Unknown Origins

Brian Smale on Photography

November 27, 2020 Attitude. Imagination. Execution. Season 1 Episode 34
Unknown Origins
Brian Smale on Photography
Show Notes Transcript

Brian Smale provides perspective about using the camera like a wand to blend his artistic eye with technical know-how by capturing snapshots in time that demystify the complex to convey its verbal description by portraying some of the world's leading businessmen and women, scientists, inventors, and politicians. Assignments for magazines such as Fortune, BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fast Company, Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, Spin, and commercial clients including Microsoft, Panasonic, Boeing, Fuji, and Seattle Children's Hospital.


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Roy Sharples:

Hello, I'm Roy Sharples, and welcome to the unknown origins podcast. Why are you listening to this podcast? Are you an industry expert looking for insights? are you growing your career? Or are you a dear friend, helping this four year old pile on? I created the unknown origins podcast to have the most inspiring conversations with creative industry personalities and experts about entrepreneurship, pop culture, art, music, film and fashion. Authentic photographers are artists who use the camera as a warned to blend that artistic eye with technical knew how to capture snapshots in time, but demystify the complex to convey its variable description. award winning freelance photographer Brian smail provides perspective on the harsh truth of the camera is by portraying some of the world's leading businessmen and women, scientists, inventors and politicians, assignments for magazines such as fortune Businessweek, Forbes, Fast Company, Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone and spin on commercial clients, including Microsoft, Panasonic, Boeing, Fiji, and Seattle Children's Hospital. He has also snapped many luminaries such as Mohammed Ali and Bill Gates. Welcome Brian Smale! What inspired and attracted you to photography in the first place?

Brian Smale:

When I was a kid, my dad took me out in the backyard, and we took a lot of pictures with the little brownie camera of each other. And we just chug lots of pictures of us doing goofy things. And I really enjoyed it, I just enjoyed the process and kind of the idea of freezing the moment in time.

Roy Sharples:

You have a knack for making your subjects feel comfortable and confident. And it really comes through on your end product...

Brian Smale:

I guess when you've done something for a number of years, you have a competence in your yourself and in your equipment and, and have a great assistant Lucian, who, who's able to, you know, kind of think ahead of everything I do, and really help out a lot. But a lot of is just, you know, having done portraits for a long time, and kind of knowing in your mind that you're able to pull something out of whatever, whatever is there. And I guess that helps the subject you to feel confident and comfortable. I think it's just practice, you know, you just just do something often enough and you can recognize situations that that might work well as a picture.

Roy Sharples:

What is your creative process, in terms of how do you make the invisible, visible by dreaming up an idea, convert an idea into a concept, and then turning that concept into actualization?

Brian Smale:

90% of my work is portraiture. And the bulk of that work is really to, to illustrate what the person looks like. And usually that's in in their environment, whether it's work or home, or whatever they do. Sometimes, the purpose behind the picture is to illustrate what it is they do, or the idea behind what the story is all about. So I try to find some kind of visual trick or visual image somewhere that can illustrate what it is that person is all about. An example of one shoot like that, that I did for Smithsonian magazine, was a professor in eastern Washington at Washington State University, who discovered that environmental toxins can cause genetic damage that can be passed down to your descendants. The editor of the magazine of Smithsonian magazine came up with an idea of using Darwin's finches as a as a tool to explain how the genetics work. So we had a tree cut out of plywood like a fake tree, and a whole bunch of fake birds were cut out of plywood as well, most of which were painted yellow, like the little yellow finches, but a few were painted black and they were arranged in the tree in a way chose like a family tree. The the lineage of how genetic damage can actually be passed on from parent to child. And it took it actually worked out pretty well. It's hard to explain verbally, which I guess is why they use pictures. So you got to see the picture in order to understand what I'm talking about. But that's one example of making a concept or an invisible idea visible. Another example, is something I did for Stanford medicine magazine, I did a portrait of a man who's the, the chair of the ophthalmology department. And we did a number of regular, fairly traditional portraits of him. But the one that was ended up being used as the opener the lead picture in the story was it something that really actually happen not at a planning, but just spontaneously, I was photographing him in their new office, part of the the entrance lobby, there was a number of glass panels that were separated by about an inch of air. And so I photographed him through the glass panels, but just revealing his eye. And so you could see the outline of his body, it was fairly diffused, and you couldn't really tell who it was. But the most important part of him was his eye. And that was was in focus. And that's what ended up opening up the story. And really doesn't matter what he looks like goes all but the eyes.

Roy Sharples:

I remember you mentioned in previously about the shoot that you did that you did with Jonathan Ping, the author of my money blog. Can you explain what the artistic concept of that was?

