Recognizable by its soft, alluring images, Matthew Jordan Smith’s ad work reveals, in part, the man and the talent behind the lens and lights. His uncanny ability to depict the inner romantic and natural charms of his subjects spurs many celebrities to commission him. A long client list that includes Halle Berry, Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum and Sarah Ferguson is ample testimony of Smith’s gift for capturing an often whimsical and always imaginative glimpse into the souls of his subjects. On one hand, his images draw the viewer into a warm and irresistible world. On the other, they keep the viewer at bay, eyes wide open at exoticism that evokes a mood of far off lands or ancient times.
Speaking with Smith reveals a kind of emotional dichotomy. As a film lover, he speaks frequently of movies that inspire his work—The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Amélie. He’s moved to action by stories that have grand and awe-inspiring beauty and realistic stories weaved with fairly-tale elements.
Lighting is a key part of Smith’s photography, and great films inspire much of his work. Says Smith, “I was deeply inspired by The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I loved the story, but most importantly, the lighting. I’m obsessed with light. It can be my primary focus sometimes. I love to imitate the light of the sun. Much of my lighting style is ‘end-of-day sunlight.’ I try to emulate its color, tone, look and angle.”
Smith works entirely with hard light to achieve this effect. He believes it delivers the crisp look that has become such a trademark of his photographs. You can’t help but be struck by the bright colors and contrasts he creates. From deep, dramatic skies to small highlights from his subjects’ skin and eyes, his well thought-out lighting design adds that extra punch.
“I use beauty dishes in many of my shoots,” Smith adds. “But I only use white light, almost exclusively.” He also has a tendency to experiment with HMIs because they give him the freedom to play with effects that mimic natural sunlight, but in a controlled studio environment. When it comes to his day-to-day, go-to lights, however, he’s an exclusive Profoto user.
“I use Profoto lights and strobe lights all the time,” says Smith. “I love their durability and reliability. So much can go wrong on the set, but I’ve never had a Profoto light fail me or cause me more problems. I use them all over the world— I never travel for a shoot without them. They work. It’s hard enough for every thing to come together on a photo shoot; you want something dependable.”
Smith’s interest in lighting dates back to his early days as an assistant in New York City, where he studied under fashion photographer Neil Bar. Recalls Smith, “I learned the most from Neil. He was the single person I learned the most from about beauty and lighting. In my mind, he’s a lighting master.”
Although Smith received some formal education when he studied at the Art Institute of Atlanta, he moved to New York against advice to study photography on his own. “There were many naysayers,” says Smith. “My parents would tell me, ‘There are hundreds of starving photographers on the streets!’ They just didn’t want me to be penniless.”
But Smith’s drive to succeed in the world of photography was unyielding and unrelenting. “It was a slow evolution breaking into the beauty and advertising world,” he says. “Mostly, it came from assisting, but I had a love for it, a vision. You can tell a story through it.”
Smith’s choice to focus on beauty photography certainly isn’t unexpected, and his interest in all things French comes as no surprise. “I love Paris—it’s beautiful and romantic,” says Smith. “I love the food, the music, the sunlight.” He’s equally inspired by French movies: “They’re very romantic. They touch your heart; they touch your soul.”
But it’s not only France that moves this artist’s soul. Smith is a world traveler. “I draw inspiration from everywhere,” he says, “from traveling to other parts of the world and experiencing different cultures. It stays with you. It becomes a part of who you are.”
It follows then that a look at Smith’s work transports the viewer to another place in time. His love of exotic places plays into all of his imagery, and the romantic in him betrays itself in his technical work as well. Although much of his photography has made the transition to digital, especially in his advertising work, Smith remains a devotee of film.
“People ask me about film versus digital all the time,” says Smith. “I’m a film guy. It’s not for the quality of the picture, but more for the process. I like working with something, having a photograph in my hand, holding rolls of film.” Smith laughs as he admits, “I’m probably the only one out here who shoots film anymore!”
He adds, “I know the world is more digital than before. I love it and I hate it. I love working in the darkrooms and in the processing labs. It’s where photographers come together and talk about ideas and about what they do and do not like. You talk about what you love with your peers.”
“I’d always fight with my sisters to use the bathroom,” recalls Smith. “I’d yell, ‘Two more minutes! Two more minutes!'”
Although he’s reluctant to make the complete transition, Smith understands the need for digital. While on a recent trip to Nepal, Smith shot 180 rolls of film.
Anyone who has ever traveled with rolls of film knows what a hassle it can be to transport across the globe. And in a world where film is being taken over by portable, compact digital cameras, it was no easy task. Back in the U.S., it took nearly a year for all the rolls of film to be processed, scanned and stored in Smith’s computer. He freely acknowledges that he won’t be traveling with film again.
As for all photographers with advertising clients, Smith is doing many more jobs in digital. “I’m using the Canon EOS-1D Mark II because it’s fast,” he says. “For me, it’s like film! You can create an atmosphere, and in a moment, it’s immediately captured! It can take something to get the subject in the mood and you need to be able to take the pictures right away.”
Because he describes much of his work as “catch the moment,” Smith needs a camera that can keep up with his fast-paced shooting style—hence his use of the sub-full-frame Canon EOS-1D Mark II instead of a slower camera with a full-frame sensor. Recently, Smith has been featured as the photographer for reality television shows America’s Next Top Model and Style Her Famous. For this work, he uses the Hasselblad H2. Says Smith, “You can show the models as they’re looking at the images and as they’re going over their poses and critiques. It has sharp images and good performance; it’s similar to shooting on film. Advertisers like it because they can see the proofs right away, although it’s normally too slow for me.”
When it comes to postproduction, Smith is hooked on Photoshop. “I love it!” he says. “All day, all night. Can’t live without it! In my business, everything thrives on cleaning up images and retouching and storing. Especially in beauty, the skin has to be spotless and beautiful.”
Smith is constantly trying to learn the latest and greatest Photoshop techniques, taking much of his lead from interns and students who are commonly versed on the nuances of current computer technology. To Smith, it does seem to be a give-and-take situation, however. He recently had an intern come to work for him who had never loaded a roll of film before! As much as Smith can learn from the next generation, they can have much to learn in the way of classic photography.
As indispensable as Smith finds Photoshop, he’s not a special-effects person. Smith is a purist. Whether composing or lighting, he wants his images to be simple and a reflection of pure, real beauty. He’d rather have his images be thought of as “feeling” rather than a Photoshop gimmick.
Says Smith, “My style isn’t one to look at and say, ‘He always does this technique or that technique, or always uses that camera or equipment.’ My images are about capturing a moment, selling a mood. They’re romantic and sensual without being sexual; it’s much more of a pure feeling.”
It’s difficult to get through a topic without reference to the word “romantic” when speaking with Matthew Jordan Smith. His world is emotive, stimulating and powerful, and he teases out softer, more romantic and memorable pictures than we’re ordinarily given the chance to enjoy in daily life.
To see more of Matthew Jordan Smith’s work, visit www.matthewjordansmith.com.
Article was written for DigitalPhotoPro, www.digitalphotopro.com