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Rick Smolan, Photographer

Interview with Lynda


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Rick Smolan, Photographer

with Rick Smolan

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(Music playing.) Lynda Weinman: Hello, I am Lynda Weinman with lynda.com and I have the pleasure today to be here with Rick Smolan from Against All Odds Productions. Rick, it's fantastic to be with you today. Rick Smolan: Nice to be here Lynda. Lynda Weinman: Thank you. The first time that I ever heard about you was when you created a book called From Alice to Ocean which had a CD-ROM in it and it was one of the very first examples of an interactive multimedia CD-ROM and it was just fantastic and opened so many doors and so many people's imaginations.

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Rick Smolan, Photographer
1h 17m Appropriate for all Jun 29, 2009

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Rick Smolan is responsible for some of the largest photographic projects ever undertaken. A former Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer, Rick created the best-selling Day in the Life book series and many other large-scale photographic projects, such as America 24/7, 24 Hours in Cyberspace, and Blue Planet Run. He pushes the boundaries of technology with each new project while delivering inspiring books that tell masterful photographic stories. His projects have been featured on the covers of magazines such as Fortune, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. This installment of Creative Inspirations takes viewers inside Rick's latest production, where he reveals his unique processes and shows how he reinvents himself for each new project.

Subjects:
Photography Creative Inspirations Documentaries
Author:
Rick Smolan

Interview with Lynda

(Music playing.) Lynda Weinman: Hello, I am Lynda Weinman with lynda.com and I have the pleasure today to be here with Rick Smolan from Against All Odds Productions. Rick, it's fantastic to be with you today. Rick Smolan: Nice to be here Lynda. Lynda Weinman: Thank you. The first time that I ever heard about you was when you created a book called From Alice to Ocean which had a CD-ROM in it and it was one of the very first examples of an interactive multimedia CD-ROM and it was just fantastic and opened so many doors and so many people's imaginations.

I mean it was really one of the very first interactive CD-ROMs. Is that correct? Rick Smolan: I have always thought that the news media or the people hire us often throw away some of the most valuable things that come along with us being photographers which is - it's not an ego trip for the photographers but when you see a photograph of a fellow stopping the tank in Tiananmen Square or the Andy Adams picture of the street shooting, the caption underneath it is factual. It says here is a lone protester stopping a tank in Tiananmen Square. But wouldn't you love to have a conversation with the human being who took the photograph, and how did you get your film out and when the picture was published did the Chinese, have you ever been let back into China again, and what happened to the guy a minute after you took the picture and all that exists but somehow the news media kind of distills it out to just kind of very dispassionate information.

So when I first saw CD-ROMs and started learning about multimedia and the Internet, I thought, Wow! Wouldn't it be cool if you could add, not that readers have to have that perspective, but you can give people multiple ways of viewing the picture. It could be just the caption or it could be tell me about the person who took the picture, or tell me the technique how did you take the picture, what was the lens. The reader or the viewer could choose all those different perspectives and I found very few people that seem to be thinking about CD-ROMs or DVDs or the Internet that way still. Lynda Weinman: In a way, it was a precursor to what happens today on DVDs, the extras that now are part of that. So at that point you were at the cutting edge of technology. It seems like you really like hanging out at the cutting edge of technology. Can you talk a little bit about your-- how you were introduced to technology and how it is that you got to be on the cutting edge, because not very many people live there like you do? Rick Smolan: I think a lot of people felt that technology is like an amplifier.

It lets you do things that --I don't feel-- I sometimes don't feel very capable. I am a pretty good photographer, but I am not a good programmer. I mean I rely on other people. What I love about technology, it seems to amplify what little abilities I have to do things and so in a way feeling a little bit weak actually makes me more attracted to technology because I can find a way of somehow having a broadcast network in my office because I can talk to a million people on the Internet or I think also, this is sort of jumping around a little bit, but I do these big photography projects over a year and there's a million people who do photo books and a lot of them are great.

So I have had to from the very beginning figure out how to get resources to do these crazy big projects. I find that by finding companies who invented new technologies, very often they are looking for an avenue to put a human face on what they do. Lynda Weinman: Sure, a compelling story that will justify their existence. Rick Smolan: Exactly. It's funny. We did a book one time called One Digital Day. It was Intel's 30th anniversary and they came to us and I said, we are a group of journalists. We don't do annual reports. This is from Andy Grove who is the CEO and he kept saying, well but we would love you do this book about us.

I said, well, what would be interesting would be to do an entire book about the microprocessor and never show a microprocessor and just show the effect of it, and that's what the book was. But what was so interesting to me is Intel said, well, we will give you tons of ideas for assignments. I have to tell you that we got almost no assignments from their ideas. They actually had very little idea of how to put that human face on their technology and they were totally thrilled with the book because it was fascinating and interesting and invokes your emotions and brought tears in your eyes and made you laugh. But they were so into the technology and the marketing of that chip, it was really hard for them to step back 30,000 feet and actually realize that the entire human race now has been powered by these chips in a remarkable way.

