Before speaking with top celebrity and fashion photographer Matthew Jordan Smith it's normal to be nervous.
Smith's career has been a storied one, with a single component at its core: beauty.
He recalls his first big commercial shoot. Capitol Hill had just been rocked by another scandal. Clarence Thomas, a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, and Anita Hill, a law professor from Oklahoma, were at the heart of it.
A magazine called him up. "...they loved the way I shot women," Smith says. "So my goal was to capture her [Hill's] beauty." He remembers being stunned by just how beautiful she was in person. "Up until then other photographers hadn't really focused on that aspect of her," says Smith.
In his 20-year career, Smith's focus on the subject rather than his own agenda has set him apart. That unwavering focus goes back to his youth, growing up in Columbia, South Carolina.
"Photography called to me," he says. "My father gave me a camera when I was 12, and I fell in love with photography the instant I went into the darkroom and saw my work come to life."
The next step in his evolution toward photography came in the form of a guest speaker at Smith's high school. "He was a photographer for a newspaper," he says.
"I realized that photography can be a profession and not just a hobby. The most important part is to believe, because every day presents possibilities. I push myself and push the limits, striving not to get too comfortable - that's when you stop growing."
To fuel his personal and professional growth, Smith pursued the often-challenging business of photographing fashion models or "beauty photography" as well as celebrities.
"Everything has a challenge, which makes it interesting," he says. When faced with a challenge it can make "it harder to pull out what you love about it," adds Smith.
Regardless of the subject, Smith follows a few simple but important guidelines.
"You have to go into depth to find out what moves you, what makes your heart jump." This happened to Smith when first exposed to beauty photography. "It really moved me," he says. "When I saw images from Italian and American magazines, I realized it was more than documenting: it was creation. I was turned on by the creation aspect of it."
From there, the celebrity photography followed. "In the beginning it was models on the magazine covers, then it was celebrities," he says. "It was a natural transition for me."
Smith has captured celebrities like: Oprah, Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Williams, Tyra Banks, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry and Britney Spears. While it may seem that 'camera shy' would be a foreign concept to those who spend their lives in the public eye, Smith says that's not always the case.
"They're often not comfortable doing still images," he says, "so you have to work harder to put them at ease." Three celebrities-- Banks, Bassett and Williams -- stand out for Smith.
"Working with them is like seeing your best friend from high school," he says. "They're very comfortable in their own skin. They've endured ups and downs, they've survived, and it gives them an inner peace that the camera notices."
One of the things that has helped him stay fresh for two decades in the industry is technology. Smith says that technology - like art - is always evolving.
"When I started we were shooting film and going to labs. Now, we're using more digital." Smith estimates that he now shoots 90 percent digital.
"Computers used to be just for typing, but now it's much more," he says. "The entire creative team can see everything in the moment. I can have our work to New York in an instant...and yes, I'm a PC!"
Smith has also pushed himself by guest lecturing, publishing books and always staying in touch with the essence of his environment no matter where in the world he is. In 2001, Smith published Sepia Dreams, a critically acclaimed collection of 50 African American icons whom Smith not only photographed but also interviewed.
Sanctioned by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and sponsored by Microsoft, Smith's second book, Lost & Found, features compelling photographs of families who have endured the abduction of their children. Smith's third book, tentatively titled Fluid, is a retrospective of his trip to India and Nepal, where he was when the Tsunami struck in late 2004.
To strike a balance, and to maintain strong ties to communities, Smith serves on several boards around the world and has been a guest judge on the TV hit America's Next Top Model.
Smith's advice to those answering to their passion for photography is concise. "Dream big. If you have big dreams about things that have never been done before, you can't rely on others for support or encouragement because they won't understand where you're going. You have to dig within yourself for that."
Matthew Jordan Smith serves as a Microsoft Icon of Imaging. Microsoft's hope is that the Icons of Imaging will provide inspiration to other digital photographers to create the best photographic images possible. You can keep up with him at www.MatthewJordanSmith.blogspot.com.
Jeff Greene is the marketing manager at the Microsoft Rich Media Group and writes a blog focused on digital photography. He manages the Microsoft Icons of Imaging program and is a digital photographer himself. To read him Pro Photo blog visit blogs.msdn.com/prophoto/.