Many of us find ourselves thinking of our fathers at this time of year. Matthew Jordan Smith has much to be thankful for regarding his own father. He credits his father’s decision to move the family from his native Brooklyn to Columbia, South Carolina when he was six, as a key event helping to shape the man he’s become. “When I was a kid I had an anger problem. I think moving down south helped solve that quite a bit,” he says with the warm candor which has disarmed celebrities in front of his lenses for 23 years.
Smith’s father was also instrumental in his career. As a boy, Smith showed interest in photography, which was his father’s hobby. The elder Smith encouraged and began informal instruction on how to take pictures, care for hardware, and other aspects of photography.
Another critical male mentor in Smith’s development as an artist was Gordon Parks. As a boy, Smith read The Learning Tree by Parks. “That book kind of launched me. My father turned me on to photography. Then, reading about Gordon turned me on to making photography a career. That’s when it switched in my head. From that point on, I’ve been in love with photography.”
Eventually attending The Art Institute of Atlanta, Smith got his fundamentals down before returning to New York, where he began work as a photo assistant. “That’s when I got my real training in photography. In school, you learn the fundamentals and what to do,” he explains. “Then you get out in the real world and figure out how to break the rules.”
Along with breaking the rules, Matthew Jordan Smith has developed a few of his own. One thing he’s known for is creating a “common bond” with his portrait subjects. If the individual is well-known, he will do research online to discover everything he can about them. “Even if I shot them a dozen times, I’ll still go to Google and read something new,” he says. This even applies to celebrities like Vanessa Williams, whom Smith has been shooting for twenty years.
“If the person is not famous, you’ve got to figure out how to connect with that person,” he explains. “When you’re a kid, and you come back from summer vacation, you talk about all the things that were great in your life. You do the same thing, as an adult. You find out what their experience is like in life. You find out how their holidays were. You find out things we can all relate to that aren’t about work or about the shoot. Let them talk about it and get the connection. You talk about music. You talk about movies. You find that bond you have in common. Then, you talk about that throughout the shoot. You build that connection.”
Smith’s first celebrity shoot was Anita Hill for Essence magazine. It was his first location job, and the second job of his career. Done in the middle of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, Dr. Hill was at the height of the buzz surrounding her past professional relationship with Supreme Court nominee Thomas. Smith still has fond and deep memories of the complete production. “The entire time she talked about photography and what my dreams were,” he recalls. “I was in my early 20’s at the time and she was discussing where I wanted to be as a photographer and where I saw myself—all these little things. We just had a great time talking.”
Despite the incredible scrutiny and pressure Hill was under, the shoot went well, in large part because of how Smith ran the session. “I didn’t talk about what was going on in terms of the hearings,” Smith says. “I wanted to talk about her so I could get her to relax so I could get a good shot of her. She was very comfortable in front of the camera, as I recall. We got great shots. The magazine, I guess, liked what I did. They went on to hire me for years and gave me tons of covers. My first cover of my career was done with that magazine.”
Another early milestone for Smith was his 2001 book Sepia Dreams. Smith credits his mentor with making both that project and his career a reality. “My career started, in a lot of ways, by reading Gordon Parks, and his book, The Learning Tree,” he explains. “I want to try to do the same thing with my first book, Sepia Dreams, and talk about how people make their life [dreams] come true. Sepia Dreams was done because of Gordon Parks, for the most part. The Learning Tree was so powerful for me in such a major way. I wanted to do the same thing with my first book. I wanted to inspire people by giving them the information on how to make their dreams come true.”
Smith interviewed and photographed fifty celebrities on how their careers started. The process of exploring the power of fortitude was as enlightening as learning how to create the entire project itself. Smith enumerates the points learned by artists being tested at every step of their growth, particularly at the start of their careers. He feels strongly about younger people who don’t understand why the struggle to succeed is a struggle. “It doesn’t come easy. It’s not supposed to be easy—that’s part of it,” he says. “Photography is an art form and you don’t have to have somebody hire you to do your art. You need be hired, of course, to sustain yourself, but you don’t need to have someone hire you to make images. I love creating images. When I’m being paid for it, I love creating images and I’m always pushing to make that happen. The book gave me the ability to go out there and make images, have fun, do what I love, with being paid.”
