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In the Narrative Portraiture series, photographer and teacher Chris Orwig explores the use of elements such as location and natural light to create images that tell stories about their subjects and produce a strong emotional connection. In this installment, Chris visits Rodney Smith, a photographer whose work is known for its graceful serenity and its wit. Rodney's career spans more than four decades and includes editorial, fashion, and advertising work, as well as several books.
The course begins with a wide-ranging conversation between Chris and Rodney, during which they discuss Rodney's work, his approach to photography and models, his love of film and of black and white, and the importance of creating photographs that both ask questions and tell stories. Next, Chris tours Rodney Smith's studio, including the darkroom, to get more familiar with Rodney before photographing him.
Chris then takes a series of portraits of Rodney. Along the way, he reviews his gear choices and the compositional decisions he makes, and discusses the importance of committing photographs to paper, particularly in today's digital age. Finally, Chris reviews the images and shares some insights from his conversation with Rodney.
Chris Orwig: What about contrast and tone, and tone in regards to even color or hints of color? Rodney Smith: Well, you know, I used to be so fanatic about print quality and really fanatic when I did silver prints. And I'd be very careful not to enlarge certain images beyond a certain size, because I didn't think the grain structure could handle that, particularly shot on Tri-X or something.
See, I guess when I was younger, I was trying to make the silver gelatin print something a little bit like a digital print, that is, unbelievably sharp and tonally resolute beyond--like as extraordinary as I could do it. While I sort of changed that barrier a little bit, I'm still as meticulous in processing the film, and if you made small prints out of them, they would probably have all of that. But the bigger prints are almost like a film in the sense that the grain structure from the film I kind of find as an asset.
I find it, instead of trying to get rid of it--I mean, I don't want it too much-- I sort of like the atmosphere it adds to the picture. It makes it--when you're looking at something so big, it doesn't make it feel so sterile to me. Like, I look at a lot of these really big, large digital prints, and they actually feel soulless to me. They feel empty of spirit. They just feel technically sort of virtuous, but emotionally really, really missing something.
And it's funny, because all my life I thought that's what I want. I thought I wanted a 35-mm camera to be able to shoot and work like an 8x10 camera. That I can blow up, that I can learn, that I could have a small frame or a 2 1/4 inch camera, blow it up as big as I wanted to, and every single bit of it would still hold together-- I mean like an Adams print so to speak, because he was somewhat of an influence on me. But something with the digital stuff, which seems to be doing that, that you can blow them up 60 inches, whatever, and if there is no grain, they are like absolutely sharper than film, I don't know if I like them, and I'm surprised.
I don't...I'm surprised. I don't...I don't know. I just don't really like them. They just feel cold and lacking something. Chris: Why black and white? Rodney: Well, first of all, there is more color in black and white than there is in color. Rodney: I've always felt that. Chris: Tell us about that. Rodney: Well, there is nuance of gray. There is, like, you know twelve, eleven, ten, twelve variations of gray, and it's a question of tonality versus a color.
So the subtleties of the tonal gradations of black and white I think are, in a way, more interesting than color. Secondarily, black and white is all about the architecture or something. It's about the emotional core, what under-sees or underlies color. It's not about the surface. It's about the bone structure, and that's always appealed to me. I'm always--I am so introspective. I'm always trying to of look below the surface, and black and white has always appealed to me like that.
Now, I do shoot color now, and I like it, but it is funny. When we are editing the film, 60%-70% of the time, sometimes the client will want me to shoot it both in color and black and white. I would say, most of the time we always think we like the black and whites better than the color. Chris: How about with the taxicab shot, the kiss on top of the taxicab? Because I'm just thinking-- Rodney: Well, everyone likes a color picture because the yellow cab is this icon of New York. Chris: Sure.
Rodney: I probably like the black-and- white version, but I can understand. It makes perfect sense why people would like the color picture, because I mean, the New York yellow cab, that's the icon story. Chris: So do you--it sounds like, do you almost tolerate color, or do you embrace color? Rodney: No, I like color. I like very sort of monochromatic color. Like, I just did a shoot for this Departures Magazine, and it was shot in a hotel, in a restaurant in New York City. And the second I walked into this restaurant, which was all red and black, I thought it was kind of striking.
I thought, oh, this would look really beautiful in color. Although, I must tell you that now most the time 60%-70% of the time, I'm being told to shoot both color and black and white.
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