Although he's been shooting as a pro for only a couple of years, Brian Smith's portfolio already contains ultra-hip images of some of the most popular music and cultural icons on the celebrity scene, including Madonna, the rock group Incubus, and NBA megastar, a.k.a "rap-and-movie artist," Shaquille O'Neal
Smith's work has appeared widely in publications such as Rolling Stone, Guitar World, and Spin. But as his career has continued to grow, so has his book, to which he recently has added great fashion and beauty images of top models, such as Carolyn Murphy and Rhea Durham.
What's his secret to getting the great shots? "I think it's a really personal communication between me and whoever I'm shooting," he says. "I'm open and honest with people, and I think when they see that I'm interested in presenting them in the way they want to be shown, they let their guard down a little.
"There are a lot of great photographers out there who can make these people look totally fabulous. And that's wonderful. I like to capture who they really are. I love it when someone tells me, 'You really captured me in that shot' or 'You brought that person to life.'"
Based in L.A., Smith is no stranger to the spotlight himself. He's a three-time national champion gymnast and founding member of the "X-treme" rollerblading phenomenoncaptured in some of the X-sport's hottest underground videos he shot on location throughout the country. He's also done some acting in New York, and even worked as a fashion model, including shoots with Bruce Weber, for Abercrombie and Fitch, and Herb Ritts, for the Gap.
But once he started shooting as a pro, he gave it all up for the "still-life": "I started shooting everyday and found that I didn't want to do anything else."
He's quick to credit acts of professional kindness, however, for helping him to get started in the businessfrom Madonna, Shaq, the Herb Ritts studio, and top modeling agency IMG, for examplenot to mention the importance of his wife, Shea, an established model for the Ford agency and "the strategic mind" behind his career. "Now, I'm just trusting my instincts," he says, "and doing what I love to do."
Smith's fashion sense is defined by a look that's simple, clean, and timeless. "I'm shooting for 'beauty,'" he explains. "I'm not trying to make a statement. I just want to capture the image that appears in my camera. For me, fashion is about lifestyle, representing the kind of everyday activity that shows people when they're most natural."
Consequently, his images of Carolyn Murphy and Rhea Durham, for example, represent the supermodels in comfortable settings in Malibu, and are both intimate and classically beautiful.
As for working effectively with models, he notes that establishing a professional environmentwhich includes having a top-level makeup artist and stylist onsitemakes the shoot that much easier.
And making it a team effort allows everyone to contribute to the creative process. "I listen to what the model says, and to what others around me suggest, and often act on their ideas. I let the model know I'm not going to ask her to do something she's not comfortable with or that isn't consistent with who she is. One of the biggest compliments I've received is Carolyn Murphy coming away from the shoot saying, 'You know, that was really a lot of fun.'"
He's not without his stratagems, however, and much of his preparation for the shoot takes place while his subject is "off-camera," doing hair and makeup, for example. He walks around and engages in casual conversation, all the while evaluating camera angles and lighting that will make his models look their best. By the time the session actually begins, he's ready to shoot.
The Best Light
"I love the soft, creamy even light of open shade," he says. "It's great for skin. I'll also use an Elinchrom softbox or 2K Fresnel lights to create fill or balance." And though he prefers available light, when it's required, a set of self-contained Calumet Travelites and "a couple of softboxes and umbrellas" conveniently create a portable studio. "I can set up a white seamless, plug in my lights anywhere, and be done in a half-hour."
Only half-joking, he adds that hand-holding his motorized Mamiya RZ67 Pro II camera body all day also serves the dual purpose of keeping him in shape: "It's like doing a full work-out," he laughs. His backup and choice for more formal portraits is a Rolleiflex f/2.8: "It's smaller and lighter; and the Carl Zeiss lens is really crisp. I first saw Bruce Weber using one and I quickly realized why he loves it so much."