Brian Smale:

He uses his own personal finances in, quote, a great deal detail to help people just manage their own finances. And for a number of years, he was doing it anonymously. And he got very popular, but also he was being taken to task a lot by being anonymous, and a lot of people didn't believe some of his blog entries, I guess. Because he was being anonymous. So he, he felt pressured to reveal himself. So there was story about this in business week where he actually, you know, came out and exposed his own name to the world. And they asked me to do a portrait that that showed that. And it was, it took a little bit of planning, and but he was very involved in it. And what we did was because he was using the computer, to hide his identity for a long time, and then to turn around and use it to reveal his identity. I ended up taking a picture that using a computer monitor that obscured his face, in reality, but revealed his face by being a picture of him on the monitor. And it actually worked out really well I thought the downside of it was that it worked out so well, it looks like it was just a Photoshop situation. So I assure you, it was all in one straight shot. But he basically put a laptop right in front of his face with a picture of himself in that situation.

Roy Sharples:

Ah! Having his image the same size reflect on the laptop! How has the changes in technology affected the way that you work as a photographer?

Brian Smale:

The biggest change has been digital. Yeah. And it's been phenomenally and I really do. You know, despite all the problems with digital photography, I think my pictures are better for it. Part of that is the instant feedback you get. But it's also very freeing because it allows you to experiment and get the results very quickly. And it's there's a great deal more forgiveness in the digital files than there was in film. So in the past with film, you had to be very technically savvy to, to get the result you're after. And if you really wanted to experiment you had to experiment very deliberately, with and with digital, it's much more freeing, it's much more open and you can expect But in five minutes later or five seconds later, you can decide whether or not you want to pursue that that avenue. So it's been, it's been pretty great. Actually, I, there's some downsides to the digital revolution. But I actually think it's been a positive overall. Yeah, that makes total sense. With regards to how the digital revolution has disrupted photography technology can help broaden an artist's creativity, while also mitigating the challenges they may encounter. It makes the production of art less demanding, and time consuming. Traditional photography requires more stages, before the image can be reviewed and edited, and effectively, costs more money, and takes a lot more time digital technology has changed the role of photography and society in many ways, by capturing images, anywhere, anytime, to be able to send images to another person through text messaging, sharing it online email, it allows people to review and edit images almost instantly, after the image has been captured and appreciated across many platforms, internet, social media, and the likes are global scale. What are the key skills needed to be a photographer? Let's hone that in further. What are the essential skills for an editorial photographer? Well, I think you need to be able to understand what your subject is. And the purpose behind the picture, whether it's a simple depiction of the person's face, or its if it's an illustration of have an idea behind the person, if somebody is, for example, asked you to take their picture, you have to understand why and how they'll use it. Sometimes it'll be a picture just for their personal use to give to their family or a loved one. Otherwise, other times it might be for their their business uses. So I think it's something you just have to take into consideration all the time is, you know, how will we used?

Roy Sharples:

You are in a time machine, and it's going backwards - based on the lessons learned to date, in terms of the keys to success and the pitfalls to avoid, what advice would you give to a younger Brian?

Brian Smale:

I think what I would say to younger Brian, or any young photographer is to be true to you yourself to whatever it is that you want to do. Because if you try to predict what somebody else is going to want to see, you're just going to end up cranking out stuff that somebody else could do, as a professional, you got to you got to take into consideration what someone wants, sometimes you're going to get hired by, you know, Joe's garage, and Joe just needs a picture of his car. And that's what you got to do, right? Because that's what you pay the rent, right? But if Vanity Fair calls you and says we just need Brian picture of Joe, in his garage, then you got to go and take a picture of Joe in his garage that satisfies you. Because that's what really what they want.

Roy Sharples:

What's your vision for the future of photography?

Brian Smale:

Well of course there will be a constant need for photography, whether it's still or video. I'm not sure that it's going to be a great career for people to get into. If a young person came to me tomorrow and said, I'd like to be a photographer. Is that a good idea? I'm not sure I could say yes. Because everybody can take a good picture now. And absolutely everybody and cost nothing. So as a career, I'm not sure it's a it's got a great future. But I know everybody thinks visually now. And so I think visuals are always going to be in demand. And worse, we're just constantly we're overwhelmed by them. them they're everywhere, right? So my my my vision for the future of photography is very positive. But my vision for the future photographers is not so good.

Roy Sharples:

Technology has democratized photography, and made it accessible and affordable to anyone with a camera phone, enabling people to take decent looking photos, regardless of the photographic process, or technical education and know how. However, this is not in the same realm or league as a professional photographer, who understands the science, so the composition, the lighting, and also the art of photography. Photography is a language that communicates through visual objects and elements instead of words that connect emotionally to the cards of our hearts and expands our imagination, instead of people who simply take a good picture from their iPhone, which becomes about the actual subject than the photograph itself, or the, or the photography itself, why Trump's attention here is the actual person posing and doing a selfie of themselves. And that's not art. My point being is that the art and craft of photography does not equate to mass commoditization of photo taking, and evil through technology. Surely, in the future, there must be life on Mars. for photographers, Brian, what is the key difference between the craft of professional photography versus a novice with an iPhone?

