Outside of advancing technology, it’s not often you hear a photographer talking about anything positive happening during the recession which began for most commercial shooters in late 2007. Brian Smith is not your typical photographer.
As a professional shooter for 30 years, Smith has specialized in photojournalism and celebrity portraiture. You know this man’s work. While an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, 20 year-old Smith got his first magazine credit in LIFE. At 25, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for his coverage of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. His photo of diver Greg Louganis’ springboard accident at the 1988 Seoul Olympics won him both the Pictures of the Year and World Press Photo first place awards.
While many photographers bemoan the economic state of the industry, Smith leans toward the light, pun intended and not intended. “The one silver lining to the economic downturn in the last couple of years was it allowed a lot of us who, over the years, had gotten focused on assignment-based shoots, to refocus on personal projects.” Smith is referring to his project which turned into the book entitled Art & Soul: Stars Unite to Celebrate and Support the Arts.
Art & Soul collects Smith’s portraits of celebrities all shot on a uniform background, guaranteeing the subjects will speak for themselves. Personalities are evident on artists of various disciplines in the entertainment industry. What really sets this collection apart from similar books is each portrait is accompanied by a written statement about art by the subject. “We put these guys to work,” Smith says. “That was the other component of the whole thing—giving celebrities a voice in their own handwriting, so there was nothing to be misconstrued over whether it was a press statement, or whatever. Also because it was in their own handwriting, it wasn’t something reviewed and scrutinized and rewritten.”
What initially was supposed to be a three day shoot for images to be distributed on Capitol Hill and the White House to raise funding for the arts quickly turned into a coffee table art book culled from a fifteen month project. Some of the proceeds from the book help fund The Creative Coalition, a nonprofit organization advocating public funding for the arts. A gallery show of these images has been shown everywhere from its premiere at the Library of Congress to the Snap Orlando Photo Festival.
Looking through this book is a moving experience for anyone with a creative spark inside them. Whether you’re creative or not, you’ll appreciate the artistry of the portraits. The range of emotions and poses well-known actors take is fascinating. Make your own conclusions about Samuel Jackson’s direct smile, Harry Bellafonte’s subdued one, Adrian Brody’s moment of contemplation or Alyssa Milano’s beauty captured during her uninterrupted stare, Smith has created a wonderful cross section of the entertainment industry. He has even seemingly done the impossible and documented Zoey Deschanel’s forehead. These are the faces we know, but not as we typically know them, and they have come together for the sake of the future of art. With 123 celebrities, 256 pages, a 10″x13″ format, and weighing almost five pounds, this book should be in the home of every broadcaster, librarian, policy maker, philanthroper, media programmer, educator, and student in the United States.
By positioning his Art & Soul subjects on a subtly-lit dark background and having almost all of them wear black, we are drawn to their faces, their body language, and their personalities. By having them write about art in their own handwriting, we are learning what goes on behind those faces we know so well. From Daniel Stern’s moving chronicle of his development from student to actor and beyond, to Joe Mantegna’s assertion that in his hometown “you either worked in the steel mill, became a policeman, or got shot by one,” readers can’t but help be fascinated by what these individuals think of when they think “art.”
Smith began his career shooting sports for the local newspaper while he attended high school in Ames, Iowa. “I shot for the yearbook, but the local newspaper didn’t have staff photographers,” he recalls. “The reporters had to shoot their own photographs. I was on my high school swim team and the sports editor hated shooting swimming. I showed him a couple of pictures and was hired on the spot to shoot swimming for them. A case of being in the right place at the right time. That expanded to gymnastics and basketball and football.”
Attending the University of Missouri, Smith studied at what the university contends is the oldest journalism school in the country. While there, Smith got an internship with UPI of Cincinnati. That summer, he was sent to Canton, Ohio to cover New York Yankee Thurman Munson’s funeral. His photo of Billy Martin weeping got a full page in LIFE Magazine. Not bad for a 20 year-old still in journalism school.
A summer internship with The New Orleans Times-Picayune led to a staff job after graduation. Smith contents he would’ve stayed in New Orleans for a long time had not “the greatest staff job of the time not come up six months later,” he recalls. He was offered a position at The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, California. One of the first newspapers to run in color, shooting three or four assignments a day in color was a great learning experience for Smith. It was while at The Register Smith shared the Pulitzer for spot news photography for his 1984 Olympics coverage.
That Pulitzer win came about in an unconventional way. The Los Angeles Times purchased the pool newspaper rights to cover the Los Angeles Olympic games that year. They had 28 photographers, whereas The Register had three. Ron Mann, Director of Photography, made a decision not to compete toe to toe with The Times. Mann instructed his photographers to not play it safe and not adhere to the typical vantage points. “We were told to swing for the fences and go places nobody else was instead of trying to stand shoulder to shoulder with everybody at the finish line,” Smith recalls. Mann promised to protect his three men if they swung and missed, and this gave them the confidence to attempt the unconventional shots. The result was a Pulitzer.
