Matthew Jordan Smith has gained a reputation as one of the industry's top fashion photographers and also as one of the leading photography educators. Those of us who have seen Smith teaching or in interviews have been left with the same impression: he is a photographer and instructor that is forthcoming, sincere, and passionate. My experience in interviewing him proved all of these to be correct. Smith was both very candid and insightful, and here are 10 takeaways from my interview.
One of the first things I wanted to ask Smith was what inspires him. As it turns out, Smith finds inspiration everywhere. He is inspired by life, friends, his experiences, the movies he watches, the things he sees everyday. Art, specifically, is something that inspires Smith. One specific art showing that left an impression on Smith was a showing that included the life works of both Picasso and Matisse. In this particular show, the work of these master artists were broken down into 10-year incriminates. This presentation really showed the evolution that artists go through and the drastic changes that occur, even for the greats, over a career. It was during this show that Smith came to realize that evolution and change is a major part of any artist's career.
As for the fashion industry, Smith is regularly inspired by one of the greats of our industry, Steven Meisel. Smith recalled many shots from Meisel as examples of the way his work is ripped from the headlines, going past fashion and making a comment on life and the state of our world. In 2006, "State of Emergency" by Meisel came out in Italian Vogue and was particularly inspiring for Smith.
2.) Art School
As a fellow art school graduate, I wanted to get Smith's opinion of what seems to be a hot button topic: the place of art school in the career of a photographer. Smith echoed the opinion of my own: that education of any kind is a starting point, and that it is after receiving your education that your training really begins. However, Smith is a strong proponent of art school and the foundation it supplies for photography. He believes that education as a whole is invaluable and seeking out knowledge is always a good thing. There was one specific experience that Smith relayed to me, where a young man looking to get into fashion photography was seeking his guidance after graduation from high school. Smith directed him to art school. After art school, this same young man sought Smith's advice again and he was directed to seek jobs assisting in New York, which he did. This same young man now works as Smith's assistant in Los Angeles. This great story not only demonstrates the importance that Smith places on education and training but also provides us some insight into the type of mentor he can be and the manner in which he seeks to give back to the industry.
Part of that willingness to be a mentor is most likely a reflection of the mentors and teachers Smith had along his journey. In the mid-1980s, Smith moved to New York City after completing art school. It was shortly after this move that he received his first full-time assistant job, working for well-known fashion photographer Bruce Buck. Of all the amazing on-the-job training that Smith received, the most valuable lesson he took away from working with Buck was to always be prepared. Often, Buck's job included long stays on location and extended travel. Being on location for days at a time, Smith learned that anything and everything can happen, and as the photographer it's essential to roll with the punches and expect the unexpected.
After working with Buck as a full-time assistant, Smith began working as a freelance assistant, providing the opportunity to work with and learn from so many great photographers. Smith credits his time with Neil Barr, a student of the legendary Urban Pin, as the most influential on his education in lighting. Barr was very precise when it came to lighting, spending hours and sometimes even days testing light for shoots. It was during this time that Smith starting seeing light and the minute changes in the smallest of adjustments.
Another major influence on Smith was fashion photographer Hiromassa. Smith's experience and time with Hiromassa is where he learned about using hot lights. Continuous lighting has been and still is a big part of Smith's work.
A big part of the process and evolution of Smith was and is his thirst for becoming a great fashion photographer. While working full-time as a freelance assistant, he put a big emphasis on testing. Testing is a term that refers to a practice whereby a photographer and model work and shoot together on their own time to potentially create images for their portfolios and to experiment and practice their craft. Smith would work all day on photo shoots and then come home and shoot all night and during the weekends. One of his early experiences testing was with the now famous supermodel Tyra Banks. On their very first test shoot, Smith and Banks shot from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Smith still puts a high emphasis on testing. He still takes the time to work on his craft through testing and he encourages all out there looking to work and grow in the field of fashion photography to test as much as possible.
5.) How Much Of Photography Is Not About Taking Pictures
This is the thing that no one talks about and that no one starting out has any clue about: how much of photography is not actually taking pictures. "The shooting part is really like ten percent of it. There’s so much more you have no clue about until you are there in the trenches," Smith said.
This is the thing his interns are always the most surprised about; and it's really the hardest part of the job. Production and pre-production include numerous tasks and responsibilities. As the photographer, you are really the director and are in charge of many tasks that go beyond photography: model casting, hiring hair, hiring makeup, hiring a stylist, renting the studio, securing the locations, budgeting, scheduling, and it even goes down to the tiniest details like transportation, and if the client is flying in, who will pick them up, drop them off, and so on.
