The cabinet of curiosities of Patti Smith

The cabinet of curiosities of Patti Smith:

the space above the desk

Joanna Roś

Uniwersytet Warszawski




april is the cruelest month etc. what remains?

brian jones bones, jim morrisons friend jimi hendrix

bandana. sweatband angel. judies garland. the

starched collar of baudelaire. the sculptured cap of

voltaire. the crusaders helmet like a temple itself.

rimbaud's valise. his artificial limb genuflects. surreal

space. brancusi bird brain[1].


Patti Smith, who in 2005 was honored with the prestigious insignia of Commander of the Order of the Arts and Letters, an esteemed French cultural honor, has always been an artist generous in her admiration and celebration of other artists. She has paid musical, visual and poetic homage to William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Hermann Broch, William Burroughs or Jim Morrison. The inclusion of many names of important figures is perhaps one of the first things a new reader and listener may notice in Smith’s work, but the fact that she is very attracted to the idea of cultural and spiritual masters is also evident in her activity as a photographer. One of the reviewers wrote about her poetry, “Smith makes her divine lovers visible by their mummified fetishes”[2]. Through the first so extensive analysis of her photography, which cannot do without concepts such as “relic” and “fetish”, I will try to answer the question whether something similar can be said about her photographic works. This essay does not exhaust the posed problem in any way and is rather a methodological proposal, showing the possible opportunities to examine the substance of Smith’s photography and ways to further their research.


A guardian angel in an uncommon bundle

In M Train (2015), Smith’s last novel, the author never mentions her own music, countless concert tours or fans. Instead, the readers move through the completely unexpected space, largely constructed from – among others – photographs taken by the artist (she never leaves her camera behind, especially when she is touring with her band), descriptions of the circumstances of their taking, as well as Smith’s associations with them when they became material objects. The most recent, lasting from March to April 2016, exhibition of Smith’works Eighteen Stations (New York) reflected the themes contained in M Train. There viewers could see the photographs accompanying the book’s pages in a new form and experience how the artist contemplates the strange persistence of things that outlive than the owners with which we identify them.


Among the artist’s works, we can find the photographs – to mention only things belonging to writers – of the chair of Roberto Bolaño, who was extremely sentimental about this piece of furniture, Artur Rimbaud’s ordinary eating utensils, William S. Burroughs’s, a friend-mentor of the artist, bandana, Herman Hesse’s typewriter, which is like the most faithful “literary biography” or Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, which left traces on the ground, accompanying the writer in her wanderings (Smith’ photographs are inspired by artifacts from some of her favorite artists and also from her personal life, but the difference between these two categories is sometimes very difficult to expose, as in case of Burroughs).


Patti Smith, Hermann Hesse’s Typewriter, 2003. Robert Miller Gallery 2016. Source a publication of picture:


“I’m drawn to beds”, Smithsaid during an event accompanying the opening of her exhibition Camera Soloat the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2011 (United States). “We spend so much of our lives in bed. We sleep in bed, we conceive in bed, we make love in bed. (…) We die in bed”[3]. No wonder, then, that many of her pictures show just these pieces of furniture, which once belonged to John Keats, Victor Hugo or Jim Carroll. I agree with the opinion of one of the reviewers of the artist’s exhibition: “Even Smith’s photographs of graves (…) can be thought of as forms of beds”[4]. She travels to places commemorating the dead, visits catacombs, crypts, war memorials and mausoleums, because of the people who were buried there. Smith’s “pantheon of heroes” determines not only a lot of the trip but also a lot of photographs that she has taken: she noticed something special in the graves of Susan Sontag, Constantin Brâncuși, Amedeo Modigliani and his partner Jeanne Hébuterne (Paris), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Rome), in William Blake’s headstone (London) or Walt Whitman’s tomb (Camden, USA). Some of her pictures show sculptures, such as the photo of a guardian angel in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery (Berlin), where one of her favorite poets, Bertolt Brecht, found his last resting place. When we learn about Smith, we always go to graveyards with her, she wants us to know about her pilgrimage to places where she wanted to be near her heroes. (By the way, she is passionate about the culture of the nineteenth century, and at the turn of the 18th and 19th century we can observe an explosion of travels to places marked by death. In many memoirs from this time, we may find the certificates of the visits to castles, prisons, burial grounds, rooms of executions and torture[5]). Smith treats the graves not only as beds, but also literally as the current homes of the dead. “You’re in very close proximity to not just the poet or artist but also their friends who were around at his burial and all of the people (…) who have come to visit” – she says about the visitation of somebody’s tomb[6]. “I know the spirit is elsewhere but certain aspects of him are there”[7] – she confesses about visiting the grave of her husband, but these words can be applied to visiting the graves of people close to us in general. On the other hand, when she travels to resting places of the deceased to thank them for the work that they left behind, which still affects her life, these “homes” also take the form of churches.


