When a fashion photographer travels between both coasts of the U.S., shoots assignments in the Caribbean islands, and spans the continents of Europe and Asia for work, it’s safe to say he’s “made it.” Living through those experiences when the stakes are so high prepares you for anything – and that’s experience from which we are all lucky to learn.
Matthew Jordan Smith famously photographed Tyra Banks on multiple occasions, and eventually shot for her hit television show, America’s Next Top Model (ANTM).
“I’ve shot Tyra a lot,” Smith said, clad in a traditional Japanese shirt – something he obviously took from his travels to Asia. “There was a show way back in the late 90s on VH1 called Driven. They interviewed all of Tyra’s friends. And I talked about how driven she was and that she had this idea for a show, and never knew that show would end up being Top Model.”
Traveling from place to place with a crew of a couple dozen people is not small stuff. One time, Smith landed an entire New York City crew in Los Angeles for the weather, but there were ten straight days of rain. Rather than waiting for the weather to clear up, Smith flew the entire crew back across the country to shoot in Miami. In the end, that decision was cheaper than paying the crew for every missed day after workdays, food, and hotel stays were added together.
Doing all of these jobs like that has prepared me to be able to walk into any place in the world and get the shot. I can have every piece of equipment break on me, and I’ll still get the shot – because those things happen.
That’s also why I think pre-production is so important. Planning is so important. Going through it over and over and over again – and being prepared for the worst thing that could happen: it could be the model getting stung by a stingray…or a bee – something always happens. And you’ve got to roll with it.
An assignment shooting for ANTM is especially difficult. From dealing with models of varying talent levels to shooting the sometimes-eccentric assignments that ANTM plans to keep its show interesting – anything can happen. Add onto that the additional constraint on the model of having to ‘provide’ the shot in just 30 images… That also means the photographer has to ‘get’ the shot in 30 images. Needless to say, with so many things riding against Smith, not everything always work out; but he’s been prepared and remains prepared as ever to get the best that can possibly be pulled out of any situation and remain on-point with ‘the story.’
“With fashion, it’s always about the story. It’s about the clothes, first and foremost; but it’s always wrapped around a story – a theme.”
That story might change ten times by the time you’re actually on set for the shoot. But once you and the client have agreed on a set theme, that’s what has to be captured. That’s the plan. And you can’t fail and expect to survive unscathed on the other end.
It’s because of this that Smith stresses pre-production again and again – from storyboarding beforehand to planning locations and getting the right models and makeup artists, etc. Smith even considers a chronological record of shots throughout the day incredibly important to have on set.
In the ‘old days’ like the film days, we’d shoot Polaroid. We’d have a data sheet, and at the end of the shot, we’d put that Polaroid next to it; so at the end of the day, we had a visual of the entire shoot.
I don’t do it all the time, but when I can, I get a small printer to print these small, 3x4 prints and stick them on the board. It helps in such a major, major way when you’re shooting. And it helps to keep everybody on track. Everyone is always going back to the board. And the client gets excited and continues to see that story unfold on the board.
When you’re having such a great shoot, everyone is getting excited – and it is exciting. But as the director, you have to make sure you get your vision – that everyone stays on track. And then later you can try and get a few more ideas in.
That on-set excitement can be a great feeling, but it can be more dangerous than helpful if you’re not disciplined. Having a model that’s so unique and beautiful can be one of those detrimental aspects to a shoot.
It’s not ogling that a photographer has to worry about, even (not necessarily, anyway). But even if that’s not an issue, shoots with some models can be so exciting in the moment that photographers become distracted from the original story. It’s easy to see everything looking so great on the back of the camera that even two or three hours later, the vision ultimately becomes lost in that same excitement that made the shoot so fun.
Proper discipline is perhaps the single most important thing a photographer can have, but it comes in many forms. Sometimes, having discipline is knowing when to abandon your complicated light set-up and move toward the window for a few minutes when sunlight hits the room just the right way on a particular late afternoon.
I was shooting Queen Latifah. We had two big setups in New York. But as we’re shooting, I’m like, ‘Oh my God. That light is just beautiful by the window.’ And the client says to me, ‘You have all this gear. Why are you taking her by the window?’
