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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: So I was my own client. I would drive around the roads. I would see some farmer or some person that appealed to me, and I would take the picture. These were people that I had nothing to do with when I grew up. I mean, I grew up in Manhattan, and these are farmers in Wales; sharecroppers in Mississippi; you know, in Haiti, really, really poor people. I just felt that these people had a significant gift about life that I was lacking, that is, that they had this ability to go through life, which was physically and financially and emotionally very difficult, and yet triumph over it, that they were positive, funny, good spirited, and I just thought it was amazing.
I was looking for their secrets. I was trying to find out, how are you able to do this? How are able to live these kind of very--by traditional American standards--this very difficult life and yet still really come out shining? Chris Orwig: When you have the chance to sit down and talk with someone like Rodney Smith, someone has who has been creating for forty years, you can't help but think, well, how was it that they actually started out? You know, what's interesting about photography is most of us start out the same way.
We have some interest, some passion, maybe a little bit of skill, and then we go out into the world and try to create photographs that matter. And I like how Rodney reflects on the first part of his career, those first fifteen years where he was his own client. You know, he studied photography and theology at Yale. It's almost like he was trying to blend these two worlds. How can I create pictures that have depth? He went out to photograph people. And as he said, he was looking for their secrets. How was it that they were able to endure such hardship and somehow thrive, somehow see it through to the other side, and come out perhaps even shining? He was looking for wisdom.
And I think the camera can be a great tool for gaining insight and wisdom. When we photograph people, we have such an opportunity to learn from them, to learn from their life experience. I like how the British scholar and author Clive Staples Lewis puts it. He says, "It's one thing to be wise yourself. It's another to be surrounded by those who are wise," and I think we can use our camera to surround ourself with people who have had different life experiences.
We can use that almost as a way of taking notes, as a way of digging deeper, of asking questions, of trying to find other people's secrets, and you know, the end result is that we're changed. Not only are we creating good images, but we will gaining a bit of wisdom that somehow influences who we are.
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