Certainly for understanding the artist’s choices it is important to be aware that Smith is this type of person who has always possessed “a kind of knapsack and this sack, worthy companion, produces, when opened, a world defined by its content – fluxion, unique, beloved”[8]. Smith defines this knapsack as an “uncommon bundle”, which has always been her “happy burden”[9]. A Polish cultural anthropologist, Stanisław Sikora, recalls that the Portuguese term “feitiço” started being used already in the 14th century, and it could also mean “the relics of saints”[10] ; moreover, English archaeologist and ethnologist E.B. Tylor wrote that the word “feitiço” may come from the Latin “factitius”, meaning “having magical power”[11]. Bearing in mind the Latin root of the word “fetish,” recognized by the latter of these two researchers, it should be mentioned that Smith must also be surrounded by objects which serve as talismans and these things, in addition, are associated with people important to her. For example, her deceased brother, who was also her tour manager, used to wear a red silk tie around his head and she “loved it, and (…) wore it as a talisman”, she brings also along William Burroughs’s handkerchief which he gave to her, everywhere she goes[12]. In her poetic prose Woolgathering (1992), she muses over her ruby which came from India, where it washed up on the shore and had a power: whenever she stared into its depths, she felt overcome, almost identifying the stone with the images it provoked, transferred to a distant Calcutta[13].


Portal-hopping and changing channels

Michalina Lubaszewska, in her extremely inspiring article The Photograph as the Object-relic. The Motif of the »Altar« in Literature and Cinema, reminds that reliquiae, reliquiarum in Latin means the “residue”, the “legacy”, while the verb relinquo, religui, relictum signifies the act of leaving – leaving something to someone. This fact suggests that the word relic etymologically combines materiality and spirituality and the spiritual dimension can likewise be connected with the sphere of death[14]. The objects which belonged to deceased artists – according to Smith – “take on some of the hopes and dreams and beliefs and spirit of the people who had them” and can share them with those who want to penetrate their essence[15]. One day at the New York Public Library, Smith had the opportunity to hold in her hands the pen of English writer Charles Dickens. Holding this object, she could feel what the owner of the pen felt[16]. The need to have a part of it makes the artist wish to capture the aura of an object on a photograph (“taking a picture of it myself (…) just gives me a little sliver of ownership, a shadow of ownership”[17]), and “object-substitute” on the photograph takes on the emotional charge associated with the person to whom it refers. These objects on the pictures should work as a “portal”, like an artist on the stage, who wants people to give her some of their energy, in order to transform it and give it back to them. At this point it is worth noting that she describes her meetings with the photographed places, which include elements of magic and enigma, in an extremely poetic way. For instance, when she swept the grave of Japanese author, Osamu Dazai and washed the headstone, “as if it were his body”, the flowers on the sepulcher “formed a small bridge, like hand touching”. When she was about to leave “the sun suddenly erupted, brightening everything, owing to flowers Dazai had blown away the clouds that had blocked the sun”[18].