When talking to Smith about his evolution and how he and his work have changed over his nearly 30-year career, he reflected back on his experience at the Picasso and Matisse art showing. During this show he realized that artists don't stay the same and knew that he must also change.
Smith recalled how early in his career his main goal with his work was to make the client happy. During a meeting with a client, Smith had an epiphany when asked what kind of models he liked. He hadn't thought of that, it was always what does the client like and what makes them happy. It was after that experience that he realized that what clients really want and what they are really paying for is the vision of the photographer. So while making the client happy is clearly important, it is also key to make sure you are creating work that is your own vision.
Smith continued reflecting on the journey and his climb to reach his goals and milestones during his career.
In the beginning of my career I just wanted to see my work in a magazine. But then that happens and then what? You just keep pushing. Then I wanted a cover of a magazine, and then wanted several covers of a magazine out at the same time.
His point being that as a photographer and artist we are always pushing ourselves, always wanting to grow and reach the next height that we can. He also recognizes that in the process of moving forward and climbing upwards there are downs as well. "As artists, it's not always a plateau," Smith said. "There’re peaks and valleys. That valley might be five years. Everyone sees the peaks all the time, but there’s valley in there as well. The thing is to have as many peaks as you can."
Smith continues to dream big. He has projects in the works, new work that he hasn't shown and waiting to debut as he continues his journey and evolution as an artist.
7.) State of The Industry
As alluded to earlier, Smith is as open and candid as advertised. When asked about the state of the industry, Smith spoke very honestly. Hiromassa once told Smith something that has stuck with him. "Fashion is change — it will always change," Hiromassa said.
I have heard other fashion photographers speak on how the heyday of the large budget, big production job has passed. While the frequency of the big budget job has diminished, Smith sees things coming back around in time.
The mantra of 'good enough' and the lack of the 'call for excellence' can only last so long.
There has been a phase over the past few years, as our economy has drudged through a recession, of projects turning to younger photographers who are willing to take less pay. Smith sees that loss of production budgets and the overall loss of quality is having an effect on the industry — and not for the better.
Teaching is something that was never originally in the plans for Smith. In fact, in 2002, when Microsoft approached him about speaking for them, he thought they may be joking at first. Turns out, Smith enjoyed his opportunity to travel and speak on the behalf of Microsoft about photography. After that, Smith was approached by Sony in 2008. Now speaking and teaching are a big part of his life. Smith travels and speaks on a wide array of photography related topics including lighting, composition, beauty, fashion, theory... and he loves all of it.
One of the great benefits of teaching, as Smith sees it, is being reminded of the small things you may take for granted. Whenever he teaches a class or has a new intern or assistant, he is reminded of things he has done for years and maybe doesn't think about anymore. The process of explaining and teaching these allows Smith to go back and remind himself of these details.
One of Smith's next big teaching opportunities will come May 13–17 at Atlantis in the Bahamas at the Fstoppers Workshop. After hearing about the workshop from so many people, photographers, assistants, and students, he thought, "I want to be a part of this." Fstoppers is a community that Smith really wants to be a part of and an audience he really wants to reach out to. I asked Smith to tell me more about his workshop and what students can expect to take away from the two separate two-day workshops:
Learning about working under pressure, learning how to work in the business, how to put a job together, how to put a photo shoot together... how to think before pushing the shutter... how things come together to tell a story. More than just taking an image, but it's about becoming a storyteller.
The basis of his workshop will be emulating an actual job. Smith will take the standpoint of being hired for a job from a client and will take students through the entire process of planning, conceptualizing, shooting, and putting together a story. The first workshop on May 13–14 will focus on the indoor studio aspect of the job, and the second on May 16–17 will focus on location photography. But the beauty of the two workshops is that while they can and do stand alone, students that attend both will have the advantage of seeing how the two are intertwined. The stories from the two workshops will come together to tell one story utilizing the combination of studio and on-location techniques.
Lastly, it was clear throughout my conversation with Smith that he loves his craft, loves this industry, and is passionate about teaching. I don't think someone can leave a lecture or workshop from Smith and not feel inspired.
One of the most important things about photography is just loving it. Period. I love that photography has been a big part of my life. It is my life, and I hope I can share it.