At about this point Smith began to branch out into magazine work. Some of his early clients were Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Forbes Magazine. While debating the pros and cons of becoming a freelancer, an offer came in from The Miami Herald. The lure of international travel was strong for Smith, and The Miami Herald covered the Caribbean and Latin America. Smith had a long fascination with Haiti, and took the position. Ultimately, he was sent to Haiti thirteen times in his six years at The Herald, including covering the airport the night the Duvalier government fled the island nation.
The experience helped Smith form one of his tenets of photography. “The thing that’s interesting is to shoot something different and have a varied range of experiences,” he says. “Your photography improves the more things your witness to, and the more you stretch your skill set. I think it tends to rub off on everything else. I’ve very much become a portrait photographer, but I don’t think without the experience covering news and sports, I’d be able to do what I do to today as well as I do.”
If anticipating the moment is the skill he learned as a journalist, Smith applies that even in the controlled environment of a studio portrait session. When directing someone, Smith has to know when to let go as the session begins to take a life of its own. “I’m very comfortable directing people,” he says, “but I probably learned from photojournalism that there’s times you just sit back and don’t mess up a good thing.”
While at The Miami Herald, Smith continued to freelance for magazines. He added more celebrity portrait work for publications like Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Premier. “I promised myself at the point I was making more money freelancing than from my staff job, it would be time to go out on my own,” he says. “After six years at The Herald, I reached that. It was also probably the right timing because had I kept doing both much longer, I would have probably burned myself out. I think it was in January of 1991 I went out on my own full-time.”
By this point, Smith had many magazine contacts ready to supply him work when he was free from his newspaper constraints. With over twenty years of full-time freelance photography under his belt, Smith shoots everything from advertising to editorial. As a Sony Artisan of Imagery, he speaks at trade shows and photography schools to help encourage the next generation of photographers.
Another area Smith dedicates significant time to is personal projects, such as Art & Soul. His longest running project of this type is photographing some of the legends of Burlesque, which he undertook in the early 1990s. It started with one portrait session of Dixie Evans who runs the Museum of Burlesque. From that, he expanded to photographing women who danced from the 40s through the 60s. “It both gave me a chance to give them another fifteen minutes of fame for themselves, but also show what I could do in working with celebrity portraits,” Smith says.
As the project sat on his back burner for a few years, Smith saw an annual convention had resurfaced in Las Vegas. He attended and discovered a resurgence of the art form, complete with a new generation of dancers. “That’s probably the project I’ve worked on the longest and hope to complete,” he says. Smith hopes this series, too, will find its way into book form.
Along with all of the usual freelance work and his personal projects, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and Infamous will be out this autumn. To be published by Peachpit Press, the book is a how-to guide with Smith sharing tips on how he connects with subjects, finds locations, gets the right pose, and makes the lighting his own. Much more is promised, and we’ll be reviewing it upon release.
For over thirty years, from photojournalism to celebrity portraiture, Smith has captured memorable moments and given them to the world and future generations. He’s found the beauty in heartbreaking scenes and shown us sides of celebrities rarely seen. With ongoing and new projects, there appears to be no slowing down of Smith on the radar of photography. With that in mind, we have nothing to worry about.
Brian Smith’s Gear
With decades of professional experience, Brian Smith has come to know what gear works and doesn’t work for him. Smith was kind enough to write the following list, along with commentary, on the photography equipment he’s currently using.
Sony a900: My workhorse camera for the past three years. The sensor is amazing for portraits and the camera is built like a brick. I have two bodies and each is still running great after hundreds of thousands of exposures.
Sony a77: with 16-50mm f/2.8: Just released, the a77 adds continuous phase-detect auto-focus video in all the modes you want including 1080 in 24, 30 and 60P. With a nearly identical pixel count to the a900 and don’t let the package fool, you, Sony’s 16-50mm f/2.8 is no kit lens. Perfect focal range for APS.
Sony NEX-7: This is the camera I’ve been waiting for and now the ultimate camera for street photography is finally here. I love the option of built-in EVF or Live-view LCD. Never thought I’d be as big a fan of Live-view as I am, but I’ve grown to love it. I really like looking down on a tilted up LCD. It’s like using a waist level on a Hasselblad. You can mount virtually any lens on the planet. I have adapters for all my vintage Leica rangefinder glass.
Sony NEX-5N: This is the camera I used when I appeared on The X Factor to shoot the show’s ten finalist. A very nice update of the NEX-5, it features lightning fast shutter response and an optional EVF that I used in combination with the LA-EA2 Alpha-NEX Mount Adapter.
