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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.
Chris Orwig: Take us back to those early years, where we have talked a little bit about some of the work you do now, but what about some of the work that you did in the beginning? Rodney Smith: Well, that's when, you know, I was much more journalistic. When I was really, really very young, in graduate school, every single person around me was shooting large format 8x10. But for whatever reason, I was not at all interested in that. I mean, I liked 4x5, and Photography 1 class was taught with a 4x5 camera. You had to shoot 4x5.
They taught this system, and it was very rigorous, and that was great, really great! But when I came to making my own pictures, I was really interested, like, in 35mm. I was much more journalistic in my approach. And I was very, very serious, both in my intent and in the pictures I made. I was my own client for fifteen years. I would travel around the world. I used to find people. I had no money.
I used to find people who had houses in these countries who would only be there like six months of the year, and I would trade them, if they would let me live in their house for a month or two or three months, off season, when they weren't there, and I would trade them photographs for that. And that worked quite often. It was actually really good. It was a way I was able to travel sometimes without any money. 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. Chris: What kind of stories were you trying to tell of those people? Rodney: I was mostly interested in the faces, to tell you the truth; I was really interested in getting really close to people. These were people that I had nothing to do with when I grew up. I mean, I grew up in Manhattan. These were farmers in Wales; sharecroppers in Mississippi; 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 you able to live these kind of, by traditional Americans standards, this is very difficult life, and yet still really come out shining? It was really pretty powerful. I was a wreck.
I felt like I didn't have the strength of character, or the nobility of any of these people, and I wanted to learn how to do that. How do you have such a difficult time and not come out so angry about it? And so these people had a huge effect on me. Photography has been really, really great for me. And I want to make sure that I am-- despite the talking continuously about it's a difficult medium and it is a difficult life, photography has been my salvation-- and not only emotionally, which would take a few hours to go in to.
And it's been very nice to me financially too, so that's good. But it really has gotten me out of places emotionally, into the real world, to go out and meet real people, to participate in the world, to laugh a lot, to enjoy the process of making pictures. It's really been great. It's been really great. It's why I wanted to be a photographer in the first place. I just liked being with people, laughing with people.
And one of things I really like now, which is much, much different than my earlier years, is the camaraderie of working with my whole crew. When I was young and I was working with Magnum as a journalist, it was me and me alone. Now, it's a big crew. I mean, you know, now we have hair and makeup people, stylists. We have four assistants, clients, hair man, this all, caterers. There's a crew of fifteen people, or something like, that on these shoots, and I love that. I love the collaborative effort of everybody, and I think they are all very professional, every one of them.
I think that that's great. That's really good. I--in fact, that goes back to, I told you about, way back to my early days with Magnum, when I loved the meetings more than I liked the pictures. I loved everyone laughing, telling their stories about the thing. I thought that's what so romantic about being a photographer. It's getting out there, being in the world, participating in the world, hanging out with people. It's not, the digital thing, no offense, but it does not appeal to me to be sitting there looking at a video camera to see what the picture is.
I am focused on the experience, and then after the whole experience is done, then I look at the film. Chris: Fascinating. Well, I think in closing, thank you so much Rodney: Yeah, sure! for your generosity and having us here. And it's been fun to hear your thoughts and ideas and what drives you and motivates you, so thank you! Rodney: Thanks, thanks for having me; that's great. I am glad to be here.
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