The photographs from the series object-substitutes” or “relics of artists” by Smith can be considered the traditional understanding of relics, displayed on the altars of churches, because they serve to make contact, a conversation with the figures, whom they refer to (furthermore, these items do not seem to crumble, they do not disintegrate, do not turn into ashes). Smith writes: “I taped one of the photographs of the stone table above my desk. Despite its simplicity I thought it innately powerful, a conduit transporting me back to Jena. The table was indeed a valuable element for comprehending the concept of portal-hopping. I was certain that if two friends laid their hands upon it, like a Ouija board, it would be possible for them to be enveloped in the atmosphere of Schiller at his twilight, and Goethe in his prime. All doors are open to the believer”[19]. Often times in her literary works and in interviews she mentions the small, precious portraits which hang in places where she sits down to work or where she likes to fall into a reverie. She is an heiress of romanticism, which created the archetype of the studio, the factory of originative impulses, as a space where a creative process can potentially take place[20]. When she was a teenager, she started ripping pictures out of books and posting them on the mirror, presently, as a mature woman, when she is pouring her thoughts on paper, she likes to look at the portrait of Albert Camus made by another artist, decorating the wall in her house, or she tries to meditate over a Flemish portrait from the 15th century which hangs above her desk “to produce a shudder, followed by a curious rush of warmth, recognition”[21]. Contemplating “photo-relics” requires an intense reception, and a special act of exposure plays a huge role in this process. This exceptional place – for example the space over the desk – is for Smith a kind of shrine, prepared deliberately, shaped according to the creative activity of the owner. Although on her photographs we do not find images of famous writers, but rather their “artifacts”, her ambition is that her pieces would be the kind of photographs that someone would want to hang over their desk and look at while writing or reading. The photographs that she takes – as the ornaments of special places inhabited by poets, philosophers,or more broadly, by creative people – are primarily to make their owner happy[22].


The way in which Smith communicates with her own pictures resembles the combination of worshipping idols and saints, because the typewriter or chair which once belonged to her masters are just like the venerated mortal remains of saints. In the process of contemplating her own photographs, the artist experiences an extremely intimate and strong bond with a “substitute” of an important for her person which has been captured in a picture. One can even say that Smith’s photographs are reminiscent of the memorable scene from the Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, when Hans Castorp asks his lover to leave him her X-ray as a souvenir. The character places this gift on a dresser next to other personal items. Using this example, Lubaszewska describes how the internal portrait of Castorp’s beloved gained a new status – it turned into the “object-relic”[23]. If I can afford such a comparison, Hans sees his beloved in the image of her lungs, whereas Smith sees her “darlings” in the images of the objects that they held in their hands or on which they sat.


André Bazin, an influential French film theorist, does not see any difference separating the photograph from the object photographed, indicating the fluidity between picture and the object it represented[24]. This fluidity is particularly evident on the example of Smith’s work, not only because of the type of objects photographed by her. I think that the choice of the camera and artistic technique is not less important. “Unlike traditional film, the latent image of the Polaroid develops in daylight right before our eyes. The elusive reality lost at the instant of tripping the shutter is miraculously brought back to life, albeit virtually, almost immediately authenticating the moment one has sought to preserve. (Digital does the same thing of course, but the subsequent image is easily susceptible to alteration in a way Polaroid prints are not.) The fact that the more recent images [of Smith] are being shot on expired film provides another, if unintentional, authentic effect. The dropped-out sections of deteriorated emulsion and other imperfections foreground the mediated aspect of the image, acknowledging the photographs as artifacts in their own right” – essayist Vince Carducci writes about Smith’s exhibition Camera Solo[25]. In addition to this, the Polaroid is a camera which is capable like no other to capture the aura of objects. It is enough to look at the photograph Percy B. Shelly’s Grave by the artist, where “The reflection hovering near Shelly’s grave creates an otherworldly miasma”, to understand why Smith, searching a spirit in all the things, is so attached to her Polaroid[26].



