Join Rick Smolan for an in-depth discussion in this video Frozen moments, part of Creative Inspirations: Rick Smolan, Photographer.
(Music plays.) For me, one of the most fun things of doing a book is taking two pictures shot by two different photographers, so when you put them together, they are a hundred times more powerful. It's just the position of the pictures that sort of brings them to life. And then depending on what came before and what came after it, you're sort of building this whole sort of animal out of all these separate parts that you've found in a box somewhere.
I always say that doing these books feels a little bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but you've lost the box that all the pieces came in. So we don't know what this is supposed to look like. We put it together, we go home, we all come back the next day and we print a PDF up every night and everybody looks at it and so we're constantly less and less but at the beginning we were swapping huge parts of the book. We're throwing half of the book out, starting over again. So when we lay the book out like this, part of it is we're trying to decide how many pages we want in the book, are there certain pictures that are too repetitive, have we already shown Obama with a big crowd behind him? There is a million pictures like this that are just fantastic, but you don't want that many in the book because you kind of touched on that topic.
When we're doing our books, I think I first react to the design and then I slowly react to the content. The thing that I have to be really careful about is all of us have very strong associations with different things. If you were bitten by a dog as a kid, you might regard all dogs as scary or evil, whereas no one else would see that picture as anything other than a cute little puppy. So even though sometimes I fall in love with a picture, I really like hearing everyone's reactions to it. I sort of feel like our books, it's a little bit like a Communist election. Like you want everyone to vote, but ultimately you still make the decision of who you want to win.
But if I hear everybody else say 'that picture just totally sucks' and I keep thinking I love this picture. After a while, I realize you know what, there is something about the picture that reminds me of something, but it obviously doesn't work for anybody else. The other thing I have to be careful about is there are some pictures that are like bumper stickers. That the first time you think when you see it, that's so cool. Then like when the fourth time you see it, it just wears out. In a book like this, you want pictures that have lasting value that resonate that- I often talk to my kids sometimes about- my daughter asked the other day like, what makes something art? She would be wondering what makes something art. We were looking at actually a picture of the Mona Lisa and she's saying, well why is that considered art? If I drew a picture of something, would that be art? I said, well everything is art, but I said, the art that I like are things like the Mona Lisa or Bob Dylan songs or photographs where it's the combination of the object itself and then your response to it.
So it's you plus the Mona Lisa wondering what the smile means. It's you listening to Bob Dylan's music and then making up the word pictures in your head which maybe totally different than the word pictures in your head. It's sort of like my father, Elliot Erwitt. If you look at his pictures on one level, it's a bird looking onto the ocean and there happens to be a little water facet sitting next to it and then you suddenly realize that the shape of the bird's beak and the shape of the water facet are exactly the same. You think oh, that's a coincidence and then you turn the page and you start realizing, oh my God! Everywhere this guy goes, he keeps seeing these echoing patterns and shapes and some of them are so sophisticated and so fast. I mean some of these pictures, they were just like caught like that, and then you look and the shadow on the kid's face, the little bands from the shadow from a tree is exactly the same shape as the railroad tracks going off in the background and then you realize, oh my God in the background there, there is a third echo of it.
So that stuff gives me goosebumps because it has to - it can't be done on a conscious level. I love pictures like that we can put it into our books where there is a story, but you don't want to give too much of it away in the caption where people get to make up their - you get to react to it emotionally and then you read the caption to see if you've sort of guessed it right or not. Those are my favorite kind of photographs.