In a small backroom at Robert Miller gallery in Chelsea, Patti Smith was standing by a table spread with Polaroids of Roberto Bolaño’s chair, the one he sat in while writing Savage Detectives and 2666. Ms. Smith was cheerfully greeting reporters.
“Hi! Hey! Nice to meetcha!”
The room was adorned with Ms. Smith’s photos, which will be included in Patti Smith: Camera Solo at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut, opening October 20 (incidentally, the birthday of one of Ms. Smith’s greatest influences, Arthur Rimbaud). The works were all made with an old 1967 Polaroid that Ms. Smith held in her hands when we walked in the room. She was examining it closely, brow-furrowed, as if she were looking at the camera for the first time.
“Really simple,” she said. “Dark. Light. Near. Far.”
Robert Miller, who passed away just last month, was a great champion of Ms. Smith’s work. He had seen an exhibition of her drawings at Gotham Book Mart and visited her in 1977 when she was in the hospital, recovering from a bad fall that had left her laid up for nearly four months. She declined his offer to do a show at his gallery, but he pursued her. Looking at Ms. Smiths photographs in the gallery felt appropriate. On the walls were images of Robert Mapplethorpe’s slippers, the river Ouse where Virginia Woolf took her life, the grave of Susan Sontag, a life mask of William Blake. Ms. Smith paced quickly around the room, sometimes making eye contact, sometimes inspecting her work, sometimes looking off in the distance.
A reporter pulled out an iPhone and tried snapping a picture. The flash was bright and blue. Ms. Smith turned from the camera and tried dodging the photo. Her hair was in pigtails. She was wearing a faded white t-shirt with a deep v-neck underneath a big black blazer. She would occasionally lose her train of thought and apologize.
Many of the pictures were taken while on tour. She’d run off before a show during the day to photograph the objects and environments of her literary idols. She said she’s guilty of designing entire tours around being able to see Tolstoy’s bicycle. She said she’s happier being alone.
“I’m a natural performer,” she said. “If there were 80,000 people out there,” she pointed to the room’s closed door, “I could say, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and play a show with my band as easy as talking to you. But I crave solitude.”
She likes particularly the immediacy of Polaroids. She admitted a digital camera could offer the same thing. But, she said, “I’m just a 20th century girl.”