Patti Smith, Percy B. Shelly’s Grave. Robert Miller Gallery 2016. Source a publication of picture:


The only difference between the photographs that she has taken and the ones we can see is that her pictures were transformed to silver gelatin prints. She does not use Photoshop or other programs for image editing. The extraction of character of each object makes the artist every time meet with a perfect, finite being. Her pictures not only repeatedly gain power from titles rather than their visual attributes, but they also have, in my opinion, more of the atmosphere of the objects which their show, which is a part of their similarity to the relics.


Relics of life, souvenirs of wandering

French philosopher Edgar Morin does not draw any boundary line between such concepts as “fetish”, “amulet”, or “souvenir”. He shows that they are rather difficult to separate and may fulfill several functions at the same time. A photograph – he claimed – is an impression of someone’s presence, is a presence of spiritism, is the amulet and fetish, and being a fetish and souvenir, competes with the relics[27]. Keeping an eye on how these concepts are intertwined in the reflections of Smith’s works which I proposed, it is difficult not to agree with this researcher’s statement. The photographs by Smith, that I deal with here, are a kind of substitute of “saints’ relics”, objects like the remains of bodies (Hermann Hesse invested hundreds of hours in front of his typewriter, which was photographed by Smith, and a typewriter is like a part of the writer’s body, similarly as a guitar is like a part of a musician’s body and so on) are enclosed on them as if in shrines, are “the business cards of masters” with clear references to their identities, and the author attributes a magical power generating inspiration and joy to them, because what has been captured on them was once effected by the bodies of important people (with reference to Roland Barthes’ known statement that a fetish is any object which has been touched by the loved being’s body[28]). However, at the end I dare to recall another definition of fetishism, drawn from the novel of a contemporary Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa:The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. One of the characters in the novel suggests that fetishism is a special form of expressing our humanity, the way thanks to which we define our space, distinguish ourselves from the environment, exercise the imagination and practice our individuality[29]. I think that these words collect all the above-mentioned findings about the essence of Smith’s photography, especially since that the artist says she is not a photographer, yet taking pictures gives her a sense of unity and her photographs are “relics of her life and souvenirs of her wandering”[30].


Of course, we can consider Smith’ photographs under a completely different angle, far from concepts such as “fetish” or “relic”. She supports foundations that own precious items, associated for example with famous writers. Because she does a benefit for them, they let her photograph this special issues. For example, in 2003 Smith was invited to visit Monk’s House, Wirginia Woolf’s English country home and gained access to Woolf’s famous room, whereshe could grasp the objects located inside it with the camera. When the artist was a visitor at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico, she was permitted to photograph the painter’s clothes (and when she became ill, she was even offered rest on the bed of Diego Rivera, Kahlo’s husband). Of course, her privileged position gives her a chance not only to take photographs but also to let other people see these objects that usually are not presented for touring exhibitions. Whatever the reasons for which Smith does not abandon her fascination with photography, each of them is connected to the words with which the artist finished her book – the portrait of two young artists’ ascent, Just Kids: „In all the world one may always hope to recapture something lost. But sometimes we are obliged to set the memory of certain things in a dresser of small regrets, Yet occasionally we discover in the folds of an old handkerchief a shell or insignificant stone that has once embodied our happiest of afternoons. We experience a moment of respite when all sense of bad luck vanishes. As when the corrected proofs of Finnegans Wake, left on a backseat within a maze of taxicabs, were magically returned to the hands of an astonished and grateful James Joyce”[31].



Gabinet osobliwości Patti Smith:

przestrzeń nad biurkiem

Francuski filozof Edgar Morin wskazywał na trudność w przeprowadzeniu ostrych podziałów pomiędzy takimi pojęciami jak „fetysz”, „amulet” lub „pamiątka”. Autorka, w pierwszej obszernej analizie fotografii autorstwa Patti Smith, która nie może obyć się bez pojęć takich jak „relikt” i „fetysz”, skłania się ku refleksjom Morina. Autorka wyjaśnia, że zdjęcia Smith, niezwykle przywiązanej do idei kulturowych i duchowych mistrzów, są pewnego rodzaju substytutami „relikwii świętych”, a artystka przypisuje im magiczną moc generującą inspirację i radość, jako że to, co przedstawiają, zostało niegdyś „naznaczone przez ciała” ważnych dla Smith osób.



