“I love the 19th Century amateurs. That’s who I aspire to in photographs,” Patti Smith said. The musician/poet was speaking in the theater at the New Orleans Museum of Art, but her talk was being fed via video to an overflow crowd in the museum’s lobby. The occasion was the opening of a show of 40 photographs that she donated to NOMA, and she talked about her relationship to photography.
Her work, largely shot using the Polaroid Land camera, celebrates the people and things that are meaningful to her, but tries to find the mystery in those subjects. In images of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur scrolls, William Blake’s life mask and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields’ guitar, she treats objects as sacred and lets the imperfections that accompany the dated camera technology give the photos atmosphere.
Smith has made art about the pop culture she has loved, regardless of the century it represented. Her first book, 1972’s Seventh Heaven, included poems about Edie Sedgwick, Marianne Faithful and Amelia Earhart, and her debut album, Horses (1975), had its two signature tracks—“Land” and “Gloria”—built on the bones of the rock ’n’ roll she loved, “Land of a Thousand Dances” and the Them classic. Throughout her career, she has worn her influences like talismans, elevating them and herself by the association.
I saw your show yesterday. Were the photos all shot with your Polaroid Land camera, or were some with other cameras?
I think almost all were the Polaroid. There’s a couple I took when I was very young, in 1973, which are of Arthur Rimbaud’s grave. There’s a couple shot with a half-frame, I think it was a Rollei half-frame. The rest are all Polaroids, printed in silver print.
Are you still shooting Polaroid?
Oh yeah, I shot today.
Do you have a secret stash of Polaroid film? [Polaroid stopped making film in 2008]
Yeah, I have a stock of expired Polaroid film, but it still works good enough for me since idiosyncrasies of the medium—I embrace that. I don’t mind if some of the emulsion doesn’t work on part of it. It doesn’t matter to me; if I like the picture, I’m happy.
What were you shooting today?
I was shooting a plaster angel in a café. Yesterday, I was shooting a William Faulkner staircase and the statue of the Joan of Arc; I’m hoping to go over to Holt Cemetery. You really need to be in a place like this for a couple weeks and explore. The things that attract me, it could be the chessboard floor of a ballroom.
You said in your talk at NOMA you were attracted to the Catholicism in its affection for icons.
Its icons, but also its relics. A lot of my photos, I like to call them third class relics because first class relics would be the saint himself. The second would be something the saint wore, and the third is something that touches the area where the saint was, so my photos sort of have that third class relic.
I’ll visit Virginia Wolff’s house and photograph her bed or Herman Hesse’s typewriter or Wittgenstein’s grave, and I’m there and I’m touching it, I’m seeing it, experiencing it. My taking a photograph captures not only the information but the atmosphere of what I’m taking. It’s not just information.
I can take a cell phone and get a better picture or a clearer picture of Herman Hesse’s typewriter than with my Polaroid camera because my Polaroid camera has no close up lens and it’s very limited. I have to take pictures within its parameter, but I’m not so interested in just taking information, anybody can do that. Anyone can go into Virginia Wolff’s house and have a good picture of all the things in there because our present technology allows that with the simplest of methods. My challenge is to find something else, the other, the soul of the object, the atmosphere around the object, the aura that is emitted from the object. That’s a very personal and aesthetic equation, but that’s what I’m looking for.
It seems to be a thread that the figures that are important to you have shown up in your work.
Oh absolutely. They’re my muses. One of my earliest published poems was a three-page homage, an imagined trip I took with Blaise Cendrars. It was written like one of Blaise Cendrars’ long energetic poems, and I wrote it in the spirit of Blaise Cendrars. I’ve written poems about Mayakovsky. It’s not different really than writing about a guy you dream of. I write about what draws me to write. When I was young, it was about some boy I was mooning after or my own inner journeys, but also my relationship with other artists. My first published poem was when I was 15 for Charlie Parker, called “Bird is Free.” It’s about the death of Charlie Parker—I am consistent—that was 1963. I can’t say why I do that; it just seems to be part of my fate.
When I wrote poetry, I included celebrities because I wanted modern poetry to include people that I felt poems should be about.
There are certainly no rules as to what we can write about. Many of the great poets wrote homages to each other, Keats wrote about Shelley or the other way around. I remember when I first met Allen Ginsberg he was writing a long ode to Jack Kerouac, who had just died. We write about what inspires us, or what we want people to remember. Frank O’Hara wrote about everyone—Helen Frankenthaler and Billie Holiday, whoever he passed by, poets and people you never heard of, friends. You read a Frank O’Hara poem and the whole universe of Frank O’Hara is in it, which could mean poets and artists we know or Edward Denby or just some young man that he had a crush on. They’re all a part of Frank O’Hara’s universe, and we’re grateful for that universe.
I’ve long speculated that art is your religion.
I would’ve said absolutely when I was younger because it was more of a conscious decision, now I don’t really think about it. I would rather say to me art is my work, it’s what I do, because religion almost implies rules and regulations. Spirituality doesn’t imply rules and regulations, but religion is like a club. I don’t really want a club; that’s why I don’t have a religion. I like churches, I like going into them, I pray, I draw comfort from them, I draw comfort from my prayers, but I don’t want to be in any club, and I don’t want to have a bunch of guidelines for behavior or the way I’m supposed to pray or how much money I’m supposed to give, so I don’t have a religion. So I’m not going to make art my religion.
Is it more accurate to say art holds a spiritual place for you?
Well, art is my vocation. If you have innate spirituality, then it’s in everything. It’s just the way you relate to human beings or architecture or trees or animals or your children. I would say hopefully that it is infused in my work and in rock ’n’ roll, in everything I do. When I play electric guitar and create a certain realm of feedback, I have the same hopes to send that out into the universe or to be one with the highest order as when I’m writing a poem. I don’t pull in the gears for one thing or the other; it’s all the same. You want to do good in everything you do.
Changing gears, how did the gift to NOMA come about?
It came about through Diego (Cortez, NOMA’s curator of photography, who has known Smith since the 1970s), but I was really so pleased and honored to do this, not just because the museum is beautiful, but to give something to New Orleans other than benefits or money for various organizations. To also give one’s work is another way of reaffirming the fact that we believe in the city and this process of rediscovering and evolving in post-K. There’s all kinds of reasons to do something like that, as an artist and as a fellow citizen, but Diego can tell you more.
Who chose the pieces?
We chose them together. I plan to donate more pieces. I had to choose some by availability because a lot of my work is out in the world, but also things that I thought would resonate here. But I’m taking photographs here and I’d like to print those, the ones that I’d really like to give. I’d like it to be an ongoing process, and if they will accept more work, I would like this to be just the beginning of our relationship.
It would be great to have you in town more often.
I love it here, so I’m sure I will.