Photographer Brian Smith speaks through his lens

Photographer Brian Smith speaks through his lens

Photographer Brian Smith discusses photographing celebrities and who he would have loved to photograph from the past

By Maan Jalal

Published: Fri 12 Feb 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 29 Mar 2016, 2:55 AM

Most of us assume that taking a photograph is the easiest thing in the world. We don't even need a camera for it. With a swipe on our phone screens, a camera appears and all we have to do is point, shoot and upload. Not too long ago, photographers had to think in film. Restricted to 36 shots, calculations on aperture and shutter speed would come into play before pressing down on the shutter. Many of the tools of photography and technical aspects have changed over the last two decades but one thing remains the same. People are still complicated, interesting and surprisingly shy to capture on film. Even celebrities.
Miami photographer Brian Smith's career has been based around shooting celebrity portraits and making people feel at ease in front of the lens. Despite the effortless of his images, the personal connection we feel when we look at his shots of Anne Hathaway, George Clooney, Samual L. Jackson, Bill Gates or director Spike Lee, it becomes clear that it's not as easy as taking a photo on your phone.
"When there is a person in the photograph, to me, it's always about them,' Brain says, 'I'm more the observer telling their story and it really is their story. It's about giving a feel to people who are not there, to tell them who this person is or what's life like for them.'
At 25 Brian won a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for his photographs of the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Since then in his 30 year career, Brian has taken iconic portraits of famous celebrities, athletes and executives with his work gracing the pages of magazines such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Time, Forbes, New York Times Magazine, Elle and British GQ.
While visiting Dubai as part of Gulf Photo Plus's Dubai Photography Week, Brian did a talk on his experiences as a celebrity portrait photographer while introducing Sony 's New 6300 Camera with the world's fastest autofocus.
We caught up with Brian after he spent the morning photographing the iconic Dubai skyline and discussed his techniques in photographing people, shy celebrities and the journey of photography from film to the digital era.

Brian's portrait of Anne Hathaway

 Samuel L. Jackson

David Guetta
Is this your first time to Dubai?
Yes, I love it. I've always wanted to come here and it hasn't disappointed at all.
What was it that first enticed you about photography?
Initially it was just what could have been another passing interest because I just started shooting photographs when I was in high school and at that point every year I wanted to do something different when I grew up. One of the great things about photography is that you can do something different every single day. So it's not like having a routine job that you're doing the same thing everyday. Everyday is like a new experience.
Do you remember a moment when you thought you could do this as a career?
I think probably one of the defining moments was when I was in college working over the summer. This was before I even started journalism school. I was doing a summer internship with United Press International and one of the photographs that I took ended up in Life magazine which was my first really published magazine photograph. Not a bad way to start off. Maybe at that point I thought this could actually work out.
You started as a photojournalist but what prompted your move into portraiture?
As a newspaper photographer you're really thrown into every type of situation so, one day, I had covered everything from breaking news to NBA championships and the Olympics. What I was really drawn to was not photographing somebody from across field with a 60 mm lens but the time I can sit down with people one on one, like this, and really get to know who they are, figure out what was important about them and spend an hour to capture who they were. I think that's what really drew me to portrait photography and then specificly magazine portraits where you get access to people even if it's just for 15 minutes. It's a chance to capture some aspect to their personality that maybe people weren't familiar with.
When you are shooting celebrities, who are used to be being photographed, how do you try and reveal their true nature?
As a portrait photographer it's 90 percent being a great psychoanalyst and 10 percent understanding technique. It really boils down to how can you make someone feel comfortable, how can you get them to open up, is the biggest part of my job.
So you think it's important to have that balance between trust as well as keeping it light?
Yeah and it's one thing that I recommend to a lot of photographers is to go and do a shoot with a plan of what you want to do but also be ready to throw that plan away in a moment's notice if something better presents itself. So that's something I learnt very early on in doing this stuff, is that you want to go in with an idea of something you want to do but be smart enough to go in a different direction if something better presents itself or if something different is a better mesh with who your subject is.
How do you deal with shy people?
It actually happens more often than you would think even among celebrities. A lot of celebrities are very comfortable playing a role but less comfortable playing themselves. Maybe that shy kid in high school who suddenly got a voice in the high school play or operetta may be very comfortable on that stage but less comfortable in front a camera one on one. And you want to find a way to bring some aspect of their personality that maybe they had hidden. I think it's great if you can break down that armor and make someone comfortable enough to really show who they are and feel comfortable as themselves.
When you started off, you were using film and now everything is in digital. How did you react initially to that transition?
I really thought I was going to be the last photographer on the planet clinging desperately to the last role of film and you'd have to pry it out of my fingers (laughs). People are always apprehensive with any type of change but once I started to see what digital photography is capable of and how it's continued to grow and open up so many more possibilities as a photographer . . . I think it was very good to have that sort of film based analogue background to sort of understand the framework of photography but the types of images that are possible now, I can only dream if we could have done that earlier in my career.
Do you think anything is lost when not using film?
Well I think the biggest thing I guard against is the whole idea of 'I'll fix it in post'. There are certainly some things that are most efficient to achieve in the post processing stage but you don't also want to get sloppy about it and think, 'I'm going to fix my mistakes that I could fix right now, later.' I think that's probably the biggest thing - realizing what digital photography can do for you without forgetting what you can do on your own too.
So many people have the accessibility to take photographs these days through their phones and to post them easily. How do you think this movement has affected photography in general?
I think probably the biggest thing about it is that it has made photography that much more accessible and it's in real time. People are much more passionate about photography. There was a time in the film era when people would shoot a role of film and it might include your child coming home form the hospital and also their first day in kindergarten because it was all on one role of film and people didn't see the images immediately. I think that's one of the great things that's happened with digital photography or phone photography. You see the images right away and you can look at what you need to correct and get immediate feedback. So I think people have never been more drawn to photography. We could do with a less few pictures of your lunch or dinner (laughs) but if that makes someone happy and helps them remember that particular meal maybe that's an aspect again where photography enriches our lives.
Is there anyone you would have loved to photograph from the past?
I think sometimes it's interesting to capture people who I'm fascinated with. For instance what would it be like to photograph Einstein? And try to imagine what's going on through his head in the course of a shoot. They is such a long list of people I was fortunate to work with but also a very long list of people I would love to work with in the future but I'm just captivated with photographing people who maybe didn't have their time in the spotlight or didn't have as much time in it as they should have had. I think a lot of today is really focused on, who commands the brightest spotlight and I think it's kind of fun, and interesting for me, to capture people who didn't have their opportunity to shine. That's one of the really great things as a magazine photographer because you get assigned to photograph a person where this might be their one and only time being in a magazine and I get a kick out of that as well.

Photographer Brian Smith in Death Valley
Photographer Brian Smith in Death Valley

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