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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: Rodney, it's a huge privilege and delight to be here in your home. It really is one of my life's biggest privileges. Rodney Smith: That's very kind of you, thanks. I am happy to have you here, by the way. Chris: So the question, opening question is, how is it that in this cluttered world that you are able to, or in the situation, say, like this picture here, in a pretty tricky environment, or how is it that you seek, or work to capture serenity or silence? Rodney: Right, I think that is actually a very good question.
I think the fundamental issue of why the pictures have an attempt at being serene, or attempting to find these kind of quite moments, is because inside me, not that things feel chaotic, but things need this resolution. They need this sense of order. I mean, when I was really young, I loved monastic life, not because I ever wanted to become a monk or.... But I loved the kind of purity of the lifestyle.
I loved the serenity of it, the peacefulness of it, the quietness of it. And in particularly in Europe, in some places in the Middle East, even the beauty of them, the serenity of the places. That was very, very appealing to me, although the other conflicting part of this is, I am very much part of this world. I am sort of a very high-energy, intense person. So it's like the pictures are sort of this counterpoint to certain needs.
I think deep down inside me, really deep, there is this person who is serene. But I think it has been so layered over for so many years that there is this... who is very unsettled by chaos. Now the other last little thing about that is, people often comment to me, everything is in the right place. They all look so serene. They all look so composed.
You must have thought about these pictures for days or quite some time, and the irony of all that, these pictures are made from the chaotic side of me, even though they look very serene. Chris: Explain that a little bit. Rodney: Okay, like, I look at a lot of things today. I look at lifestyle pictures, which are shot supposedly to be this spontaneous moment, where everything is just captured really quickly, and those are actually far more composed pictures-- they are not composed very well I don't think--but they are more created pictures than any of my pictures.
This picture or this picture or pretty much any picture I shot, I probably didn't know I was going to shoot it a minute or so before. Chris: Let's dig in to that, though; you see it but then there is a trigger. What happens there? Rodney: Okay, well, let's talk about that picture since we're in the room where that Rodney: picture happens to be hanging. Chris: Sure. Rodney: I was doing a fashion shoot for Neiman Marcus at the time, and it was in Beaufort, South Carolina. It's a place I actually really love to shoot. I like South Carolina; I like the coast of South Carolina.
And I remember scouting around with a location scout for days and not really finding much that I really liked. And we literally on one of the trips we were driving to some other place to look, I think a farm or a something, I saw this, this cypress grove, and I said, "We should shoot the picture here." To tell you why, it didn't look anything like that. It really didn't look anything like it.
It looked very actually unappealing. But I knew that I could make a picture there. Now I had no idea what the picture would look like or what this person would be doing or anything; I just felt it was in a location that kind of appealed to me, and I could make a picture there. The whole process of making a picture may be one or two rolls of film, and then I am done. I mean I am not the person who would labor things. Once I get it, I am on to the next thing. I know this is maybe not the best example of how spontaneous I am, but I am really spontaneous.
Pictures that people look at in regard as totally composed and well thought out in advances are actually created ten seconds before the picture is even thought about. I like to work like that, actually.
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