DPP Home Profiles Brian Smith: Art & Soul

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Brian Smith: Art & Soul

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

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Dule Hill
“It all boils down to problem-solving,” Smith says of his approach. “The very first shoot we did was at a charity house called Haven House. The space that was left for me to work in was basically the maid’s room, which was 9x14 feet and had a giant king-sized bed occupying most of it. Fortunately, we were able to get rid of the king-sized bed, but we were left with a very, very small space. We had no idea how many people we were going to photograph—it ended up being 63 people over three days—and I felt like the background needed not to dominate the subject. That, to me, boils it down to a white, gray or black backdrop. The room was so small that [with] anything other than black, you end up with light bouncing all over the room. In a way, my great vision for this was necessitated by the space we had to work.”

As a Sony Artisan of Imagery, Smith has worked with Sony’s α900 camera since its introduction in late 2008. He tested it extensively prior to the project and knew he could count on the camera to produce detailed image files, even under tricky conditions.

Richard Belzer
“I loved the way the camera held a lot of shadow detail even with dark-on-dark subjects,” he says. “We knew going into this that photographing celebrities, you’ve got a better than even chance they’re going to wear a lot of black. So maybe it was a bit of a gutsy move to shoot black on black, but I also knew that the shadow detail wouldn’t be cooked on these things, and I’d be able to hold that detail that I wanted.

“We covered every wall in black so that we had this little dark cubicle,” Smith continues. “It didn’t really matter how big the space was, and actually, when we’ve gone to shoot in studios after that, we’ve replicated the same thing so we’re able to get that same look. Instead of being in a 9x14 room, we could be in a 2,500-square-foot, all-white, all-cyced studio, and we sort of darken everything down so it becomes this very quiet, small, intimate space.”

Smith’s technical approach to Art & Soul may have stemmed from necessity, but the motivation was deliberate—to provide an unobtrusive platform for each subject’s personality to come through loud and clear.

Robert Davi
“We just tried to keep it very, very simple,” Smith says. “I guess it’s a lesson I learned a long time ago from Irving Penn and Richard Avedon: Sometimes when the photographer doesn’t scream out what they’re doing, the subject takes center stage. I tried to put them on stage and then get out of the way and let them feel free to express themselves.

“We gave people a lot of space in terms of my direction,” he continues. “A lot of times, actors are so used to an agenda from the magazine or the studio or their publicists or whatever, and I just felt I didn’t need to have an agenda myself. So when they would come up and go, ‘What do you want me to do?’ my direction was basically the same thing: ‘You can do whatever you want—this is a book about the arts; it affects everyone differently. One of the keys about the arts is improvisation and being yourself, so this is whatever you feel comfortable doing.’ I think sometimes people took that like, ‘Well, gee, I’ve wanted to do that for 10 years.’ When my hands weren’t tied, I didn’t want to force myself into a corner. I wanted the subjects to feel like they had the freedom to do what they wanted.”

To maintain the effortless feel with each new session, Smith kept the lighting setup fairly streamlined and unpretentious, too.


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