There, in the dozens of beautiful, affecting photos, is the Elliott Smith we know — or at least think we know — from his poignant, melancholy music. Glancing downward, downcast. Looking straight at you, yet sheepishly. Seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. But there he is smirking, laughing, too. Goofing around in a Portland Trailblazers jersey. Playful, bemused, sometimes serene, even.
The shots are by acclaimed music photographer Autumn de Wilde — longtime friend and documentarian of Smith, who died in 2003 — and they comprise the four-day Pictures of Me exhibit at Queen's Nails Annex, one of the highlights of the visual arts component of this year's Noise Pop festival. Collectively, they present a complex, multifaceted portrait of the beloved singer-songwriter that effectively dismantles the easy and prevalent reduction of the man to simply "troubled, tortured soul."
"I didn't like it that people were saying they couldn't listen to Elliott's music because it made them too sad," de Wilde says from her home in Los Angeles, "and I just felt like if I could do anything to remind people of the other parts of his life — not to put in soft focus any of the tragedy and the self-destructive choices — but to remind people of the whole human being."
She pauses, then continues. "There's a lot of artists who have dark histories, and there's a lot of artists who have beautiful lives, and I think they all have a little bit of both, and they shouldn't all be remembered in one way."
Pictures of Me features candid prints of Smith shot over her years of close friendship with the singer — some while the pair simply hung out with each other or around friends; others during promotional, album cover, or video shoots — and in several different film formats (though not any of de Wilde's precious Polaroids, due to their irreplaceability). Particularly fascinating are her proof sheets, displayed on a drawing table under Plexiglas, which captures de Wilde's casual-yet-purposeful process of arriving at some of her most iconic images.
"I never decide who they 'are,' ever," she says of all her subjects — a long list of music notables that includes Beck, Death Cab for Cutie, Jenny Lewis, and the White Stripes. She considers them more friends than "clients," which explains why the notoriously shy Smith seemed comfortable letting down his guard around de Wilde's lens. "I'm just hunting for something, just looking for something I hadn't seen before, and that opens the door to many different types of photos."
Meanwhile, Park Life plays host to Noise Pop's second annual group art show, Sights of Sound. The month-long exhibit features works by more than ten musicians who create art, or artists specifically inspired by music, including Yoko Ono (her famous "Wish Tree" installation, which invites people to write wishes on small pieces of paper and hang them on the branches); the late Wesley Willis — the idiosyncratic, schizophrenic musician who died exactly two months before Elliott Smith — who drew cityscapes of his native Chicago with ball-point pen and markers; and San Francisco rock poster artist Terrence "Lil Tuffy" Ryan. Also participating in the group show is local photographer Alissa Anderson (known by many as the cellist in San Francisco indie-folk outfit Vetiver), who had a solo show in 2007. This year, she contributes two arresting black-and-white portraits: one of her close friend and former bandmate Devendra Banhart, and another of Shins frontman James Mercer.
"They really stood out in my mind as being two of the more intense ones that I've taken in a while," says Anderson, whose portfolio also includes compelling shots of Joanna Newsom, Bert Jansch, and her bandmates. "I put them side by side and it's kinda weird because I don't know if those two people have even met before, but there's so many similarities in the photos that were really intriguing." Indeed, though Mercer is clean-shaven and professorial, and Banhart is his hirsute-hippie self, their eyes, expressions, even the slight tilts of their faces share a common depth and frankness. They're images that typically only result from a certain kind of trust and intimacy between photographer and subject.
"I think it's really hard to take pictures of people that you don't know, that you don't know anything about — it's a lot easier to take photos of people when they're your friends, or you've talked to them before and gotten a sense of them," says Anderson, echoing the overlap between friend and subject explored in de Wilde's work. And as for the overlap between music and art, which Noise Pop clearly intends to spotlight, she notes, "It's so great because in this area especially, there really isn't an 'art scene' or a 'music scene.' It's all one big community and people are different facets of that community, and they continue to inspire each other."
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