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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Brian Smith: Art & Soul

Brian Smith crafts a series of celebrity portraits for a cause that’s close to home

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As part of an inspired project to draw attention to the need for funding of the arts, photographer Brian Smith has taken a portable studio to locations around the country to capture actors and other artists. Explains Smith, “We have Emmy winners, Tony winners, Oscar winners, Grammy winners, but we also have people on their way up. The arts—it’s something that we all hopefully enjoy and benefit from, whether we’re four years old in a school play or someone 80 looking back on a fantastic career, so I wanted from the start to have a wide demographic on this project.” Above: Anne Hathaway

Taye Diggs
In May of 2009, photographer Brian Smith and several members of The Creative Coalition traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and the White House in support of arts funding. They carried with them a book—100 copies of a self-published portfolio of Smith’s celebrity portraits, which he had begun only three months earlier. Smith’s path to Capitol Hill can be traced to well before his career as a high-profile celebrity photographer, back to when he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist.

“I spent the first 10 years of my career in newspapers,” he says via telephone from his Miami studio, “and I did a wide range of shoots—everything from the Olympics to turmoil in Haiti. But I was always really drawn to portraiture. Typically, I worked for newspapers that used photographs really well and for the most part did a pretty good job with color imagery. I always thought my ultimate destination was magazines. Really, for the last five or six years that I was a newspaper photographer, I was wearing both hats. I’d go off and cover a coup in Haiti and then I’d come back and, on a weekend or a week of vacation, go shoot for Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and Esquire. I kind of knew that was the direction I wanted to go eventually once I had built up enough of that work. And I think the way I got out of there was that I would treat every assignment I got, whether it was for the newspaper or for Rolling Stone, I would treat it the same way and give it the same amount of attention—treat everything as a potential portfolio piece.

Jimmy Smits
“I was also very fortunate in that all the newspapers I worked for were very open to pushing the traditional boundaries of newspaper photojournalism,” Smith says. “Fortunately, I had editors who encouraged that sort of thing and I was never really held back, and I didn’t see any reason to hold myself back either. Whether you’re doing photojournalism or portraiture, it’s all about storytelling. As a newspaper photographer, I was regarded as being slick and commercial, and as I started showing the exact same images to magazine editors, I was regarded as raw and edgy. I just tried to make the most of every opportunity I was given, and I’ve been pretty lucky along the way to have been given a lot of great opportunities.”

The opportunity to work on Art & Soul came when The Creative Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for the arts and entertainment industry, sought Sony’s assistance on a three-day shoot during Oscars® Week 2009. Sony enlisted Smith, one of six Sony Artisans of Imagery, who was eager to dive in. After only one day of shooting, it was clear to everyone involved that they had hit upon something special.

“It’s a dream shoot to begin with,” Smith says, “but just the way everybody responded to it—it was going so well that, before we finished at the Oscars®, we decided to try to do another shoot in New York. At that point, we just thought we’ve got to keep this thing going. I’ve shot a total of 19 days so far; we’ve photographed well over 200 people.”
An act of creation is an act of hope.
—Anne Hathaway, from Art & Soul
Because the project ballooned so dramatically beyond its initial scope, it turns out that some of Smith’s early stylistic and technical choices were extremely fortuitous—born as much from necessity as from artistic vision.


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