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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.
When you encounter a photograph like this, it makes you stop and think. The composition, the geometry, the use of space, the details and story. In a sense there is mystery, yet there is perfection. Somehow, it draws you in. It's not distancing. You want to almost step into the story. I once saw these photographs hanging at a show. What was fascinating to me was many people walked up to them and touched them.
It was almost is if they wanted to step into the story. And with pictures like these, it makes you wonder, what is the person's story like? What is their home like? And here I was in New York, about to meet up with Rodney Smith. Now, it was set up, pre-arranged, so I had a little bit of time before we met, to get a tour of his home and his studio. So I met with his studio manager, and he was going to walk me around, and I was excited.
And one of the things that I knew that I needed to do was to create a portrait of Rodney without him there. Now, it's an interesting challenge, right? Because what you're trying to do is to pay attention to the details of this location, and try to do so in a way that you can capture images which say something. So here's the first picture that I took-- the driveway, the house perched up on a hill. Now, it's not a great picture, but it's definitely drawing me in. The gate is open.
Then we walked up, and I met the studio manager, and he took me to this inner courtyard. I loved the details. There is so much contrast. There's so much attention to small details. And I looked over my shoulder and saw the studio and all of the stonework and stairs leading up to it. I started to really pay attention to the fact that there are a lot of doors and windows, yet the home wasn't complex. It was inviting.
Next, we walked down this little path and went above the home and studio. I loved that perspective, looking down upon it. It wasn't a landscape that was flat; rather, it was varied. There were different angles and perspectives. And then we went into the print room. There were prints stacked in boxes and framed, ready to be shipped out and sent all over the world. There are other staircases leading up to different areas of the studio. A finishing room. When I saw the finishing room, I was amazed that how simple and serene it actually was.
So often, studios are busy. I mean a lot happens, and a lot happens in this studio, but everything kind of had its place. It was refreshing. It was bright. It was inviting. And then the studio manager took me to the living room. Oh, that is a room: the grand piano in the corner, big photographs on the wall. And so what I'm trying to do here with my camera is just get familiar with these little details. I am trying to begin to think about who is this person that creates images like these? And it's a wonderful challenge.
A lot of times I try to do this when I am photographing people. If ever I can show up early, I bring my camera almost like a sketchbook, taking photographs, trying to create a portrait of someone when they're not present. And what this does for me is it helps me pay attention to small details. You know, when you meet up with someone and you're talking with them, you're making eye contact, you are engaged, and then you're overlooking these other small details. So by having this extra time, it helps me get familiar with this location, with this place, and even more: it gives me a little bit of insight into the man behind photographs such as these.
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