DPP: In your shot of the man holding binoculars sitting on top of a ladder, it looks like a composite with the clouds.
Smith: That was for the cover of Time Magazine. It wasn't composited. It was all shot in-camera in my backyard. I had a backdrop with painted clouds, and we made clouds out of cotton and put them in the foreground. There's not one bit of retouching. That's the fun of it for me. I'm a photographer, not an illustrator.
DPP: How do you work with light?
Smith: Ninety-nine percent of what I do is done with available light and using reflectors, if needed. Many times photographers abandon the greatness of the medium they work in. The interchange between an object or a subject or a person with the world around it, how the natural light illuminates it, is one of the great gifts of being a photographer. Many photographers have abandoned natural light for artificial light. They've abandoned using film for Photoshop. They've abandoned the fundamentals that make photography a wonderful medium.
DPP: Mary Ellen Mark once told me, you can never do better than reality. Do you think that's true?
Smith: The ironic thing is, though, my pictures look very composed and serene; they're unbelievably spontaneous. They look like I've previsualized it. I'm very rigorous about the scouting of a location. Finding a location is the secret to my work. But when I find a location, I don't want to know what the pictures are. All I do is walk in and say, "Great. I can make pictures here." I don't know what they're going to be, but I trust my instincts. So, when I leave and come back for the shoot, it's really fresh to me.
DPP: Your ballet images are reminiscent of Eisenstaedt's work with the same subject matter. Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper's Bazaar, also shot ballet. He, of course, is better known for his layouts for Bazaar using the photographs of Penn and Hoyningen-Huene and the other greats of that time. Many of your images share the same aesthetic.
Smith: My mentors were Cartier-Bresson, Kertész, W. Eugene Smith. Gene Smith is why I became a photographer. When I was in college I went to the Museum of Modern Art to view the permanent photography collection. It was Gene Smith's pictures that made me feel that I could transfer my feelings onto a two-dimensional piece of paper like he did. It was an epiphany. His ability to take intense emotions and put them on a two-dimensional piece of paper was amazing. I met him only once and just for a moment. I was in Cornell Capa's office, and just as I was walking out the door, Smith walked in. We stopped and shook hands. I haven't washed my hand since! Gene Smith, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, all had an enormous compositional sense. They transcended photojournalism. Irving Penn transcended what he did in fashion and portraiture.