph of Roberto Bolano’s writing chair and another of Herman Hesse‘s typewriter. There’s an image of a jar of Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant’s paintbrushes. A large section is devoted to the poet Arthur Rimbaud, including several shots from the museum dedicated to him in Charleville-Mezieres in northern France. Another image shows 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 those Woolf filled her pockets with to prevent herself from floating and ensure the success of her second attempt at suicide. There is of course a section devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe, whose deep relationship with Smith is chronicled in Just Kids.

In his 1927 essay “Photography,” Siegfried Kracauer compares the medium with what he terms the “memory-image,” a comparison that resonates in considering this show. “Compared to photography,” he 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.” A photograph captures and records what is present at the place and time that is within the camera’s mechanical view while the memory-image is highly selective based on the subjective import of the individual perceiver. The photograph fixes what consciousness lets slip away.
And yet a 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 photograph, as Kracauer observes, “has been emptied of the life whose physical presence overlay its merely spatial configuration.”

The chasm between the dead gelatin silver print and the living memory-image is something Smith seems to want to close. This is where the artifacts in the installation come in. 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, 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 “Photography” essay, Kracrauer was influenced by Marcel Proust, who meditated on the vicissitudes of memory for a good part of his abbreviated life. Proust’s notion of involuntary memory (the cathartic release triggered 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 photograph. But upon further consideration, the photograph, by registering certain, often unintentional 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.

One such detail in “Camera Solo” comes from the juxtaposition of artifacts in the gallery and the images Smith took of artifacts of artists and other figures she admires. In particular are the images taken around the Musee Rimbaud, shrine of perhaps the most significant influence on Smith’s creative development. The most resonant image is arguably 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 an evening’s repast. The mediated condition of the fork and spoon provides a phenomenological distance that allows them to participate in a cultural discourse that the artifacts, as personal mementos, cannot. The distinction is one of intentionality, which separates works of art from mere things.