Patti Smith draws crowd

Emily Wray

Usually, all the cameras are pointed at Patti Smith. Standing in front of a sold-out crowd at an event in the Block Museum of Art on Friday night, however, the legendary rock star turned her Polaroid camera on the audience.

The event, a screening of a documentary on the artist entitled “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” was held in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition of “Polaroids: Mapplethorpe,” a collection of instant photographs taken by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

The exhibition, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, features 90 of the 1,500 Polaroid photographs taken by Mapplethorpe between 1970 and 1975. Mapplethorpe and Smith lived together in New York City during this period, and Smith is the subject of a number of the photographs.

“When we were together, my focus was always that Robert got what he needed first,” said Smith during a post-screening discussion with the film’s director Steven Sebring and Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis.

“I’ve always taken pictures, but he was the talented one,” said Smith, who is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“Polaroids: Mapplethorpe” represents Mapplethorpe’s earliest ventures into photography and his experimentation with the subjects of his later work: sexually charged images, flower still lifes, formal portraits of artists and celebrities and introspective self-portraits. On display until April 5, the exhibition contains an assortment of small black-and-white photographs of subjects ranging from statues and telephone poles to male nudity and bondage.

“Visitors seem to be absolutely amazed at how Mapplethorpe could achieve such sharpness, clarity and great range of values through a Polaroid,” said Debora Wood, senior curator at the Block Museum.

Visitors to the exhibit are warned that some of the works may not be suitable for all audiences, although the public has not negatively reacted to any of the content, Wood said.

“So far, people just seem to be struck with the beauty and artistry of these works,” she said. “Mapplethorpe’s persona is sometimes preceded with the perception that everything he does is controversial, but that’s not necessarily true.”

The Smith documentary, which won the Cinematography Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, includes a number of references to Mapplethorpe. In one scene, the singer pours some of Mapplethorpe’s remains from a small urn into the palm of her hand.

“The film was very beautiful to watch, very painterly,” said Jean de St. Aubin, the executive director of the Gene Siskel Film Center, who attended the film screening.

Smith is in the process of writing a memoir about her early years with Mapplethorpe, despite her initial reluctance to write about the subject. She decided to undertake the project because other biographies filtered their relationship through the author’s imagination, Smith said.

“Robert was just the most supportive, sweetest and funniest companion,” she said. “This aspect I have not seen portrayed.”

After she completes the memoir, Smith plans to record another album celebrating her friends in the music business. She has already written a number of songs for the album and anticipates recording them in the spring.

The audience at the film screening got a taste of her musical work after Smith’s discussion with Sebring and DeRogatis. Following the interview, Sebring handed a guitar to Smith, and she treated her fans to a live song and poetry reading.

“It was lovely,” said Jennifer Klonsky, a resident of Smith’s old neighborhood in Logan Square. “I just wish we could have gotten her to play more.”

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