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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.
Rodney Smith: Well, you know, this one thing that was very helpful for me was Inge Morath, who was the photographer who actually got me to Magnum. I don't know. Inge Morath once said to me--you know, because there have always been thousands of people who want to be photographers--and she said to me. "Look, if you are good, there is always room." And I have found that advice-- I remember it very well, and it was many, many, many years ago.
And I remember that very well, because, like, you have to remember, no one has held a gun to one's head to be a photographer; it's something one chooses on their own volition. And it's not easy. There's a lot of competition. There is a lot of difficulties with it, all over the place. But it's something you choose, and it's really important, even though there are times where one wants to become cynical or angry or resentful, to really not let yourself do that, to realize this is a life freely chosen, and the good and the bad comes with that.
Chris Orwig: Photography is indeed competitive--fiercely competitive. And I like how Rodney reflects on this. He harkens back to an earlier time in his career where he received some wise counsel, the counsel which says, yes, it's a competitive field, but there will always be space for you if you're good. And so often, when we talk about the competitiveness of photography, there is a negative undertone; everyone's a bit deflated.
When I hear that, I say, bring it on; the more competitive, the better. It's almost like climbing a mountain. The steeper the climb, the higher the elevation, the better the view. Because if and when you make it, it's that much more rewarding. That's why photography is so satisfying, so gratifying, so fun. And being a photographer, I think, is worth it. And I like how Rodney talks about being a photographer. In another place, he wrote some fascinating words about this.
He writes, "If I have any genius at all, it is not in the execution, the making of pictures that fall short or fails at some level, but it is the choice of photography as a vocation. It has provided me with so much to give thanks for." And I think it's true, whether you're an amateur or a pro; being a photographer is worth it. It's incredibly rewarding. It's worth every ounce of effort, because as we create photographs, it deepens who we are and how we see the world.
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