Art Gallery of Ontario Patti Smith knows how to commune with the dead. She…
- Posted on Mar 7th 2013 10:15AM by Liisa Ladouceur
Kevin Winter, Getty
"I don't consider my photographs blurry," said Patti Smith. "I think they are atmospheric."
Smith was speaking at a press conference this morning about the black and white images in Camera Solo, an exhibition of her photography and personal objects currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where Smith will also perform two sold-out shows March 7. The artist, who primarily uses a vintage Polaroid camera, pointed out that sometimes it's a result of having to shoot on expired film, and that if she wanted a sharp photograph she could use her cell phone.
"I could transfer it to black and white and there you have a perfect shot," said Smith. "I'm going for the atmosphere of something."
The atmosphere of the 70 photographs presented in Camera Solo is one of intimacy and romantic gloom -- close-ups of the graves of famous poets (Whitman, Baudelaire), the beds in which they died (Keats), her late father's coffee cup. On the wall, a quote: "I have a strong relationship with the dead, even a happy one."
But for Smith, this is not melancholy.
"I relate to proximity," she explained. "Just like when you go to the grave of your loved ones you feel a certain closeness to them. I learned very early I could feel a similar closeness to great artists I've never met... When I take pictures of people's gravesites, it's not a morbid thing at all. I go to talk to them, to thank them."
With Polaroid film no longer being produced and her remaining stock close to depletion, Smith admits she must choose new subjects with care. She says her most recent photograph was a shot of Neil Young's 1953 Les Paul guitar, taken while they were on tour together.
"I mean, that guitar has created some of the greatest songs that are synonymous with rock 'n' roll, from the late '60s. It felt like shooting a holy relic. It's not just a picture of [Victor] Hugo's bed, or things that seem esoteric. It's also important things to our cultural voice."
While in Toronto, Smith says she hopes to photograph the famous chair of another iconic Canadian, the pianist Glenn Gould. "I have such a deep, abstract relationship with him. I go to sleep listening to his more serene pieces and I work listening to [his] Bach. He had such a complex mind. Somehow, abstractly, it always informs my own process."
And before leaving town, she'll perform another sold-out concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on March 9 -- the anniversary of the death of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It's an annual tradition, a celebration and tribute to the life of her close friend and lover, who appears in the Camera Solo show in the form of his slippers-beautiful velvet slippers displayed in a glass case, and also in a photograph. They're not the only slippers -- Patti also owns a pair from Pope Benedict XV, who she praised for being a man of peace during World War 1 and also canonizing Joan of Arc.
"Eventually I'll give them, probably to some Catholic institution, where they belong," says Smith. "Right now when they're home they hang out in a glass case with Robert's slippers. I think the Pope and Robert have some interesting discussions."
Between photography, rock 'n' roll and writing (she's working on a follow-up to her award-winning memoir "Just Kids" as well as a crime novel), the lines of her own life and work could be considered as blurry, too. Answering a question about how she decides which artistic pursuit to choose when she gets up in the morning, Smith was clear and sharp:
"When I wake up my first thought is coffee."