The French philosopher Edgar Morin does not draw any boundary line between such concepts as “fetish”, “amulet”, or “souvenir”. The author in the first so extensive analysis of Patti Smith’s photography, which cannot do without concepts such as “relic” or “fetish” and leans towards Morin’s statements. The author shows that pictures taken by Smith, who is very attracted to the idea of cultural and spiritual masters, are a kind of substitute of “saints’ relics” and the artist attributes a magical power generating inspiration and joy to them, because what has been captured on them was once “effected by the bodies” of people important for the artist.



Ballen K., Sexual Bruisings: The Poetry of Patti Smith, “Oxford Literary Review” 1977, registered in the Patti Smith Archive:, 20.04.2016.

Balzer D., Patti Smith and Steven Sebring Talk Photography, Celebrity and Graveyards, “Canadian Art”,, 20.04.2016.

Barthes R., Fragmenty dyskursu miłosnego, transl. M. Bieńczyk, Warszawa 1999.

Bazin A., Film i rzeczywistość, transl. B. Michałek, Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, Warszawa 1963.

Brosses Ch. de, O kulcie fetyszów, transl. M. Skrzypek, Warszawa 1992.

Carducci V., Patti Smith: Photographer In Search of Lost Time,, 04.06.2012.

Interview with Patti Smith [for „Goodreads”],, 20.04.2016.

Llosa M. V., Zeszyty don Rigoberta, transl. F. Łobodziński, Kraków 2012.

Lubaszewska M., Fotografia jako rzecz-relikwia. Motyw »ołtarzyka« w literaturze i filmie, “Konteksty” 2013, No. 2, p. 191–196.

Morin E., Kino i wyobraźnia, transl. K. Eberhardt, Warszawa 1975.

Patti Smith: Camera Solo,, 20.04.2016.

Patti Smith Discusses Her New Memoir »M Train« – As It Happened (report a conversation with Andrew O’Hagan at a Guardian Members event at The Emmanuel Centre, London, 2015),, 20.04.2016.

Pieńkos A., Pracownia jako miejsce, pracownia jako dzieło, „Art and Business” 1995, No. 11-12, p. 60 – 63.

Rzeczy i ludzie. Humanistyka wobec materialności, ed. J. Kowalewski, W. Piasek, M. Śliwa, Olsztyn 2008.

Sayej N., Patti Smith: I’m not trying to change the world with photography (with elements of review),, 02.03.2016.

Silverman R., Patti Smith: Camera Solo, “BOMB – Artists in Conversation”,, 20.04.2016.

Smith P., Just Kids, London-New Delphi-New York-Sydney 2012.

Smith P., M Train, New-York-Toronto 2015.

Smith P., Witt, New York 1973.

Smith P., Woolgathering, London-New Delphi-New York-Sydney 2002.

Tanaś S., Tanaturystyka – kontrowersyjne oblicze turystyki kulturowej, „Peregrinus Cracoviensis” 2006, No. 17, p. 85–100.

Virginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dickens’ Pen & Other Cherished Literary Talismans,, 01.04.2016.


[1] P. Smith, Picasso laughing, [in:] Wītt, New York 1973, p. 30 (original version).

[2] K. Ballen, Sexual Bruisings: The Poetry of Patti Smith, “Oxford Literary Review” 1977, registered in the Patti Smith Archive:, 20.04.2016.

[3] R. Silverman, Patti Smith: Camera Solo, “BOMB – Artists in Conversation”,, 20.04.2016.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] S. Tanaś, Tanaturystyka – kontrowersyjne oblicze turystyki kulturowej [Dark Tourism – The Controversial Aspect of Cultural Tourism], „Peregrinus Cracoviensis” 2006, No. 17, p. 88.

