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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: On a very superficial level, what makes a photograph successful, or good, for me is a picture that I have not made before and that feels somewhat new, but that's not what makes a photograph successful. If I talk about other people, like Stieglitz, for me, is like, you know, I never-- obviously I was barely alive when he died, but he would have been my mentor, not because--I mean, I love his picture-- actually, I adore pictures--but not necessarily because of my love of his pictures, but I loved his intensity.
I just found that just fascinating that he was able to expose this incredible energy in this two-dimensional piece of paper. Chris Orwig: Now that age-old question: What makes a photograph good? And how can we get people to connect with our work when they are bombarded with millions of images, and they have no regard for us, or our pictures? How do we make that connection? Well, I like Rodney's vulnerability there; he says, superficially, what makes a photograph good is that it's new, that it kind of excites us.
The work that we have created most recently often is surprising. It's exciting. We are drawn into it. And as we review our images in the editing process, many times it's exciting to see what pictures we've most recently created. But we have to almost step back from that. We have to separate ourselves from the experience, because no one else was there. When you review your work, you're really reliving that experience. But again, the rest of the world doesn't have that. So how then can we create photographs that are good? Well, we have to think about this perhaps on a bigger scale. And I love how Rodney brings up this whole idea of mentorship.
He talks about Stieglitz, how he loves his intensity, how he knows his soul. And in a sense, he broadens this term of mentorship to include someone that isn't someone you just meet with once a week and have coffee with and talk about photography, but rather, someone that you get to know, someone who is living or dead. Somehow you get to know their work, their intensity, their focus, and that then influences you. It helps you answer that question, what is a good photograph? And as photographers, as we go out into the world, to try to create pictures, we go out alone, with our camera, with our vision.
Yet we need to somehow extend our sphere, our circle of influence, to include other types of mentors. And I think by doing that, it can really affect what happens as we are creating those pictures, and also, after the fact, as we are editing them. So we are not comparing our photographs to our own images. Well, this is new; therefore, it's different. It's kind of exciting. I like it. Rather, it's comparing those pictures to a larger body of work. It's almost bringing that photograph forward to a mentor.
Edward Steichen, if you were alive, what would you say about this picture? Imagine if you could really ask him that question. And I think it will give you a little bit of a different insight. In photography, mentorship, having those coaches, having those people who influence you, it's essential. It guides us, and it strengthens our vision.
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