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Patti Smith says AGO exhibit of her photography brought her to tears

TORONTO - Patti Smith has grown used to a certain reaction to her photography exhibit, a collection of haunting, monochromatic images relating to late loved ones or long-dead creative muses, including Polaroid snapshots of Walt Whitman's tomb, Virgin
Artist Patti Smith opens her first visual art exhibit in Canada at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Wednesday March 6, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan

TORONTO - Patti Smith has grown used to a certain reaction to her photography exhibit, a collection of haunting, monochromatic images relating to late loved ones or long-dead creative muses, including Polaroid snapshots of Walt Whitman's tomb, Virginia Woolf's bed or a delicate teacup that belonged to Smith's father.

"People say: 'Well, you do so many graves — are you morbid?'" Smith told The Canadian Press in an interview Wednesday.

"To me, these photographs illustrate the fact that I am privileged to go around the world visiting the resting places of people I admire, and being in close proximity with part of them."

And further, the 66-year-old punk pioneer sees the work as a crucial tool for remembering the many people close to her who were buried before their time.

"Patti Smith: Camera Solo" — running at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario through May 19 — features more than 75 works of photography, film and objects from the musician's personal collection.

The intimate photographs (shot on Smith's vintage Polaroid Land 250 camera and then issued on gelatin silver prints) include a few self-portraits but largely depict those around her, including her children, friends and creative idols.

One section centres on her relationship to controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989. One joyful snapshot depicts the duo commiserating at Coney Island years ago, while another simply showcases his elegant, monogrammed slippers.

Smith pays lavish tribute to another muse, French poet Arthur Rimbaud, with a selection of beguiling sketches, a photograph of his eating utensils and, sitting in the middle of the exhibit, a full-size recreation of the wood-and-cloth stretcher that transported an injured Rimbaud during a trip to Africa, the last voyage before his death.

Also among the ephemera in the collection are Pope Benedict's slippers and a stone from the river where English writer Virginia Woolf drowned herself.

One white wall is adorned with a Smith quote in bold black type: "I have a strong relationship with the dead, even a happy one. I get pleasure out of having their things and sometimes photographing them."

Indeed, Smith doesn't view the collection as a mournful or steeped in sorrow

"I lost a lot of people — my brother, my husband, my mother and father, Robert (Mapplethorpe), my pianist (Richard Sohl) and except for my parents, all of these people were under 44 years old," she said.

"But they're so present with me. We were young and vibrant and I thought I would know these people my whole life, and I'm not ready to let them go.

"And when I go visit people's graves, I don't stand in front of somebody's grave ... and cry," she added. "I think, wow, William Blake is beneath my feet. How beautiful is that? And I thank the air, the proximity, I thank him for everything he's done.

"If you loved a person," she continues, "don't discard them because they're dead. They'll walk with you."

Beyond paying tribute to those who influenced her creative career, Smith's exhibit is also a monument to her profound love of travel.

She was born in Chicago but grew up in rural south New Jersey, a "lower-middle-class area where nobody travelled." Her father worked in a factory and her mother was a waitress. Smith, one of four children, started working as a youngster to pitch in, babysitting or picking blueberries in fields. She says she worked in a factory at 16.

She grew up simultaneously profoundly curious and uniquely sheltered to the broader world around her, with European architecture holding a particular fascination.

"I never even saw a statue until I was 12 or 13 years old," she recalls.

It wasn't until Smith started to gain traction as a musician that she found the chance to explore. In 1975, she released her groundbreaking debut "Horses" — a highly unpredictable collection of free-verse poetry set to shambling garage rock that would have a profound influence on the nascent New York punk scene. Travel opportunities soon presented themselves.

"Ironically, I got to travel through a vocation I never wanted, and that's singing," she said. "I never thought of being a singer, I never thought of having a rock 'n' roll band, but it was through that vocation that I wound up seeing the world."

That includes Canada, of course. She professed her love for Toronto during a loose press conference during which she was also pressed for her thoughts on the resignation of the pope and for relationship advice ("A sense of humour will keep you together longer than sex — though there's nothing wrong with sex," summed up her response).

While in Toronto, she said she hopes to photograph Glenn Gould's famously worn seat (she listens to the eccentric late pianist while working). And the last picture she took was of Neil Young's cherished Gibson guitar, "Blackie," which Smith called a "holy relic."

She shrugged off any hints of reverence from the crowd — for instance, she dismissed a questioner's implication that her eye for gender-bending fashion was bravely intended as a statement.

"I dress the way I do because that's how I feel comfortable," said Smith, loosely clad in a black blazer and necktie, with a roomy white dress shirt, jeans and black boots.

"I've been set in my ways for a long time."

Here, she referenced her kids, who have pointed out that Smith dresses pretty much the same now as she did 30 years ago. Her children (30-year-old son Jackson and 25-year-old daughter Jesse) tour with her, where they routinely provide similarly humbling input, often unsolicited.

"Believe me, they make a lot of fun of me," she laughed. "When I perform with my kids, they're the better musicians, and by the end of the night, the people all know it because they'll laugh at me if I make a mistake."

Just as she was modest about the influence of her fashion choices, she resists expounding on the subtle differences between her various multi-disciplinary pursuits. She says, simply, that it's all just "work."

Between this intimately personal exhibit and her award-winning 2010 memoir "Just Kids," which chronicled her relationship to Mapplethorpe, it seems she's been opening up a bit more in recent years.

"Perhaps, but I have layers and layers to go," she responds. "I work all of the time. Eighty per cent of my writing has never been published. Eighty per cent of my photographs have never been seen."

As far as the writing, Smith says she's currently occupying her time with two projects. One is an "existential detective novel" that features "a lot of cigarettes, a lot of coffee, not much crime."

She's also working on another memoir, which she calls a "parallel work" to "Just Kids" (which secured the prestigious National Book Award for non-fiction) that expands the scope beyond her relationship to Mapplethorpe.

"People ask about other things. What about (late husband) Fred (Smith)? What about how 'Horses' came to be? They want to hear other things. So I've been very attentive to what, universally, people would like to know about."

She's not, unfortunately, taking many more pictures, mainly for pragmatic reasons — Polaroid stopped production on its instant-film cameras in 2008.

It was Mapplethorpe who inspired Smith's fondness for the format (she notes that they had to be selective with their pictures, since they couldn't afford film), although she truly embraced her Polaroid photography after the 1994 death of her husband.

Now, she has a reserve of "totally expired" film left but the pictures often don't turn out. She has to be strategic about when to snap a photo and use the precious film — for instance, she allowed herself 10 shots during a recent pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath's grave.

She has other cameras, sure, but it's just not the same.

"I mean, I have a Leica," she said. "I could go back to 35mm. But I love the Polaroid. I love the immediacy of it and seeing what I got. But you know, I mourn that there's no more film, but I also understand it's probably not good for the environment.

"So OK. I had a good run."