The second book Smith published was Lost and Found, with Frank Lovece. This was a departure for Smith, who refocused his lens not on celebrities in studios, but on American citizens who had suffered a child disappearing. Smith also asked Ford Models if they would supply talent to hold photographs of missing children. Those shots are scattered throughout the book.
“Very often when you’re working in the entertainment field or fashion fields, it’s all fantasy, almost,” Smith says. “You are creating something. With Lost and Found, I was documenting people’s lives in a different type of way. The approach is different. The feeling is different for sure. It was a very emotional project to work on, doing lots of trailing all over America, photographing families of missing children. Sometimes the children themselves when they were found. Often, they weren’t found, or they were found deceased. It was a very hard project to work on, but, I love photography. I’m known for shooting celebrities and doing fashion and beauty, but I love photography, period.”
Although the book was not sold in most retail stores, it was given away or sold by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Any profits went to the center for their continued work. On this personal project, too, Smith discovered new things about life and art. “I learned I love telling stories,” he says. “I love working on personal projects. When I fell back in love with photography again and found out that it was not just about…” he trails off. “I don’t get a high from the payday, I get a high from photography.”
The latest book Smith has been working on for four years is a personal project inspired by a trip to India and Nepal. He’s uncharacteristically quiet about this work-in-progress, and we’ll have to wait for more details to emerge on the subject matter. Smith is, however willing to discuss technical details. It will be shot entirely on film. “It can’t be done digitally,” he insists. “The photography fits into a box. We have 35mm box. We have a medium format box. You look at a picture in a frame, and that frame is the box. What I try to do is take the traditional doors off. Which I know sounds a little weird until you see the images, then you understand. What I’ve done with this project is I’ve taken off the doors. To my knowledge, the things I’m doing with this book have never been done before in the history of photography. That’s why I’m being quiet about it. The people who have seen it all agreed they’ve never seen [anything like] it before.” The book will have a New York gallery exhibit as part of the launch.
This month Smith started a tour with the help of MAC Group and Sony. Visiting one city each month, Smith will be doing a seminar, the likes of which he’s never seen before. “When I was starting out as an assistant, it was hard getting information,” he remembers. “Everybody wanted to hold onto their secrets. I think you have to always get knowledge in some way. I always tell people you learn in three ways: the places you go, the people you meet, the books you read, that’s it. If you want to grow, especially when things are changing as fast as they are in our industry, you need to get more information, so I’m doing a full seminar. I’m teaching people, inspiring them in new ways. In my seminar, I want to make it as realistic as possible because when people hire you, it’s not just about going there and taking a picture. There are so many folks out there where they bring models in, or their cousin, or whoever and you shoot pictures of a pretty girl and get excited about that, but it doesn’t help you in terms of advancing your career. So I’ve put together a two-part seminar. The first night is speaking and inspiring people by giving them all this information others hold onto and are scared to talk about. I’m giving out all the secrets. The second day is a very intensive full-day workshop and for those who sign up for it, they will get the advantage of, number one, having me critique their work, but number two, and more importantly, we’re going to work on an assignment together the same way if as a client gave an assignment. I’m going to give each person in the class an assignment and they’ll shoot part of it before the seminar starts and they’ll shoot the second part in class with me. When you get an assignment, it doesn’t happen in just one day. You have to do some research and really work at it. I wanted to really hit home how important the research is and how that makes you stand out from everybody else out there.”
As passionate as he is about creating impressive photography, Smith is just as passionate about the gear he equips himself with. Known for bringing a lot of hardware to shoots, he feels there’s adequate reasons to. “I bring the kitchen sink,” he says, laughing. “You’ve got to have a back-up plan in case something goes wrong. I want to have everything I need to make my vision come to life. I’ve got to have the right gear, the right lights, the right color management, the right lenses, everything. I want to have everything when I need it. You don’t know unless you get up there sometimes. I do have a tendency to overpack. It’s harder now, with the airlines being what they are and charging everything they can for being overweight.”
