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To the passive observer, Elliot Smith lived most rock and roll clichés. He was introspective; self-aware and insecure; reproachful and, as a byproduct, regretful; had a darker side that manifest itself in drug use; and, finally, took his life before his genius was fully recognized by the public (or, arguably, fully realized in his own music).
To the admirer or friend, and the many that became both, Smith was indeed all of these things. His actions near the end of his life brought on cringes, not to mention a common dictum of "there's nothing more I can do" from his inner circle. Equally imparted, however, was the notion amongst those close Smith that "there is this other side to him." The latter sentiment is perhaps the way to preserve an accurate keepsake of his memory, and friend and photographer Autumn de Wilde exhibits Elliot Smith, her collection of thoughts and images, with that notion in mind; there is this other side of him that people need to realize.
Succinctly described as an assemblage of photographs, personal ephemera, handwritten lyrics, and conversations with Smith's closest confidantes and collaborators, Elliot Smith features a hefty amount of photographs from Smith's Figure 8 period and the time thereafter. de Wilde designed the package and cover for Figure 8, along with directing the video for "Son of Sam," a process through which they became close friends and collaborators.
One recognizes that Smith felt comfortable working with de Wilde, and this familiarity colors the images she captured. In the foreword "Being Photographed" by Beck Hansen and Chris Walla (two artists that have worked closely with de Wilde, to go along with many others: Spoon, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Eels, the White Stripes, Modest Mouse, and Rilo Kiley, to name a few), Beck reflects on de Wilde's images by saying that "in the purest sense, you can tell her love of her friends and her family really comes through, and I think that all that creates this safe place for somebody to just be."
In the book's introduction Beck and Walla discuss de Wilde's unobtrusive approach to her photographs, which are framed more as art than as the commercial image capturing that it also is. de Wilde is noted as someone who does not come into another artist's space "to fit some bizarre interpretation," as Beck says. She comes into that space as a person first. But as a photographer as well she is not just a silent eye, or a fly on the wall, waiting for something natural to happen; she is herself aware of and makes the musician aware of the situation's inherent awkwardness. While talking with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf (a band that played a week of shows in France with Elliot Smith and Quasi), de Wilde discusses how she learned from Henry Diltz, the rock photographer, to approach a room with a camera around her neck. In this manner she learned to avoid an announcement every time she approached for a shot (as opposed to taking out and putting away her camera based on the intervals of what she perceived as interesting), and in a sense owned up to the relationship.
Owing to de Wilde's complicated positioning as photographer in Smith's case, her photos are subtle yet not necessarily minimalist, as those conditioned to magazine spreads might assume. They strike a balance between posed and spontaneous shots, many being being set up even if they are not quite rehearsed. In one spread, Smith takes the last drag of his cigarette in black and white, and in another shot (also in black and white) he stands with his hands on his hips, smiling slightly under his Beatles mop-top while looking down, toward something out of frame. One is apt to assume that the former is staged and the latter is unprompted, but the opposite can also be seen taking place here, a testament to de Wilde's subtle artistic decisions.
Photo groupings in Elliot Smith are often narrative in nature, either sequential or based on various angles of perspective. One of the strongest sets captures Smith engaged in the writing process. We see his hands working on the "Son of Sam" lyrics at a table. Then a full spread depicts him sitting in a suit, hunched over a table in an empty room, save for a few framed photographs and a stack of books, with three windows in front allowing light to enter the room. In what follows, various angles depict Smith hard at work in the process of composition -- writing lyrics and strumming a guitar -- before finally ending with some close-ups, the last with him staring unabashedly at the camera.
Despite a handful of photographs that would suggest otherwise, the book centers on the songwriter's playful side rather than on the more brooding, ultimately suicidal persona that is most widely remembered in the media. In fact, de Wilde's discussions with friends and collaborators in Elliot Smith center on the musician's idiosyncrasies, often including various perspectives on his penchant for running a joke into the ground and his genuine love for what others regarded as tasteless pop songs. In continuation of the latter idea, de Wilde includes in her Acknowledgements a playlist of previously discussed songs that counts "I'm Only Sleeping" by The Beatles along with "Summer Breeze" by Seals and Crofts and "The Spirit of the Radio" by Rush as some of Smith's favorites.
While the book's inner-circle conversations may enlighten readers to a side of Smith much opposed to the reputation of burnt-out drug casualty that he has to date been survived by, they can be tedious to outsiders accustomed to the more familiar image, long employed by his own publicists and record companies, of Smith as an artisan in the medium of pain, melancholy and loneliness. Moreover, the passages aimed at analyzing Smith in depth in the opposite direction employ the questionably appropriate tactic of recreating, in discussion, situations that the artist himself, by the very nature of the events in question, was not completely comfortable with. This rather unconventional approach to demystify the songwriter in part adds to the outcast mystique that can be seen as surrounding him while at the same time ends up neglecting some of the commonalities that others will unfortunately always share with him, as Smiths personal traumas should, if the devotion of his fan following is to be taken at full weight, obviously not be held as isolated cases.
Some of the most memorable moments in the book's conversations come from those who were directly involved in the creation and performance of Smith's music. Mark Flanagan (celebrated Screaming Trees/Queens of the Stone Age vocalist and owner of Club Largo, where Smith often played), Jon Brion (songwriter/producer who often played with Smith), Rob Schnapf (who worked on a handful of Smith recordings), and Margaret Mittleman (Smith's manager) all provide insightful anecdotes that give a more balanced framing to a persona often projected through the teary eyed praise of fans. Hearing Brion, a highly touted musician in his own right, expound at length on his chord changes speaks volumes to Smith's worth as a songwriter: "His chord changes, the internal motion of the chords, were always logical in a very beautiful way. That's what makes Bach tick. That's what makes the best of the Beatles stuff tick... He really genuinely loved the emotions that were generated by chord changes. He understood it better than anyone I ever met, quite honestly, by a long shot."
In the wake of his untimely if not completely unpredictable death, Elliot Smith's admirers have generally bought in to a singular, neatly packaged idea of him as a person who could stir in his listeners emotions much more complicated than the soft voice and an acoustic guitar he used to elicit them. This glassy-eyed devotion is what de Wilde captures so beautifully in her photos from the wall (instantly recognizable from the cover of Figure 8) in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood that became an unofficial Elliot Smith tribute shortly after his death. Through contributions of those who actually worked and performed with him, the discussions of Jon Brion and others add a level to the frame around Smith's general image.
For a songwriter whose music could as easily be described in endlessly expansive lists of cinematic terms as it could be summed up with deceptively simple generalities, Elliot Smith is perhaps appropriately most remembered in singular still images, each of them in turn worth a thousand words of its own. Along with her comprehensive collection of photographs, Autumn de Wilde's words remind us that Smith, too, was a person first. de Wilde's images in Elliot Smith capture the very human effect that Smith's life had, and will continue to have, on those it touched. SEE ALSO: www.autumndewilde.com
SEE ALSO: www.sweetadeline.net
SEE ALSO: www.chroniclebooks.com
In in a state of suspended adolescence, Patrick Gill can be found hiding away in northwest Ohio, where he spends most of his time rediscovering shoegaze, noise pop, britpop, slowcore, sadcore, lo-fi, neo-psychedelia, post-rock, trad rock, and trip-hop music. In his spare time he teaches college English.
See other articles by Patrick Gill.
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