I find myself wandering through Patti Smith’s “Camera Solo,” the exhibition of the singer-poet-artist’s black and white Polaroids at the Detroit Institute of Arts. My favorite Patti Smith songs play in my head, “Ask the Angels,” “Redondo Beach,” as I look at the everyday and the extraordinary. Like her muse, the late Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith has a fetish for everyday objects and she captures simple, decontextualized, sometimes cold images of slippers, pieces of jewelry, and other ephemera owned by persons Smith admires or loves. “I suppose it’s my way of taking their portraits,” she writes.
The exhibition features numerous photographs of literary beds: John Keats, Victor Hugo, Virginia Woolf, the poet and punk rock icon Jim Carroll, with whom Smith shared a bed. We see their beds, sheets crisp, undisturbed, empty forever. Smith: “I like to take pictures of beds. We have extraordinary things happen in beds. We sleep, conceive. We dream. We make love. We are ill in our beds. We recuperate. So our beds are very important in our lives.”
Many of us die in bed too. Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist with whom Smith lived in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s, first as a lover and then as a collaborator, died in a hospital bed in 1989. Smith’s beautiful memoir Just Kids, deserving winner of a National Book Award among other accolades, narrates their complex relationship and exists as a eulogy and encomium to her soul mate.
Mapplethorpe’s life and death hover over Smith’s work, her memoir obviously, but also her lilting and vital new record “Banga,” and certainly the pictures of beds that are part of “Camera Solo.” Lonely images of beds, resting places if you will, are litanies of Smith’s deceased inspirations. Smith sings to Detroiters walking through her exhibition, Where would I be without Keats, without Hugo, without Woolf? Jim Carroll’s most famous song was called “People Who Died,” also a litany of the dead. Carroll didn’t die in bed, but rather is said to have died at his desk, writing. All of this hovers as well.
No matter how strong the invocation of Mapplethorpe, “Camera Solo” is never maudlin; beds are a more affirming motif than, say, gravestones. Yet the empty beds suggest coffins with their crisp linens and their extravagant austerity.
Iconic images of beds usually feature persons in them. John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their love-in. The grandparents in the first Willy Wonka movie. Most of Patti Smith’s beds are empty, their owners no longer in need of them.
One notable exception is “Jesse, 2009,” Patti Smith’s photograph of her daughter reclining in bed, a shy, melancholy look on her face. Jesse wears a tank top as white as the three pillows propped in the photograph’s background. She shares her mother’s androgynous style, a style made famous in the album covers shot by Robert Mapplethorpe. The photograph’s composition is Cartesian, vertical creases on the sheets, a horizontal headboard, but Jesse’s body is sclerotic, sprawled atop the sheets, too human to conform to the object’s coordinates.
The photograph is the most humane image in “Camera Solo,” and not only because it’s one of the few to depict a person. The photograph is life itself and changes the resonance of the bed motif. Toward the end of Just Kids, Smith describes her final encounters with Mapplethorpe, who died when Jesse was a toddler. Smith returns to New York from her adopted home in Michigan, Jesse in tow, to visit the dying Mapplethorpe. One of his last photographs of Smith is a picture of her holding Jesse. Part of Smith’s life, slipping away, another part only beginning.
Indeed, our beds are important in our lives, and in our deaths too. “Camera Solo,” another gift from Smith, celebrates the breathing. I’m glad I wandered.