[6] Interview with Patti Smith [for „Goodreads”],, 20.04.2016.

[7] D. Balzer, Patti Smith and Steven Sebring Talk Photography, Celebrity and Graveyards, “Canadian Art”,, 20.04.2016.

[8] P. Smith, Woolgathering, London-New Delphi-New York-Sydney 2002, p. 23.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] S. Sikora, Kilka uwag o fetyszu i fotografii [A Few Comments About Fetish and Photography], [in:] Rzeczy i ludzie. Humanistyka wobec materialności, ed. J. Kowalewski, W. Piasek, M. Śliwa, Olsztyn 2008, p. 240-241.

[11] M. Skrzypek, Rozwój teorii fetyszyzmu od De Brossesa do Freuda [The Development of the Theory of fetishism from De Brosses to Freud], [in:] Ch. de Brosses, O kulcie fetyszów, transl. M. Skrzypek, Warszawa 1992, p. VII.

[12] Patti Smith Discusses Her New Memoir »M Train« – As It Happened (report a conversation with Andrew O’Hagan at a Guardian Members event at The Emmanuel Centre, London, 2015),, 20.04.2016.

[13] Ibidem.

[14] M. Lubaszewska, Fotografia jako rzecz-relikwia. Motyw »ołtarzyka« w literaturze i filmie [The Photograph as the Object-relic. The Motif of the »Altar« in Literature and Cinema], “Konteksty” 2013, No. 2, p. 191.

[15] Interview with Patti Smith…

[16] Virginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dickens’ Pen & Other Cherished Literary Talismans, 01.04.2016.

[17] D. Balzer, op.cit.

[18] P. Smith, M Train, New-York-Toronto 2015, p. 183.

[19] Ibidem, p. 104.

[20] A. Pieńkos, Pracownia jako miejsce, pracownia jako dzieło [The Work Studio as a Place, the Work Studio as Art], „Art and Business” 1995, No. 11 – 12, p. 60 – 63.

[21] P. Smith, Woolgathering…, p. 73.

[22] N. Sayej, Patti Smith: I’m not trying to change the world with photography (with elements of review),, 02.03.2016.

[23] M. Lubaszewska, op.cit., p. 192.

[24] A. Bazin, Ontologia obrazu fotograficznego [The Onthology of the Photographic Picture], [in;] Film i rzeczywistość, transl. B. Michałek, Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, Warszawa 1963, p. 17.

[25] V. Carducci, Patti Smith: Photographer In Search of Lost Time,, 04.06.2012.

[26] Robert Mapplethorpe, an American photographer and the partner of Smith in the late 1960s and early 1970s took his first photographs using a Polaroid camera – Smith, who witnessed Mapplethorpe enter the world of photography, shared his fascination with this technique (among her artistic works from the 70s is a series of drawings based on Mapplethorpe’s Polaroid erotic photographs). Moreover, Mapplethorpe worked almost exclusively in black and white, to which Smith is still loyal. But although Mapplethorpe and Smith took a lot of photographs of New York City life, as Smith mentions: “It was out of my element. There were none of my things to clutter the picture, for me to identify with (…)”. P. Smith, Just Kids, London-New Delphi-New York-Sydney 2012, p. 223.

[27] M. Lubaszewska, op.cit., p. 192; E. Morin, Kino i wyobraźnia [The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man], transl. K. Eberhardt, Warszawa 1975, p. 33.

[28] R. Barthes, Fragmenty dyskursu miłosnego [A Lover's Discourse: Fragments], transl. M. Bieńczyk, Warszawa 1999, p. 243.

[29] M. V. Llosa, Zeszyty don Rigoberta [The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto], transl. F. Łobodziński, Kraków 2012, p. 209.

[30] From Patti Smith’s description of exhibition Camera Solo: P. Smith: Camera Solo,, 20.04.2016.

[31] P. Smith P., Just Kids…, p. 302.