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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: But I would think that equally important to photography was painting, and I would say Flemish--Flemish painting was really important to me in how things were illuminated, how they use porticos and doorways and entryways as a light source. There was no strobe or artificial light, and I loved the sense of illumination.
And to this very day, forty years later, pretty much all the light that I ever do is always directional. I'm not a big fan of ambient light. I like that, but also Italian Renaissance painting I love--not so much for the lighting, because the lighting was-- but for the--I don't know, the style, the color sense, the patina of the paintings. The women I thought were very beautiful.
So that had an effect on me too. But I think all of these things, I think people like Gene Smith, how he probably illuminated things, lit things, Flemish painting and some Italian Renaissance painting was probably a really big influence on me. Chris Orwig: Without a doubt, the art that surrounds us influences who we are and the pictures that we make. So, I have a question for you: What influences you? You know, typically, as photographers, there are things that excite us or things that interest us.
A lot of times we start off with contemporary photography. We say we like this or that, but I think we need to go a bit further. What do I mean? Well, in my own situation, I like contemporary photography, but I also like all the photography from this last and previous century. You know those photographs where the photographer isn't trying so hard; it's almost like the scene unfolds and they capture it in an authentic way. Or perhaps you and I need to go back even further to other types of art.
Consider Rodney Smith. I like how he talked about the influence of sixteenth-century painting. One of the things that I imagine happens to him is when he goes on to a location and sees a door or a window, well, he sees that with a little bit of a different perspective. He connects what he is seeing to all of that influence and inspiration of those paintings. He can draw from that deep well, so that he can create images that are layered, that are nuanced, that have dimension and depth.
So as you chart this course to try to create more powerful pictures, one of the things I encourage you to do is to think about your influences. What are those pieces of art that really affect you? And if you don't know how to answer that question, start digging into different types of art. And I think as you do that, those influences will slowly filter into your pictures and help you create photographs with more dimension and resolve.
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