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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: How would you describe your style in regards to directing people? So if it is spontaneous, and let's say in that picture or other pictures, how are you communicating with the model or the subject? Rodney Smith: Well, the best thing for me with the models is to have some time with them, which obviously you don't. As the days go on--if it's a two-day shoot or a three-day shoot that's particularly great-- the first few hours maybe they don't understand what I want, but they quickly get it. They actually quickly get it.
I mean, my first comment to them would be, don't model. I am not interested in you as being a model. I am interested in you as just being a person, being yourself. So don't do any of that stuff. I don't like it. So they get that, and they sort of like that, and then they slowly get what I am sort of looking for, and they really get into it. I think it's kind of ironic, because the lifestyle pictures which seem so spontaneous and so, like, capturing this moment seem to me to be quite contrary to that.
And my pictures, which like an Irving Penn or something like that, which look very composed and very resolved are really, really extremely spontaneous. It's just that I am able to put all the elements together very quickly and shoot it. I don't know how. Chris: It reminds me of this line I wrote down in thinking about our conversation by William Yeats. He says, "a line may take us hours, yet if it doesn't seem a moment's thought, an stitching and unstitching has been naught".
And it seems like they have this effortless--yet at the same time, like we are talking about--these dual qualities, almost like good literature, where you think these two things at once, and it's hard to figure out. It's, in a sense, it is unresolved, and it seems like you're interested in your pictures, and I could be wrong, but in that, the question and the mystery, in the space in between them. Rodney: Absolutely, I think I've written this. I think if a picture in fact answers every question, it's not worth looking at more than once.
The photograph should continually raise more questions than it answers, and that's the thing that's drawing you back more and more often to it. So there is a kind of mystery about them and a complexity about them and something that's unresolved. You don't quite know--well, first of all, there is a story in there, but you don't quite know what's happening in that story. I mean, you have an idea, but there is something else, and so it's continually pulling you back, and that's what you find attractive about it, I think.
Chris: And do you find people, as they respond your images, have different stories that they kind of pull from that, or? Rodney: Yes, I do actually, they do. People see different things in the pictures. I was shooting for a client, which I do not remember whom, and we are on a roof in Manhattan and I was shooting other pictures, but I happened to notice this little teeny precipice over to the side. And I asked the model whether he will be comfortable standing there for a minute. And it was dangerous, but it wasn't as dangerous as it looked, because there was another ledge below him, but it was still a little scary.
And he said, "I'll do it, for a minute or so," so I did it. So I just went over with him, pulled him aside, took this picture, and shot it, probably over a minute or two. Now, when I was taking-- this is, we are at the point-- when I was taking that picture, I had no sense that this person would be leaping to his death. My idea was he was leaping from one building to another. It was much more sort of positive. But in retrospect, how it's been used is people think of him as leaping, but not necessarily for....Like, Vanity Fair used it for a cover of a new book of theirs on the economic crises.
It's on the cover of the book, and it's definitely about the collapse of the American economic system. So it's been perceived or conceived as more, things that are failing or losing rather than more optimistic, like it's more like a superman figure that this guy was going to just leap to another building. But that's the way I shot it. I mean that's the way I originally thought of it, and it's not been perceived as that at all.
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