In the bar of the Rex Hotel in San Francisco I was having a drink with famed celebrity photographer Brian Smith. Elliot Erwitt walked up to us in a new, brightly colored, down jacket. He told us he was strongly persuaded to purchase his new jacket by his daughter because his old standby jacket had become old enough to stand on its own.
Erwitt and the jacket were subtly at odds with each other. The scene of the legendary photojournalist bound in puffy, freshly fabricated goretex looked slightly idiosyncratic. Which, when seen through the portraiture eyes of Smith, made for a compelling picture. Without thinking Smith got up from the table, asked me to watch his martini, and asked Erwitt, and his new jacket, outside to the front hotel for a photograph.
That moment is illustrative of why I think that Brian Smith is one the most important portrait photographers of our time. He has an innate ability to notice the precious, quirky facets of famous people’s personalities that are otherwise lost in the glare of the media’s spotlight. As a result his work gives us the slightly unexpected, while deftly avoiding contrivance.
Before Brian Smith and I got to become friends, his image of one of my heroes, Richard Branson, was tacked up on my wall as one of my all time favorite photographs. When people asked me why I thought that the picture so damned good, I never responded with anything more complex than; “I dunno, he just nailed it. The story of a vast, fabulous personality told in one frame.”
This month Brian Smith’s new book Secrets of Great Portrait Photography dropped. So I took the opportunity hit him up for an advance copy and to ask him a few questions about taking pictures. The book is a singular balance of sage advice and beautiful imagery. The interview is below.
PCN: When you get an assignment to shoot a portrait what’s the first thing you do to conjure an idea for the image? Do you have any rituals, talismans or superstitions?
SMITH: Nothing ritualistic other than the usual blood letting…just kidding. That only happens when things go badly. The first thing to determine is if client assigning the shoot is tying into something that you need to reference like a new movie, show, book or gadget. If that’s the case, I try to comes up with a concept that gets the point across. There are also times when you’re free to do anything you like and then the challenge comes in narrowing down anything into the best thing possible.
PCN: What are some of the ways in past shoots that you’ve broken the ice with subjects that were hard to connect with?
SMITH: One that comes to mind was a shoot of Dulé Hill. We’d shot for ten minutes and I had lots perfectly descent headshots of him that probably looked just like every other headshot he’d ever taken. He was extremely nice, I simply hadn’t done anything to draw him out. I’d read that he loves to tap dance, so I asked him about that and he tells me he grew up idolizing Gregory Hines and the biggest honor of his life was when he was asked to tap dance at Hines’ funeral. At that point he asked if I’d like him to dance, so I say sure. He proceeded to tap dance for me…in sneakers…on carpet. From that point on, we had an amazing shoot.
PCN: Do you look for raw honesty from your subjects or is it about the story for you?
SMITH: I think it depends on the mood they’re in that day. I’ve had subjects open up about things during a shoot they probably don’t tell their shrink (and no, I’m not telling). Other times they’re more in the mood just to sit there and look fabulous. Either works for me.
PCN: How important is it for you to know the extended background of the person you’re photographing?
SMITH: I’d rather not know everything about them, because if I do, then what do we have to talk about? The perfect scenario is when I can find one thing about them – so obscure they never get asked about it.
PCN: Are their people that you haven’t photographed that you’re dying to work with?
SMITH: Absolutely! It’s a really long list, but at the top of it, I’d love to photograph Usain Bolt in Jamaica or Halle Berry anywhere in the galaxy.