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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: I was shooting for a client, which I do not remember whom, and we were on a roof in Manhattan, and I was shooting other pictures. But I happened to notice this little, teeny precipice over to the side. And I asked the model whether he'd be comfortable standing there for a minute. And it was dangerous, but it wasn't as dangerous as it looked, because there was another ledge below him, but it was still a little scary. And he said, "I'll do it, you know, for a minute or so." So I did it, so I just went over with him, pulled him aside, took this picture and shot it, probably over a minute or two.
Now when I was taking--this is where we are at the point-- when I was taking that picture, I had no sense that this person would be leaping to his death. My idea was, he was leaping from one building to another. It was much more sort of positive. Chris Orwig: We each have our own stories, and as a result, we interpret other stories in others' photographs differently, like this one here. Is this guy delusional, or is he a dreamer? Or perhaps take this photograph in the foreground.
Is he jumping to his death, or is he jumping to safety? You know, we like pictures where we get to discover what's happening, where we have a say in the matter, where we get to connect the dots. As humans, we love discovery. We love surprise. It's one of the reasons why we wrap gifts for our kids at holiday times or at birthdays. You know, my girls, they love tearing through the wrapping paper in order to see what's inside of that wrapped package. There is something exciting about that moment. And so often, as photographers, we perhaps give too much away.
Rather, if we can step back a little bit and somehow raise questions, or add a little bit of element of surprise, invite the viewer in to make their own interpretation, to bring their own story forward, to try to decide what's happening here themselves. You know, another thing that I love that Rodney said about this picture is that he wasn't supposed to be taking it; in other words, he was on location, he had a strong vision, he knew what he need to accomplish, but he noticed something out of the corner of his eye-- and some of my favorite photographs that he's captured have happened that way.
Like AJ on the ladder, he was out to shoot, he noticed the scene out of the corner of this eye, and he paid attention to it. Like here, walked over to that situation, positioned the model, and then took the picture. And so often, as photographers, we are told, we have to have a strong and clear vision, and it's true. We have to be focused on the task at hand, yet at the same time, we need to be open for surprises, surprises along the way. And I think if we are surprised as the photographer, as the image maker, many times that will lead to other people being surprised by our pictures.
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