Artist Patti Smith on her latest photography book 'A Book of Days'
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Hello. With that one simple word and a picture of an open hand palm side up, musician, writer and photographer Patti Smith invites the reader into her new work, "A Book Of Days." It's a collection of 366 photos - some digital, some Polaroid, some old and some new - one for each day of a year, accompanied by sparse text. And, as Smith writes at the end of the introduction, they are 366 ways of saying hello. And now we are going to say hello to Patti Smith. Patti, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
PATTI SMITH: Oh, thank you. I'm happy to be here.
SUMMERS: Your book is so lovely. It's elegant and really understated. And one of the things that I want to ask you first is, how do you want people to take this book in? Should we devour it from start to finish? Should we flip to dates that mean something to us? What do you think?
SMITH: Well, I think that I would never dictate how anyone approaches a book. I just hope that it will inspire people. It's really a book that - you can do all of those things. You can look at any date. If it was me, I'd probably see what was done on my birthday, which is why I actually included February 29, for those born on the leap year. But I think it's a welcoming book, I think.
SUMMERS: What was it like for you making the transition from film-based physical photos to a digital medium like Instagram? Are there things that are different for you as a photographer?
SMITH: Well, I mean, I can't really call myself a photographer, even though I've taken many, many pictures. But taking photographs with the Polaroid camera, you go out on your day. You have 10 shots. And so you really think about each shot that you're taking. And also, the old Polaroid film had quite an atmosphere of the black and white film.
SMITH: And so it was more akin to art for me. And when it was discontinued, it took me a little while to become friendly with my phone as a camera. But when I did, a lot of the principle was the same - the immediacy. I'd like the immediacy of the Polaroid. And, of course, we see our image immediately on the cellphone - and also because if you don't get it the first time, the shot you're looking for, you can shoot until you get what you want. The atmosphere of the Polaroid is sacred, and it can't really match that. But it has its own positive qualities - for instance, getting the detail that I could never get with a Polaroid camera. So I've just reconciled myself to the fact and now embrace it.
SUMMERS: I'd like to ask you, if I can, about some of the individual photographs that make up the book. And if I can, I'd like to start with one of my favorites. It is on January 5, and it's this photo of a white teacup and a pair of dark sunglasses. And the caption just says, my armor. And I'm going to be really honest. This is deeply relatable because I can almost never be found without my sunglasses. Tell me about that photo. What were you trying to tell us there?
SMITH: It's two personal addictions - my dark glasses and my coffee. But I think, you know, going out into the world, it's two things that make me feel ready and even cool. The dream was to have a pair of Wayfarers like Bob Dylan, which I eventually achieved and wore them all through the '70s. In the simplest terms, it's two things that make me feel cool when I have to go out into the world.
SUMMERS: Another favorite of mine is on October 15, 2006, marking the day the legendary New York music club CBGB shut down. And yours was one of the final performances there. The photo is of calla lilies. Can you just tell us about it?
SMITH: Yes. My band - we performed on the closing night of CBGBs. I mean, it was almost the typical CBGBs night. It was packed. You could smell beer and p***, and it was just a sort of - a beautiful, sort of melancholy but unruly night. And I received the calla lilies from a friend. When I looked at them at the end of the night, I realized that they would be the last flowers to be sent to CBGBs. And, you know, calla lilies - they have such a symbol of rebirth, of life, Easter, resurrection. And when I took the picture, I only had, like, two shots left in my Polaroid camera. The background, all the graffiti and the lilies sort of merged. But I wanted to remember them, the last flowers of CBGBs.
SUMMERS: In the introduction to this book, you explain how you chose many of the photos. You include photos of loved ones on their birthdays, photos that related to moments of your life on the days that they happened. But I was also hyper-aware of the fact that this book was created during some of the most challenging parts of the pandemic. How did that, if it did, influence some of your choices?
SMITH: Well, it influenced a lot of the choices because I was really in lockdown. Being 73 with a bronchiolar condition, I was at the top of the list of people that could not go out. So I was pretty isolated. And it was wonderful to have this project because it gave me, you know, something. I mean, being a traveler, I would've been taking pictures on the road for it. But I was limited to the pictures that I had in my phone - boxes of Polaroids and any picture I could take, mostly, in my room. So it's - you can almost tell the pandemic pictures because they're always by my bookcase. There's one of my - a photograph of my husband, carte de visite of Tolstoy, my talisman, Sam Shepard's pocket knife. They were all done in my room, at my desk or at my bookcase during the pandemic. So I made the choice to do the book then. And in my solitude, it sort of helped me relive a lot of travel and also go back and forth deep into the past.
SUMMERS: You've mentioned several times that one of your big goals in putting this book out into the world was wanting to inspire people. So I'd like to ask you, where do you find inspiration now?
SMITH: Oh, I'm easily inspired. I mean, truthfully, I'm inspired by films I watch, books that I read, books that I reread. I'm inspired by the work of others, by Greta Thunberg's efforts, by my daughter Jesse's efforts, my son's guitar playing. I can be inspired by a beautiful meal or a perfect loaf of bread. But the work that other people do and the books they write and the cathedrals they build or the forests they save - it just makes life worth living.
SUMMERS: We've been talking with Patti Smith about her "Book Of Days." And, Patti, we are so grateful that you have spent some time with us. Thank you so much.
SMITH: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING BAREFOOT")
SMITH: (Singing) She is benediction. She... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.