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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: The whole process of making this 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 and regard as totally composed and well thought out in advance are actually created ten seconds before the picture was even thought about.
Chris Orwig: I like that comment. The photographs, they see informal, and they do, don't they? Especially these here. Yet they happen quickly. Well, how is that? One of the things I have discovered is that artists, they have opinions. They have taste. They have style. They are tuned into details that the rest of us overlook. It's almost like a musician, say a cellist. She can hear when one of those strings is out of tune. Or take that same musician.
When she looks at sheet music, what we see are all the scribbles and circles and lines, and what she sees is order, melody, and harmony. And by being tuned to those details, an artist can be nimble, spontaneous, agile. They can create things quickly. You know, part of our task as a photographer is to pay attention to those details and to respond to them. I like how the photographer Elliott Erwitt puts it. He says, "To me, photography is about the art of observation.
It's about finding something interesting in the ordinary." And he goes on to say that it has a little to do with the things that we see and everything to do with the way that we see them.
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