Patti Smith: ‘Im not trying to change the world with photography’

The punk poet has spent years taking pictures with her vintage Polaroid Land 250, now her work is being shown in New York. Just dont expect perfection

Last year, when New York punk icon and poet Patti Smith descended upon Berlin, she did so with her vintage Polaroid camera. As a group of press photographers snapped her with Joan Baez for the Amnesty Internationals Ambassador of Conscience Award, Smith snapped back.

I take my camera everywhere I go, especially when Im touring with the band, said Smith on the phone from her home in Rockaway, Queens. Its hard for me to find the solitude I need for writing when Im traveling, but with my camera, Ive been able to take a little walk visit a graveyard, look at statues or architecture and if I get a picture I like, I feel like Ive accomplished something.

Now, 100 of Smiths photographs from the past 35 years are on show at Robert Miller Gallery in New York opening on Thursday. Never-seen-before photos are shown alongside those from her latest memoir M Train, named affably after the New York City subway line which leads to her home. The book is riddled with musings on her travels and lively personal details, and the exhibition, titled 18 Stations, is an extension of the book.

Cafe Ino. Photograph: Patti Smith courtesy of Robert Miller Gallery

In the book, there are 18 stations instead of 18 chapters, said Smith. I wanted my book to have visual evidence of the places Ive been. If youve read it, itll have a deeper meaning, and if you havent, the photos stand on their own.

Most know Smith for her debut album Horses in 1975 and the 10 studio albums that followed she still tours (just last year, she brought the Dalai Lama onstage at Glastonbury for his birthday). In 2010, she made waves with her National Book Award-winning memoirs Just Kids, a tribute to her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, but Smith has also been making art since the 1960s, including drawings and installations alongside her poetic photographs.

Since I travel so much, Im in a lot of different places that many people wouldnt have the opportunity to go to, she said. I like to show pictures of different things; architecture, an empty beach or an abandoned street.

Smith takes an unpretentious approach to photography, which seems to feel like a vacation from her hectic life. I dont consider myself a photographer, she said. I take lots of photographs; its a part of my life. But I think of myself as an amateur, theres nothing wrong with being an amateur. I take them with all the photography knowledge I have and with a certain aesthetic, but I wouldnt compare myself to people who devote their whole life principally to photography.

Some of her shots have an archival nature: she has photographed writer Sylvia Plaths grave, a suit belonging to German artist Joseph Beuys and Margot Fonteyns ballerina slippers. Its a visual diary, she said Taking photos was a nice respite from public life.

Smith first picked up a Polaroid after the death of her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, in 1995 and almost all of the photos in the show were shot on her vintage Polaroid, a Land 250. Rather than showing original, old-school Polaroids, she shows gelatin silver or digital inkjet prints that are made from the original photo negatives.

Sometimes will say my photos are blurry, theyre out of focus or theyre too soft focus, said Smith. My pictures look exactly like I want them to look. Im not trying to change the world with photography; Im just taking photographs I think have a certain amount of beauty.

Some pieces in the show include photos of sculptures, like a photo of a guardian angel in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery in Berlin, which is where the poet Bertolt Brecht is buried. I love statues and I often take photographs of them, said Smith, who said she believes in guardian angels.

I dont like bothering people and its just nice to have a human form to photograph. Sometimes you get a statue and with a certain light, they feel as if they have an empathetic, human quality. Smith is also showing a piece shot in her neighbourhood called Aftermath Rockaway Beach, which shows the cement pylons that once held up the Rockaway Boardwalk, which was destroyed after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

It was a very eerie sight, she said. Now theyre gone but I loved the boardwalk so much, it drew me to live there and now its gone.

In 2013, the artist photographed the table and chair she wrote most of her book in, which was at Cafe Ino, a Greenwich Village cafe that closed in 2013. That photo was taken the day the cafe closed, said Smith. I took the photo and that evening, Jason [Denton, the owner] brought me that table and chair as a gift when he closed Ino. Now, theyre at my little house in Rockaway.

Guardian Angel. Photograph: Patti Smith courtesy of Robert Miller Gallery

As part of the show, the table and chair are coming to the gallery where Smith will be giving public readings from M Train. She will also be in conversation with Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago curator Omar Kholeif on Saturday.

A lot of the book was conceived at that table and chair, so its a literary show, she said.

Smith would have never pursued photography if it wasnt for John Smith, the former assistant director of the Andy Warhol Museum, who visited Smith several times in her studio before (and after) mounting a retrospective of her work in 2002.

It was really his enthusiasm that drew me out to occasionally show the photographs, she said. Smith grew up reading 1950s Vogue magazines and photos by Irving Penn really struck out to her. Penns photos had a special quality that gave me the sense that, even as a child, the Sears catalogue was not the only way to photograph women in dresses, she said.

I came from a lower middle class family; I never saw anything like that except for in magazines I found in the trash. I noticed that some photographs were more beautiful than others.

It comes from the nature of the era the 69-year-old artist grew up in. I was raised in a black-and-white world, TV was black-and-white, so were pictures in magazines and movies, she said.

Its no surprise she counts 20th century master photographers like Jean-Luc Godard andAugust Sander as influences, as well as anonymous amateur photographers, who she says are very atmospheric, sometimes they look almost like reveries, Im into the same kind of thing.

Looking at Smiths photos, too, is like stepping back in time. My photos probably seem more archaic, thats alright. Its fine for me to dwell in another century, she said.

They also have a quiet quality to them, but that was never the intention. Someone asked me what the goal was for my photos and I dont think its anything besides taking a photo that I think is worthy, said Smith. If someone liked one and put it over their desk where they write or think, that to me is the ultimate place to have one of my photographs.

As for Smith, its a shame old cameras dont last forever. After the bellows crushed in her Polaroid camera, she asked her friend, the world-renowned photographer Wim Wenders, to borrow one of his Polaroid cameras.

He lent me one, which is in perfect condition, she said. Now, I not only have a camera but a new camera that belongs to a great artist. Im interested to see what I can capture with Wim Wenders camera.

Eighteen Stations opens 3 March at Robert Miller Gallery

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