So I found over the years a lot of these technology companies have actually come to us saying, can we fund our next project? Because you seem to have this ability to grab these to take these very talented journalists, not just photographers but writers, Nigel Holmes is incredible info graphic designer, and bring their technology alive. Lynda Weinman: Now you are one of the most consistent networkers I have ever met in terms of meeting Andy Grove and putting HP together on this project and so has that always again been one of your gifts or how did you cultivate that aspect of yourself because-- Rick Smolan: No, I was painfully shy.

Lynda Weinman: I mean so many people have ideas but so few people execute on them, especially to the degree that you do where you come up with innovative project after innovative project with amazing sponsor after amazing sponsor. So that's interesting that you were shy. Tell us a little bit about how you think you have developed. Rick Smolan: I guess there were two things I can remember from being a kid that were both perceived as negatives. One was being very shy. I couldn't talk to strangers at all. I couldn't talk to anybody at all. I sat in the basement as an amateur radio-- I used to do Morse code and sit in the basement by myself. Lynda Weinman: You don't have to talk with Morse code.

Rick Smolan: Yeah, exactly. That's what I mean. You just sit there and sort of tap away. The camera was my way of kind of getting over the shyness. I mean it let me go up to strangers, girls in particular when I was 16, and talk to people that I had no reason to be talking to and the camera was just this wonderful excuse to sort of poke my nose into other people's lives and my wife accuses me of using it as way of being there but not being there. It's like family events. I am taking pictures instead of interacting with my kids. So I am forced to put the camera down occasionally. But, the hyper focus thing I think actually can be a great attribute if you use it properly.

Lynda Weinman: Absolutely. Rick Smolan: It's obsessive and it's annoying to people around you, but in terms of getting things done -- Lynda Weinman: Well, I think almost all highly successful people are obsessive to be honest and have that kind of laser focus and also work incredibly hard. I know you are one of the hardest working people I have ever met. You are constantly working. Rick Smolan: I love it though. For me it's not work. Lynda Weinman: For you it's not work. Rick Smolan: I think one of the things that's great about being a photographer and being in the creative fields in general is that you are what you do and you love what you do. I can't wait to work on projects. I mean I wish I could take a pill and not sleep for a month at a time. I love sleeping but I just -- Lynda Weinman: It's too much to do.

Rick Smolan: Yeah, I mean your brain. Sometimes when I am really tired, that's when my brain kicks in. It's almost like you forget where you are, it's that-- When I used to run when I was a little younger, I loved that sort of runner's high-- Lynda Weinman: The endorphins. Rick Smolan: The endorphins, when you are working on something and your brain goes into sort of overload. A friend of mine, Marissa Mayer at Google, is just an amazing woman. When you talk to her, she is like those all FedEx commercials where the guy talks so fast and you realize that her mind is running even faster. She almost stumbles over her words because you can tell her brain is running four times faster than her mouth and she talks really fast.

One of the reasons that I love being in Northern California is being around people like Andy Grove and Marissa and Larry and Serge and Steve Jobs. I mean I don't know all these people that well. I have met most of them. But, for them, the thing that defines success isn't how much money you have got or the car you are driving. It's who has got the cool idea. So it seems to me that's much more of a West coast thing than an East coast thing. It's much less about appearance. It fascinates me to see people who are so successful. But again, the way they measure that success, their ongoing success, is the cool new idea and concept. When you talk to them, they are just driven to come up with a new cool idea. And it has nothing to do with making money from it.

What I love about the people at Google is there are so many things these guys have done where the money was a complete afterthought, if at all. I mean Google Images has never been monetized. It's been out there, Marissa created this, and it's been out for five or six years, no advertising at all on it. I said why? I said, you know I use this all the time. She said, well, we tested it and 3% of the people that we tested said that they would be irritated by it. We just decided it wasn't worth the extra $60 million a year that Google might make compared to irritating those people. But there are so many things like that that they have done.

Lynda Weinman: So what advice do you have for people who are just getting into any of these fields, photography or making books or any kind of creative endeavor where you are telling stories and you want to publish, you want to become a publisher? Rick Smolan: What I would tell young photographers or artists or anyone else in the creative world is, I'm amazed at how many of the people that I meet who are pretty talented but are waiting for someone else to give them their break. It's like if Time would just hire me or if National Geographic and I always found the way that I got hired was I would find things I was interested in and I'd shoot them and then I'd go and take that work and show it to editors and then I'd go back and shoot some more and show it to editors again and like the fifth time I showed up, people would say, wow, if you are working this hard for yourself, imagine how hard you will work when we are actually paying you to do it.

Lynda Weinman: I think you are giving some golden advice right now, showing initiative and not waiting for someone to hand you the golden ticket but kind of having-- Rick Smolan: You also do it because you have to do it. I mean it's not like you have a choice. Lynda Weinman: Yeah, it becomes your own expression. Rick Smolan: Right, you are just driven. Lynda Weinman: Exactly. Rick Smolan: Then, it seems like when I meet people that are driven that way, they always end up becoming successful because people just want to be around other people that are driven because it's kind of-- people get pulled into that vortex, when somebody is just so interested and excited and happy about what they are doing and want to share it with other people.

Lynda Weinman: Very true. Well, thank you for letting us enter your vortex. Rick Smolan: Oh sure. Lynda Weinman: You gave me a great outro there. It's been fantastic. Thank you, Rick. Rick Smolan: Thanks for having me.

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