And the client was mad at me at that point, but they saw those images, and in the end they used that image for the magazine. And they loved it. It was just a very spontaneous moment that happened because I was cognizant of the light that was changing by the moment that day…and even through my clients couldn’t see that image at the time, I saw it.
Even so, these spontaneous moments have to be controlled. It’s equally easy for a particular sparkle of light to become that unique, beautiful, entrancing model that distracts the photographer from the shoot. In the end, Smith has to know to weigh the value of the story he has to capture and the spontaneous moments that may arise. And no matter what happens, he still covers the story, even if something additional is added.
Going into the shoot, we had all these concepts and ideas. But you have to be able to make that call on the spot. I want to make the client happy. I want to get that story. But I also want to get classic, iconic shots that will last throughout my career…and at the end of the day, they’re hiring you for your vision. And you have to make sure you get your vision and that you get your shots every time. I make sure, as much as possible, that I have a great story.
Having a great story for every shoot means being able to conjure an incredible amount of inspiration. While that’s something that Smith apparently has no trouble with, he acknowledges that it’s an issue for many.
Fashion photography is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s an illusion. It’s always about fantasy. That’s the beauty of fashion photography. It’s the marriage of fantasy and your ideas with fashion. It’s open to whatever you want it to be. There is no right and wrong.
I get a lot of emails from people asking, how do you get ideas? How do you find inspiration?
If you go to Starbucks and have coffee every day, make it based around that. Whatever you do every day that’s uniquely you, wrap a story around that. People think too hard about finding an idea. But if they stop and look…
Your fashion story should be a thumbprint of your life. So if you look at your photography in thirty years, they should see what you love. Not what you like. They should see what you love by seeing your images. Now, we use the word, ‘love,’ way too much. We say, ‘love,’ way to much. So they should see what you love, not ‘like.’
Still, not every shoot ends having captured the intended story. As important as it is to make the client happy and deliver what is promised, sometimes a photographer just isn’t inspired by the vision at the time of the shoot. And you have to be able to trust your gut.
It’s really hard when you have this vision in your mind, and you shoot it, but you don’t like it. And you have to be willing to scrap it quickly and change it.
For new photographers, that’s hard because they still feel this pressure: ‘Ok, I said I was going to do this, and I should still do that, because that’s what I said.’ But that can be a huge mistake – not being willing to adapt quickly on set.
You have to be open to the evolution of a fashion shoot.
Photography of all kinds can be complicated, but it’s especially challenging when a photographer is under the pressure of creating and executing an entire creative vision, as he or she would be expected to do with any major commercial or fashion photography assignment. The photographer has to bring the entire team together, communicate the vision accurately, deal with major issues on set, be open to, willing to, and able to change the entire vision on set if need be, satisfy clients, and keep him- or herself happy with his or her own work. The entire gig is a balancing act that takes an enormous amount of practice.
In the middle of May, Smith is offering a chance to tap into his creative vision during his Bahamas workshops, which will take participants between both on-location and in-studio shoots.
The story I’m going to do…it’s on a very old movie. It’s based on ‘The Sound of Music.’ When people first think about a story, they think, ‘Oh, I have to do it like the movie.’ – Absolutely not!
We’re just going to take the theme and run with it. We’re doing a sexy 2015 version of The Sound of Music in the Caribbean. Imagine ‘The Sound of Music’ meets Madonna.'
And Smith isn’t going to make it easy (or he’s going to make it too easy, depending on how one looks at it). He’s going to put the people in his workshop through the wringer to help them grow past what he sees as some of the hardest parts of being a successful commercial fashion photographer.
The model I’m bringing down is one of my favorite models. I’ve been shooting her for seven years, and she’s probably one of both the sexiest and easiest to work with.
She’ll make it easy, number one. They won’t get a bad shot. But they’ll also learn how to not get thrown. That’s when the discipline comes in. And you learn: it’s very easy to get thrown off by a beautiful model and get overwhelmed from the excitement of the shoot.
Anyone interested in working with Matthew Jordan Smith in the Bahamas in May is encouraged to sign up for one or both of his two workshops. Likewise, for more of his work, check out his website or simply search for him online (he's everywhere!).
Below are several of Matthew Jordan Smith's GIF animated images also done for ANTM: