‘I’ve had a good run,” said Patti Smith the other day on the phone from her home in Manhattan, her voice a kind of gentle, accepting lament.
Blessedly, she wasn’t talking about retirement, though it’s true she did turn 65 last December. Indeed, at the time of our conversation the woman, who gave us Horses and Because the Night and the award-winning memoir Just Kids, and her band were mere days away from starting what will be a month-long round of concerts in Europe. The first gig is in Norway on Aug. 23, but in advance of what she calls “this vigorous mission,” Smith was heading solo to Iceland for a couple of days to hang with friends and ride that island nation’s famous ponies.
The “good run” she was referring to has nothing to do with her manifold career as an artist, or (her preferred term) “worker.” Rather, she was talking about her long-standing devotion to her Polariod Land 250 camera which, in the pre-digital era, was about the only instrument that let you see what you’d photographed within seconds of clicking the shutter.
An inveterate photographer since her teen years in New Jersey, Smith has shot literally thousands of 10.5- by 8.6-centimetre Polariods over the decades. More than 70 of these, reproduced as black-and-white silver gelatin prints, are coming to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto next February for a three-month exhibition. Titled Camera Solo – the show originated last year at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT – it’s the first-ever showcase of Smith’s photographic work in Canada.
In their way, the pictures – of her children Jesse and Jackson, of gravesites (including those of Walt Whitman and Amedeo Modigliani), beds (Virginia Woolf’s, John Keats’s), slippers and other ephermera (Hermann Hesse’s typewriter, Duncan Grant’s jar for his paint brushes) – mark the end of an era. Polaroid stopped making analog film for the Land 250 in 2008, with the result, said Smith, that “the days when I could fill my suitcase with 10 or 20 packs of Polaroid film and shoot 10 pictures in every city are gone.” In fact, she’s down to her last five packs of Polaroid film, just 50 exposures in total.
Still, Smith is not entirely chagrined: “If I really want to keep taking photographs, I have a really nice late-’50s Leica. Lieca gives you the grain and the kind of atmosphere, if you want it, that Polaroid could provide.”
“So,” she added with a laugh, “I’m not entirely an orphan.”
Smith took her first Polaroids in the late-1960s when she and the now-legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe were living together in New York’s fabled bo-ho hot-bed, the Chelsea Hotel, and both were keen collage-makers. “Robert, though, made more collages than I did,” she observed, “and he was using a lot of magazine images. That’s why I thought [the Polaroid] would be an excellent medium for him. Then he pretty much took over taking the photos and then he became addicted to photography, which was a big surprise to me.”
Smith herself only became “aggressive” about Polaroid picture-making in the wake of the deaths of Mapplethorpe (in 1989), Richard Sohl, her original pianist (1990), her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, fellow musician and founder of the incendiary MC5 (1994), and brother Todd (1994).
“I was so exhausted from grief, I suppose, and from having two small children that I found myself unable to do much of anything except take care of them. Yet I found the desire to animate my creative impulse was still there and the Polaroid was perfect for that because I could see what I’d done pretty much instantly and if it was good, even if it was just one picture a day, I felt I’d accomplished something of worth.”
As her son and daughter grew older and Smith grew more proficient with the camera and, “pleased with the results, I was like Robert – smitten, intoxicated.”
At the same time, while Smith confesses pride in her picture-work, “I could never call myself a photographer; I’m certainly not a professional.” She’s never had any interest in “taking hundreds of pictures and going into a darkroom.” The appeal of a Polaroid, in fact, is that “each picture is an individual, its own world. I don’t have contact sheets with 20 or 30 versions of the same picture unless I get obsessed with something like I got obsessed with that little cherub [which Smith found in 2005 on a fountain in the medieval Italian town San Severino]. I probably have 18 pictures of that cherub [three are included in Camera Solo]. But usually I have two pictures, maybe one; I take the picture and hopefully it’s successful; if it isn’t I’ll take another. Even in the past, when I squirrelled away a lot of film, I’d go out by myself with at most two packs of Polaroid film.”
Such frugality she traces back to her hard-scrabbling days with Mapplethorpe. “Every time he took a Polaroid, he knew that was 75 cents and that meant three cups of coffee or lunch.” It was an ethos he continued to embrace even after he became famous and rich: “He wanted each picture to be the picture.”
Smith, of course, has never lacked for heroes and models from the past, nor has she shied from championing their virtues in her art. Unsurprisingly then, many of the small, almost ghostly images in Camera Solo are decidedly death-haunted, graced with a relic-like reverence. For Smith, this isn’t at all “a sad thing. When I’m standing at the gravesite of Brancusi or Modigliani or Susan Sontag … I feel really happy that I’m so close to part of them. Some people might think this morbid or a bit strange, but I’ve seen so much death in my life that one has to undergo a certain transformation. I feel sadder sometimes walking down the street, just for the way the light is or the way a memory comes to my head. I can feel sadder for my husband like that than if I’m sitting by his graveside. I might feel really happy sitting there.”
In the meantime, Smith confesses to being “very excited” that Camera Solo, currently wrapping a three-month stint at the Detroit Institute of Arts, is coming to the “great city” of Toronto. She, in fact, plans to visit the Ontario capital for a few days in early March and do some kind of live performance, “something connected with the gallery and the exhibition … I like to be a part of the experience and find how I can do something that will resonate with the space and the city.”