Battered Angels

The space is quiet, serene yet also filled with tension. You sometimes find yourself holding your breath. A musician created it, but there is no music. The exhibit is Patti Smith’s Camera Solo at the Detroit Institute of Art.

Smith began what she calls “pure photography,” i.e., without a flash, in earnest after her husband’s death in 1994. The big polaroid camera that she used for many of the exhibit’s photos is here, along with a card explaining how she learned from Robert Mapplethorpe, when they were both extremely broke in the Just Kids days, to make sure an image was perfect before she shot it. They literally could not afford to make mistakes; film was too expensive. Now, with Polaroid film rare and limited to packs of 10 which can only yeild 10 prints from each original, it amounts to the same thing.

That care, as if every object documented will break if you breathe too hard, infuses each item in the exhibit. Themes emerge. Smith loves beds, noting that we do so many important things in them: sleep, make love, read, play, heal from sickness, die. Shoes, worn and abandoned, become powerful talismans of their owners, something she notes in a card accompanying a photo of Mapplethorpe’s slippers. The few objects strike deep, plangent chords, songs of mourning in which life’s brevity enhances its wild beauty. A stone from the river where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, perfectly round; the great writer with the beautiful mind loaded her pockets with them to ensure she’d sink right to the bottom. A chipped cup that Smith bought for her father, that he treasured, and that she now looks at and holds often but never drinks from. Mapplethorpe’s simple, mottled cross.

And there are angels. Not the sappy ones that hover overhead like so many Disney bluebirds, but solemn, grave, glimpsed in shadow, hidden by moss, often cropped in to focus on a body part or expression. In fact, a fallen angel figures in the short film that accompanies the exhibit. Equation Daumal calls to mind the Chris Marker masterpiece, La Jeté, as it pieces together a story from bits of seemingly found film and photos. But in the end, the angel, looking to camera, gives a shy smile.

That diffident sweetness shines like a deep interior light in all Smith does. The documentary, Dream of Life, surprises and delights because this artist, so severe, tough, and intense in every photo that’s ever been taken of her, emerges as a kind, thoughtful woman without a negative word to say about anyone or anything. The tyranny of death over so many people she loved has left her grateful to have known them; there is not a trace of bitterness or self-pity in any of her work. Of course she doesn’t need a flash. Patti Smith can find light that makes even the most commonplace and neglected object glowing, beautiful.

If you’re anywhere near Detroit and the wonderful DIA, one of the best things about this cracked city with a bruised but not broken heart, get there before the exhibit leaves in early September.

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