Brian Smale:

Well, a lot of it has to do with practice. And just as a craft, you have to know and be comfortable with what your equipment in your things your software can do. And once you know that, and once you feel comfortable with that, then you can kind of just look for the composition of the lighting or the design and, and understand what the subject is are once. The So yeah, I think it's it's really practice I mean, yeah. And to be able to deliver I mean, as a professional photographer versus a person with an iPhone. Yeah, you can take a good picture with an iPhone, but professional, of course, be able to do it every day. In deliver

Roy Sharples:

Who is the most interesting person that you photographed?

Brian Smale:

I have probably photographed two of the most famous people in the universe, Muhammad Ali and Bill Gates.

Roy Sharples:

One of the greatest of all time; Muhammad Ali, that must have been an elating experience?

Brian Smale:

It was fantastic to be able to take his picture!

Roy Sharples:

Have you had the opportunity to photograph one of your heroes? Do you recommend if given the opportunity, that you should photograph your heroes or not? Or even just simply meeting your heroes or not?

Brian Smale:

You should never ever ever meet your heroes. I was a huge fan of Jonathan Richmond for years, and I just love his music. And I got the opportunity to photograph him for Rolling Stone several years ago. And I was very excited. And so we arranged to meet in Central Park. And he came by himself. And which I really respected. I thought that was just fantastic. Because most times they would come with an entourage But no, Jonathan Richman came by himself. And he clearly didn't enjoy the process. But he came anyway. And I got a few pictures of him that I quite liked. But at some point, I guess I must have said something or done something that they didn't like, and he ran away. He just picked up and ran away from the shoot. And ultimately, I got enough good pictures of him for the story. But it was just a I just kind of speechless, in the middle.

Roy Sharples:

We'll put that down to artistic differences, our artistic temperament.

Brian Smale:

He was great, and I really enjoyed photographing him, .and then he just suddenly ran away!

Roy Sharples:

What is the most creatively challenging piece of work that you've done, and why

Brian Smale:

I have never had never shot fashion in my life and never intended to. But one day several years ago, I got a call from a good friend who's a art director and said he had a client that was a jewelry designer and asked me to a series of photographs a series of ads for for that I was really wasn't interested. I had no skills in that, that, that world and wasn't particularly interested in. So I tried to avoid it. And the they kept asking and apparently the client really liked my work. So we got we got into a meeting and we talked about it a little bit. And apparently they were looking for something in the style of Helmut Newton. So I still wasn't interested and I just suggested that they call Helmut Newton and ask him to do it. Most Just to get out of the chute, but also should end up doing the shoot and just wouldn't make it seem like I was a bargain in terms of my feet. Anyway, I finally did get talked into doing it. And we went down to New Orleans. And as it turned out, the models were great, the locations were great. Everything worked out really well. And the pictures are real nice. So I was happy with that. And at the end of it all, I ended up marrying the client. So it all really worked out very well.

Roy Sharples:

What do you find to be the most creatively fulfilling work to do and why?

Brian Smale:

Well, I really enjoy doing portraits. That's something I've always liked doing. And it just lets you enter somebody else's world and learn about what they do. The probably the most fun I have is taking pictures of people that never been shot before, for a for anything, any sort of public display. Because they may have done something unusual, extraordinary or been involved somehow in something that is newsworthy. And when you fly halfway across the country to meet them and take their picture there, they're always really usually they're flattered and surprised, and will then do anything, you know, to help you get their picture. And that's always really fun, you know, because they, it's just really fresh and new for them. And it just, it's, it's really a great, fun thing to do.

Roy Sharples:

What photographers and photography styles have influenced you the most?

Brian Smale:

Probably the greatest influence on me as was a guy I worked for for a few years with Nigel Dickson, who's a terrific editorial photographer, he does a lot of different things well, and I really learned a lot from him and stole a lot from him. And you know, I just think it's a terrific photographer, but I also like other a lot of others so the you know, Usual Suspects like Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Sebastian Salgado - heroes of the industry!

Roy Sharples:

What makes an image iconic?

Brian Smale:

There are some pictures that you just can't forget. A lot of things come to mind. Some are unpleasant, like they're violent or others are, or, you know, nice, pleasant pictures, like something I was just looking at recently was Bob Bruins picture of john lennon with the New York City t shirt. And that I think, is probably etched in just about everybody's mind of a certain age. And there's other things that are pretty unpleasant that like images from the Vietnam War, like the picture of the little girl who just been hit by napalm running and running towards camera. I don't think anybody who sees that can forget it. There's another picture of a Vietcong soldier being executed with a pistol. And, again, I you know, it's kind of picture that it's hard to look at, but you can't forget it. And that'll always be in your mind. And Sebastian Salgado did a big series of photographs of gold miners in Brazil. And it's just a vast field of tiny, tiny images, like little little workers climbing up ladders with sacks of dirt on their backs. They just look like an anthill. It's unbelievable. What these people will do to survive. And you can't unsee that.

Roy Sharples:

Killer question for the climatic ending - does the camera ever lie?

Brian Smale:

Of course not - only photographers do!

Roy Sharples:

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