Such was the auspicious opening last week for “Illumination: Who Are Poets,” an exhibition of photography and installation works by Steven Sebring at the Milk Gallery, including portraits of Smith and Stipe, and ten other artists like Jim Carroll, Joey Ramone, Neil Young and Philip Glass.
“I always thought they were poets too, these cats,” Sebring told A.i.A. “It doesn’t matter if they’re singers or songwriters. They’re also part-time composers. Poet composers. I feel like the exhibition honors that.”
Sebring, a photographer and filmmaker best known for his commercial work, including campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Maybelline, DKNY and Coach, became friends with Smith during the 11-year period in which he made Dream of Life, a documentary about the musician that won the 2008 Sundance Award for Best Cinematography.
The pair, both of whom are well known in the Rock ‘n’ Roll industry, gathered a notable crowd of well-wishers who were treated to a private set by Smith, and, for some, a few freebie souvenirs.. “A few things were stolen at the opening,” said Sebring. “Polaroids. That always seems to happen whenever Patti is involved.”
The show features a curious array of objects including vitrines full of Smith ephemera, walls tiled with contact sheets, feathers and arrows laid over photographic installations on the ground and a wooden cross that rises from the center of a scattered pile of medium-format black & white portraits, all a reflection of Sebring’s desire to transform his photographs into objects that extend beyond the wall. “I’m not just hanging a picture on the wall. It’s an installation. It’s an experience.”
With a soundtrack playing in the exhibition of classics by the 12 artists featured in the show (“Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones; “Helpless” by Neil Young), the exhibition has something of the feel of an archeological site. On a back wall, a large Polaroid of Richard Hell, looking defiantly at the camera through sunglasses, is collaged with smaller prints of the same shot—one that is juxtaposed over the place where Hell’s heart should be.
Scattered throughout the room are large-scale polychromatic portraits of the 12 artists, derived from images that Sebring retrieved from his archive, and then pixelated into large color tiles using digital technology. “They’re like stained glass windows—when you pull back, the portrait comes into focus,” Sebring said.
What’s next for Sebring? “I’m shooting on the new epic camera. It’s like the matrix on drugs—360-degree portraits. Lou Reed, Bowie, Eminem, Jay-Z. I’m trying to work out a way to manipulate these images to make them look like a Lincoln portrait from the 19th Century.” He paused for a moment, and then continued. “Whatever you can possibly think of with digital technology, you can do. That’s sick.”
STEVEN SEBRING, PORTRAIT OF PATTI SMITH.