Bruce Smith knows it is the space between people that can bring them closer together.
Whether across the room or up close to his subject, this British-born photographer recognizes that the energy he projects is channeled through the space between his model and himself.
"I find that by doing the poses and expressions in my face that I want, my models seem to mirror mine," he said. "If I act daft, they act daft. If I laugh, they laugh. If I pull a sad face, they pull a sad face - which always makes them smile."
Though the Liverpool-based fashion image maker has worked in some of the most exotic locales on the planet with the world's most beautiful women, he's still down-to-Earth and passionate about his romantic, mysterious and classic style of capturing couture.
Like most success stories, however, his journey was an evolution; tracks that led him toward a fulfilling life.
He began his auspicious 30-year career by getting fired as a photo assistant after two years of brewing tea, sweeping and fetching equipment for several studio photographers.
"I believe there's a reason for everything," he said in a recent radio interview. "I learned a lot from getting sacked."
This was a time when Smith's life was largely unfulfilling. He decided to go solo, setting up a tiny photo studio in behind his brother's hair salon in Liverpool. He snapped portraits of children and families and some weddings.
Soon Smith discovered he didn't have any passion for this kind of studio work. He felt stifled working in one place and was searching for another challenge when fate stepped in. His brother's friend was holding a hairstylist event at a local salon and asked him to shoot some of the more "adventurous" hairdos.
Attracted to the fast-paced nature, the beautiful models and the added challenges of the gig, Smith realized there were other avenues he could take in photography. Without another thought he switched gears toward fashion and editorial work.
His first big break came together in a series of coincidences. First: he nervously introduced himself to an exotic, panther-like model who he eyed in a Liverpool nightclub. With sweaty hands, he clumsily offered her his business card along with invitation for a photo shoot. But Smith never heard from the six-foot beauty until the day he was attending a casting call. One of the models at the agency was the same beauty from the nightclub. Realizing Smith was the real deal, she apologized to him and the two set a date for a test shoot.
Next, Smith was charged with finding a designer to clothe his new model. He arranged to borrow clothing from Helen Anderson, a designer of couture gowns sold at upscale stores such as the Harrods in London.
Upon visiting the designer, another common link was unveiled; Smith's model was the one she chose to model her collection with another photographer. When she met Smith, she changed her mind and asked him to shoot the collection.
"What I was trying to set up as a test became a job," said Smith, who has also shot couture collections and bridal wear from Lyn Ashworth and Sacha James.
One of the many lessons Smith has learned over the years is to focus on capturing the fashions, not the models. In fact, his mother helped with this realization. One day, as a fledgling shooter, Smith asked his mother, a very stylish woman herself, to critique his work: "Nice pictures," she said, "but they are just pictures of pretty girls not fashion pictures." A shift in focus was needed from the models to the clothing. He listened to his mother's advice. "The model is your prop," he realized. This revelation changed his entire approach to shooting fashion.
Good business sense is as important as passion when it comes to longevity in this business. Rather than arguing his vision with the client he often shoots an assignment two ways: the client's and his. This way the client sees the difference for him or herself, explained Smith. This technique worked with designer Anderson, who had a preconceived notion of what she wanted for her collection photos—more posed, forced shots. But Smith wanted to take freer images that contained his emotions and feelings. In the end, she used all his pictures, which gave him the confidence to move forward in his career.
And the self-discovery continues today. While undergoing a period of self-examination when a friend questioned him on how he achieved his style, Smith decided to try shooting with wider lenses to vary his ubiquitous bridal-wear pictures. For years, Smith shot with medium-length telephotos. At times, he was so far away that his models couldn't hear his directions.
"While moving in closer to my model, I noticed a big difference in the expressions in her face and her body language‑-they changed, as I got closer," he says.
"Not only could I see better, it also created a much better flow of the energy and communication between my model and me."
He found this method allowed him more control over his photos as well.
More than traveling to any exotic locale, from Morocco to Thailand, the spiritual journey allowed him to discover the true source of his inspiration: "the classic line of a beautiful gown and the energy exchanged between me and a good model."
Using all digital these days because of the speed it affords, Smith prefers photographing with a Nikon D2X, with a 17 to 55, f2.8 Nikon zoom, with ambient light and the California Sunbounce System of diffusers and reflectors.
Somehow the Brit has also managed to bridge the oceanic divide between the U.S. and Europe and work on two continents. He teaches workshops in the U.S. and the U.K as well as Milan, Tuscany and Venice.
But, he added, there are differences between the desired photographic styles:
"European markets are not as heavily-styled or stylized, but lately they are becoming very similar [to the U.S.]."
Smith is currently offering a host of fashion photography courses and workshops in the U.S. and Europe. For more information, visit http://www.brucesmithphotographer.com/workshops/, or to view more images check out http://www.brucesmithphoto.com.