One of the most famous photographs in the history of rock music was Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Patti Smith for the cover of her debut album, “Horses” (1975). The stark black-and-white image was unlike anything else on the LP racks that year, and
the music within was similarly outstanding. At the time, no one imagined Smith would enjoy a later-in-life vocation as a photographer, with her work on exhibit in museums and offered at auction. Her performances were more than sufficient to establish her as a creative force.
Smith was born in Chicago in 1946 but grew up in New Jersey and emerged out of downtown New York’s tumultuous underground art scene in the early ’70s. She surfaced as a poet and soon became a poet with musical accompaniment. By the time of “Horses,” she was fronting a full-tilt rock and roll band, whose three-chord fervor fired one of the early warning shots for the emergence of punk rock.
Crowned with a breathtaking reinvention of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” “Horses” was the most powerful album Smith would ever make. But she continued to record visionary songs and even penetrated the Top 40 with a song co-written with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night” (1978). Smith took a break from music to focus on her earlier interest in photography and drawing, which began in the late 1960s.
In 1978, she established herself as a visual artist with the Robert Miller Gallery in New York.
Smith approaches her subjects selectively, drawing from what she calls an aesthetic consciousness. As a child, her playground was the local library and her toys were books, fashion magazines and the ubiquitous Sears catalog. The ads and illustrations were eye candy to a kid whose field of vision was wide open; she recognized artistry all around her. She marveled at the cursive penmanship of the Declaration of Independence and thought the document was lovely to look at. The elegant pictures by the fashion photographer Irving Penn especially caught her eye. Lewis Carroll and William Blake were early influences, but what captivated her wasn’t the storyline but the pictures that accompanied the stories.
A collection of Victorian-era photographs Carroll took of his children opened her imagination to the visual artistry caught through the camera lens. The sepia-toned photos looked so much more interesting than the standard school class photos of the 1950s. Another Victorian influence, British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1897), is recognizable in Smith’s aesthetic vision.
From the age of 12 and her first visit to an art museum, Smith knew art was a seminal part of her being. Although she sketched “all the time,” she knew she was not adept at it – her mechanical skills were lacking. Her parents were book lovers and she followed their example. Her frequent subjects are literary themed portraits composed of objects associated with her favorite authors. “The Poet John Keat’s Bed,” [the mask of] “William Blake”, “Arthur Rimbaud’s Utensils” and “Robert Grave’s Hat” – quirky titles but intimate and compelling photographic works. You can imagine her as a child, sitting in the library, eyes fixed in wonderment, drawn in to these photos.
Her photographs represent intimate studies of meaningful subjects very dear to her. Small in size, like book plates paged through at the library, her compositions are arranged with a painterly chiaroscuro touch, adding layers of objects to the view screen like paint, until her picture is complete.
The museum catalog, “Patti Smith Camera Solo,” published in conjunction with the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, features 70 works from Smith’s 2011 exhibit at the Hartford, Connecticut, museum. The softcover little gem of a book communicates Smith’s visual poetry with a powerful silence. Fitting is the title of the exhibit, an Italian phrase meaning a private room or the English equivalent referencing photography as “the singular experience of the artist behind the camera.”
There is solitude and greatness in these little pictures, almost meditative and perhaps designed to invoke a separate and altogether personal relevance to the viewer.
In the book, she recalls the story behind the photograph, “Winged Cherubim,” taken in the
medieval town of San Severino Marche, where she performed in 2009. She spotted the weathered old cherub stone statue in the courtyard of a little museum that holds a collection of holy relics of Saint Celestine V, the 13th century pope and founder of the order of the Celestines. Moved by the papal relics, she was also inspired by the courtyard statue’s “expressive face” and used all of her film in capturing the shot. “He seems simultaneously innocent and wise,” she said. “My father was like that at the end of his life, like an ancient child. You could never tell whether he was laughing or crying. Robert [Mapplethorpe] used to say, when taking my picture, that he would never miss me. That’s how I feel about my winged child.”
A photograph Smith took at the Chelsea Hotel in 1969 of Mapplethorpe’s hands, shows the photographer’s ringed fingers working what looks like a thread or string. It powerfully instills a moment in the late photographer’s life. The Wadsworth Museum has special meaning to Smith, as its former curator was a good friend of both Smith’s and Mapplethorpe, whose own exhibit there in 1989, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” became the stuff of legend.
Smith’s works have been exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as museums in Kyoto, Munich, Brussels, Paris and, recently, the Art Gallery of Toronto. At auction, her photos have made the rounds. Sotheby’s (New York) sold the 4-1/4 by 3-1/2-inch photo, “Jesse With Flower” (2003) for $1,400 (hammer) in December 2012. Christie’s (New York) featured her 2007 work, “Grave, Susan Sontag’s November,” in April 2010, which brought $1,500 (hammer).
As it is unlikely that Smith’s photographs will ever come to the market in mass production, those few that are in private hands will only increase in value.