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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: There is so much that I enjoy about photography, whether it's getting out in the field and capturing a moment and creating the photograph or reviewing those images after the fact or making my own prints. But above and beyond all that, I also really like enjoying other people's photography in book form. You know, I've highlighted a few of Rodney's books, and there's an interesting trend. Here was his first book. It's pretty big. Then this one was a little bit smaller and then even smaller. And now here back in California, we have his most recent book.
It's just such a completely different size and scale, and that kind of fascinates me. What we are going to do is open this up. And I am excited to open up this book because while I was in New York-- I was able to get it there-- we talked a little bit about the book, he signed it, and he also wrote a few words in the book. Now, I don't know what he wrote, and I can't wait to see what it says. Rodney Smith: This is a book many, many years in the making. I am not quite sure why it took so long, but the three previous books I have done--well, the first one was sort of a standard size, 9x12 coffee shop, just a coffee table book.
But the last two books were quite small, and so everyone was always saying, oh, you know, your pictures look so good big, I think we should do a really big book. So that was the precipice for producing such a big, sort of heavy, tome, because the last two were small. And I did this book, again, starting a number of years ago, with a thought that perhaps it was time to move on from this type of picture, and maybe there would be some other thing in the future.
I don't know. At this point, I still don't know. I don't know whether I am finished with something, or I am really just exploring it further. It's sort of more of a question than an answer. So that's sort of where the title came from. The designer is a person named David Meredith. Walter Thomas, who is this really eccentric and brilliant copywriter, wrote all the text, and it's quite funny. I would also say to do a book like this today, you have to be either slightly insane or in love, or perhaps both.
I mean, it's such a labor of love. There is so much work: the paper cost, the printing cost, the binding cost; just doing everything to the highest level is really, really almost impossible. I mean, you would not get a trade publisher to do this book. Now, there are trade publishers who want to publish this book in a much smaller version, at a much smaller cost, but it's not the same book. I mean, we really worked very, very hard on it.
Chris: The End. The end is but a beginning. And I am going to flip this around so I can read it. I have the edition number and a signature, and here are his words, and I am really just reading them for the first time. But he says, "Often some of the nicest and best things come from unexpected sources. You're definitely one of them.
I thank you, and I'm so happy to know you." And as I was saying before, it's fun to see this in my space. This is kind of--this is special for me. I think as an artist, as a photographer, it's easy to get caught up in it. I could just keep going and going, but I won't. I'll stop here for a minute. You know, I think there is so much to celebrate and appreciate in photography, and the final artifact, the print, really is among one of my favorite things.
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