Smith currently shoots a Sony A900 body, primarily. He also shoots a Mamiya RZ33. He carries a Sekonic L-758DR light meter with him on every shoot. “That one is still my standard,” he says. “I use that every day, whether location or studio; I’m using it all the time. People think the meter thinks for them. The camera and the meter are just tools. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, the camera will do it all.’ You’ve got to think. Having a hand?held meter allows you to think more.”
PocketWizard Plus II units are used to fire some of Smith’s Profoto gear, particularly his Acute system or Pro-7 units. The rest of the time, he triggers with D1 generators. “The D1’s are amazing,” he says. “They’re light in weight. Especially now, with travel being what it is—becoming harder and harder and harder—and the airlines charging you more for gear and overweight. Weight’s an issue, in being able to travel. I wish I had the D1’s when I did Lost and Found. I was in airports left and right. I’m still in airports left and right, but not the way I was back then by myself. The D1’s are great to travel around with. The package you can get away with, without getting killed with excess weight in baggage fees. Instead of having your heads in a separate pack, you have them all compiled into one self?contained unit, which makes it so much easier, lighter to work with. Then, also having the remote on your camera, you can change light settings. This is huge. You can change all your light settings, your exposure settings from your camera. You can take a light up or down a tenth or a third, right from your camera, versus having to walk and go to the pack and change it. It makes it so much easier and faster. It’s lightweight. They’ve changed the game, with the D1.” He uses his Acutes and Pro-7 units in the studio.
Smith doesn’t remain static with technology he incorporates on both professional and personal projects. “In terms of going on location with lights, being out in the elements with lights. The new BatPac is quite amazing. I’m starting to do a project, where I’m shooting a bunch of different brand new NFL players. I’m using the BatPac to do it that. We’ll be on location, shooting all over. It’s just lightweight. It’s easy. Self?contained. Using the D1 head is great to have. It’s another new tool that’s changing the game and making life for photographers easier, which we all need these days.”
The manipulation of light is what Smith does, and does well, under a wide variety of conditions, both indoors and out. “I love the end of the daylight. I love that golden hour of light,” he declares. “When I’m shooting with artificial light, I’m always trying to figure out a way to imitate that light. I’ll look at reality, I’ll look for how the sun is affecting light and shadows. I’ll try to do that same thing in studio or on location and enhance it to get the light I want, the look I want. I’m always looking, when I’m going out and about, to figure out, ‘how do I get that light? How do I get this feel?’ Having the right Profoto light-shaping tools helps me do that.”
When asked about the difference between shooting models and celebrities, Smith’s vast experience with both groups makes him an expert. “There’s a big difference,” he quickly says. “The models are easier, because they are used to being in front of a still camera. An actor is different because an actor is not used to being in front of a film camera. They are not looking into the lens. With a photographer, you are looking into the lens. The models are used to that. So, shooting a celebrity is almost like shooting an average person, because you’ve got to get them used to the camera. The camera can be very exposing, showing everything. It’s a still image. They get to focus on you longer than they do on the moving screen, where you are seeing them moving and in action. The still image is nothing like it, and it never will be. Yes, I know we have this whole thing now about the convergence of video and still photography. That’s the new thing, but I think stills will always have a home, because nothing there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like it.”
Near the end of our conversation, I remind Matthew Jordan Smith about a quote I read. He once said, “Shoot from the heart. Shoot what you love. Shoot what moves you.” This philosophy hasn’t changed, and he had more thoughts on the difference between shooting what you love, versus shooting for money. “You start hating what you’re doing,” he says of the latter. “You don’t love it like you used to. You’ve got to keep yourself inspired by doing what you love, because then you’re getting paid to do what you love. It’s not work, so much. I remember working as an assistant, and seeing photographers who were hating what they were doing. They loved the paydays, but they hated the work. I don’t want to get there, I don’t want to be there. I want to always love photography, whether I get paid for it or not. I want to be able to sustain my lifestyle for sure and all that, but I love photography, I love doing it. I want to do it forever.”
The trick to making this happen for Smith is his personal projects. “With personal projects, it’s all you,” he says. “You’re doing it because you want to do it, not because somebody is forcing you to do it. That’s what keeps you fresh.” Armed with this approach, the world will continue to enjoy more quality images from Matthew Jordan Smith’s cameras for some time to come.
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