Sony NEX-5 with Holga 25mm: I’ve always loved shooting with Dianas and Holgas. I prefer getting the look in camera than from an app and now you finally can. I found a E series Holga lens on eBay for 20 bucks and it was money well spent. I just leave it on my old NEX-5 for a different look.
Sony CZ 24-70mm f/2.8: My all-time favorite lens for portraits, this lens has the perfect focal length range from 24mm or portraits that capture the environment around the subject to 70mm for tight intimate portraits. Zeiss glass makes this the sharpest zoom I’ve ever used. Unlike Zeiss lenses for other brands, Sony Zeiss lenses are AF. (If I had to shoot a portrait with just one lens, these would be it.)
Sony CZ 85mm f/1.4: I’ve always loved to shoot portraits with fast 85mm lenses wide open for minimal depth-of-field and the Zeiss glass makes this the sharpest 85 I’ve ever seen. I’ll use this when I want a tight portrait to be just a bit “flatter” in perspective than a shot at 70mm.
Sony CZ 135mm f/1.8: Simply an incredible lens. Though I tend to shoot portraits a bit closer, this is a great lens for tight portraits if you want to flatten out the perspective a bit. Every time I shoot with it, I’m reminded that I need to use it more often.
Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Lens: My vintage rangefinder glass has gotten new life thanks for all the adapters available for Sony NEX.
SLR Magic HyperPrime 50mm f/0.95 Lens for Sony E-Mount: This insanely fast lens sells for under a grand—just a fraction of the price of a Leica Noctilux and focuses really close for portraits with paper-thin depth-of-field. And as Nigel Tufnel might say, “it goes to Oh-Nine-Five.”
Sekonic L-358 Flash Meter: LCDs are great for visualizing the scene and yeah, sure you’ve got a histogram that shows whether you’re clipping highlight or shadows – but a histogram as all the narrative power of a bar-graph. A histogram tell you how much of each value of light you have, but a flash meter will tell you where it’s falling. If you’ve got f/11 on the face an want the light to fall off a stop at the chest, a flash meter is the tool that will tell you that and save you a ton of wasted time getting it right through trial-and-error.
Favorite Remote Trigger
PocketWizard Plus III Transceivers: I shoot nearly everything with strobes, so I use these to sync it all up. I’ve been using PocketWizard since they first came out in the days of Pong. The newest version Plus III are a great update—smaller, more ergonomic—really well thought out, which explains why they can’t keep ’em on the shelves. For Sony cameras, use them with a Sony FA-HS1AM Hot Shoe Adapter.
Sony HVL-F58AM: I don’t often shoot speedlight, but when I do I only shoot F58AM. It bends in more directions than a Russian gymnast. It is the most interesting speedlight in the world.
Favorite Strobes and Packs
Profoto Pro-7a: Workhorse strobes in the studio or on location with power when weight is not a problem
Profoto Pro-7b: Great Pack for location when you don’t have A/C. Great output and fast recycle. Only drawback is they weigh about as much as a car battery which actually has a plus. I hang them off my light stands using a Convi Clamp and a J-hook so they become a Power Pack and Sandbag all-in-one.
Profoto Acute 2: Ever since the airlines dripped the weight allowance from 70 to 50 pounds, these packs have become my BFFs. I can get 2 packs and 2-3 heads in a Tenba Aircase and still sneak it tipping the scale at 50.
Profoto AcuteB 600: Ditto the above when traveling on location. Particularly on small planes into the Caribbean, these have become my favorite battery-powered strobes for location. I can get 2 packs, 2 heads, and extra battery and chargers in a Tenba Aircase under 50. Since switching to digital I find myself looking for a bit more bite from the light so I tend to shoot with less diffusion giving me more output. Six is the new 12.
Profoto Softlight reflector white: These come in White or Silver. I’ve got one silver and five white, so guess which I prefer. Love it with the grid. I call it softlight with a punch. I love how these look blended with daylight. They also save the day on a windy Miami day when your assistant would fly off to Kansas if they were holding an Octabank.
Profoto Softbox 5 ft. Octa: Go to modifier for even light or lighting a big space. I call it sun on a stick. You can really control the look just by the angle you place it an whether you use diffusion in from or not from insanely soft to more punch than Mike Tyson – and they won’t bite your ear.
Profoto Zoom Reflector: The great thing about Profoto’s reflector design in that they can push forward or back on the flash head and you can really control the throw with the zoom reflector foam wide-and-even to a tight spot of light.
X-Rite i1Publish Pro 2: I’ve been using the updated i1 Profiler software since last year and I just upgraded to the new Pro 2.
Kupo 3-Way Clamp with Baby 5/8 inch Pin: I bought four of these last fall at PhotoPlus Expo and it’s quickly turned into my favorite new piece of grip equipment. I use these all the time now to put two or three light on a single light stand. Great weight saver for travel.