Matthew Jordan Smith has gained world-wide recognition through his iconic images as well as his appearances on “America’s Next Top Model”. Yet he still finds time to “give back” in the form of his books, his speaking engagements and his Blog. Fotoflock spoke to this great photographer who, despite his success, has managed to remain humble.
Your clients include a host of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Britney Spears, Tyra Banks and Halle Berry. Is there anyone whom you have particularly enjoyed working with?
Definitely Tyra Banks and Vanessa Williams. With them it’s never like a job – it’s more like we’re catching up on each other’s lives and in-between we take great pictures. They’re more like friends than clients.
How does your approach to photographing celebrities differ from your approach to photographing professional models?
It doesn’t actually – whether I’m photographing a celebrity, a model, a little Mary or my mother, I adopt the same approach. First of all I do a lot of research into them and their latest projects and also what makes them feel at ease (such as what they drink, what music they listen to, what snacks they eat).
Is that all part of what you call the Matthew Jordan Smith Experience (MJSEXP)?
Absolutely, the Matthew Jordan Smith Experience involves creating an environment where subjects feel comfortable in showing their true selves. At the end of the day, the pictures that end up in the magazine are just a glimpse of that experience.
You have a large collection of music which you use during your shoots. What is the importance of this?
I think music is very important as it is the one thing that most determines whether a person feels comfortable or uncomfortable. Before a shoot, I, my assistants and interns do a lot of research into what music the person likes, either online, by contacting their manager or even asking them themselves.
How was your experience of working as a guest judge on “America’s Next Top Model”?
I’ve shot for “America’s Next Top Model” four times and appeared on it as a guest judge three times. Whenever I appear on this programme, getting to know these wonderful ladies is always so much fun. It’s something I never thought I’d do but it’s got my name out there on a huge scale and given me brand awareness, all over the world. I am also proud that it has inspired others to take up photography – I’ve received lots of emails on my blog from people telling me how they’ve been inspired by seeing my work on the programme.
You are a renowned public speaker and guest speaker at many prestigious photography schools. How important is it to you to share your knowledge and love of photography?
It’s very important – I think it’s essential to give back in every way you can, to share your knowledge with people around the world. My blog has enabled me to do this as, if I give a speech to five thousand people, I obviously won’t be able to answer all of their questions. Thanks to the blog, if any of those people have a question they can communicate with me online.
In your first book, Sepia Dreams, you photographed and also interviewed fifty African-American icons including Gregory Hines, Samuel Jackson and Vanessa Williams. What inspired you to produce this book?
It was actually another book by Gordon Parks which inspired me. When I read that book I discovered that it was possible to make a living out of something which I’d previously thought of as only a hobby i.e. photography.
What do you think the interviews added to the book?
The interviews were centred around how the person started out in their careers. I was hoping to inspire people by showing them how, through hard work, these people went on to become successes. I think the interviews give a deeper feeling to the photographs.
Gordon Parks is one of your heroes and also features in Sepia Dreams. How was your experience of photographing him?
He was one of my favourite interviews as he is my idol and, just by living his life, my mentor. It was wonderful to come face-to-face with him.
What sort of questions did you ask him?
I asked him general questions like how he started out in his career but also questions that made him go deeper like whether he thinks it’s necessary to be around people who are doing the same thing (e.g. an actor being around actors or a dancer being around dancers) or whether it’s only important to be around successful people, no matter what they do. I learnt a lot from him, such as the fact that success comes with challenges.
Your second book, Lost & Found, features families who have undergone the trauma of child abduction. What challenges did you face while working on this book?
Many. This was a deeply hard book to work on. It was emotionally draining as the families I documented had lost children. In some cases the children were later found alive but in other cases they weren’t found or were found dead. It was also physically draining as I had to travel all over America.
The book not only enabled these families to get their stories out but also provided information on how families can protect their children, such as how to protect them when they’re online.
Please tell us about the book you are currently working on.
This book is entirely about photography – there are no interviews. I did it simply for the love of photography and it’s the most fun I’ve had taking pictures in my whole life. For the book I shot one hundred people, mostly average people but also some celebrities (including Angela Bassett) from around the world – Japanese, Hawaiian, Korean etc. It reflects the world. It was all shot on film and so it was pure photography.
Do you prefer film to digital?
I shoot both film and digital but I love film – I think it has a quality which digital doesn’t have. Nowadays, the pace of the world is increasing and people are less concerned with quality as they are with getting something right away. However, for my own personal work, I always prefer film.
Which photographers have inspired you and why?
Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Steven Meisel. What inspires me about them is their love of their craft and the fact that they have managed to have long careers, spanning decades. Nowadays, it is very easy to be ‘flavour of the month’ but being consistently great is not so easy. I’m still striving to be in that league.
What are your plans for the future?
I am always planning to produce more books. Other than that, a long-term plan is to get into directing commercially and getting my work into galleries around the world.
We hope you come to India!
Actually I have been to India and Nepal. My ex-wife was Bangladeshi and after the divorce I came to India. Before I came to India I had a lot of friends who kept going back to India again and again and I didn’t know why. However, once I came to India I understood. I’ve travelled to lots of places – Mumbai, Goa, Delhi, Udaipur, Agra … visiting Agra was a mind-altering experience. I want to go back and visit the South – Kerala, Chennai and Bangalore.