friday feature: matthew jordan smith

Matthew Jordan Smith is an amazingly successful beauty/fashion/celebrity photographer based in LA. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to intern with him. During the internship, we had photo shoots for Pantene, People Magazine and America's Next Top Model... to name a few.

His first book, Sepia Dreams has wonderful collection of his earlier work, featuring photographs of Tyra Banks, Iman, Halle Berry, Gordon Parks and many more. I most recently met up with Matthew to assist him in photographing Elizabeth Smart for his latest book, Lost and Found.

Matthew has such a kind heart and is devoted to share his talent and knowledge with budding photographers. His new blog, shares behind-the-scenes of his photo shoots --which include his equipment list and exposure information. Quite a rarity. I consider him a dear friend with a wonderfully kind soul. I am so glad we have been able to keep in touch.

Here is our interview, exclusively for you:

01. When did you decide to become a photographer?
I decided to become a photographer asking reading a book about the life of Gordon Parks. My father gave me a camera when I was very young, however it was just a hobby in the beginning and I didn't know you could make a good living being a photographer. Once I read about Gordon's life it made it real because he looked like me and made many things happen for himself simply by having a strong faith and working hard.

02. What equipment where you using then? What are you shooting with today? (cameras, lenses, lights...)
My first camera was a Pentax Honeywell and it was my first 35mm. It would freeze up whenever the temp dropped below 32 degrees but I wish I still had it. Today I use a variety of camera but my 35 system is the new Sony A900. I love the camera and the amazing line of Carl Zeiss lenses. My favorite lens are the 50, 85 and 135. They seem to get most of my usage these days. In regard to lighting I have long been a fan of Profoto strobes and still use them today. The great thing about the Profoto system is that is is durable and consistent.

03. How did shooting film shape the way you shoot today?
I am very thankful for my history with film and I still shoot it today. I don't see it as being a choice of film or digital as many do, but simply another tool in my arsenal of options in making images that stand the test of time. I always have personal projects going on but one of my two books that I've just completed was shot exclusively with Kodak film. That project could not have been done with digital. My background in film simply give me more options and helps give me a foundation for understanding how light works and the range of film and digital. I'm not sure what type of photographer I'd be if I only had a digital background but I'm fairly sure it wouldn't be a good one.

04. What led you to specializing in celebrities, portraits and fashion?
In the beginning for me I was very much into fashion and beauty and it consumed me. At that time it was really only models on the covers of magazines and as I started shooting more and more work it led to shooting covers of magazines. When celebrity became bigger and bigger, since I was shooting covers already my clients began giving me celebrities and now I'm known for doing a lot of celebrity work. The funny thing is I never dreamed of photographing celebrities. It was a gradual evolution and now my work is about half and half. Still I love shooting beauty work because of my roots starting in that manner. Even my celebrity images have a beauty aspect to them.

05. I remember you saying that you were quite a shy child? How did photography help?
LOL! Yes, I was a shy kid and maybe in some ways I'm still somewhat shy. Photography helped me in terms of meeting people and gave me became an extension of my personality. It opened door that I couldn't otherwise open and today it still does that for me. LOL!

06. Who has been your favorite celebrity to photograph (so far?)
The funny thing is I don't see celebrities anymore as celebrities. After you meet them and it's just another person and sometime you end up hanging out with some and sometimes you don't want to be in the same room. Life is funny, but I'd have to say my favorites would have to be a tie between Tyra Banks, Angela Bassett and her husband Courtney Vance and Vanessa Williams. They are all good friends and a lot of fun to work with. Working with each of them is like seeing an old friend from high school that you haven't seen in a long time.

07. You met Tyra at the start of her career ---please tell us how you helped "discover" her and what it was like working with her before she became so famous.
The first time I photographed Tyra I was still working as a photo assistant and she was busy working every day as a brand new model new to New York. She was busy from the start and after her first trip to Paris everyone was asking who this beautiful young woman was. I thought she was the most beautiful creature on the planet at the time. The first time we shot was in my apartment in Brooklyn and we ended up shooting very late into the wee hours of the morning. She was very young at the time and new to New York and had her mother Carolyn with her. We had so much fun and shot so late that her mother fell asleep on the couch. I still remember that day like it was yesterday. As an assistant I worked with a photographer named Chuck Baker who at the time was shooting a lot of Victoria's Secret. The client for VS asked me one day whom I like as a Black model and I told her there was a new beautiful model named Tyra. I can't say I was the one who brought her to their attention but she was and still is very special.

08. Tell us about working on America's Next Top Model. How did you get involved with the show? Tell us your craziest shooting stories. Can you predict who will win each season just by working with them?
Working on the show was one of the best experiences I've had in a long time. The show is not really about the reality of a photo shoot, but it's a small segment of it and gives the girls an idea of what they can expect if they really become models. I shot four times on the show and sat in as the guest judge three times. The shooting was a lot of fun but I really enjoyed the judging segments because you get to really see each girls personality. My favorite segment was the show shooting the girls as a celebrity couple. They were all good that season and Melrose came in as the runner up because of her personality. She was a ton of fun but I really like the Indian model but unfortunately she never truly believed in herself or her beauty. The show was always a ton of fun to work on. I got involved starting with season three but I remember before the show was created and Tyra talking about things she'd like to do in the future. MTV used to have a segment called "Driven" and Tyra was the subject of one of those interviews. She asked them to interview me and I did a segment for the show discussing our friendship and working relationship. It's funny now because even then she was a big name, but no where close to where she is now. I am inspired to watch her dream big and achieve her dreams each and every day.

09. On any given shoot, how many people are on set? (models, art directors, etc....) Does it ever become stressful having so many collaboraters with opinions on set with you?
My sets are often crazy and filled with people. The Jenny Craig shoot are always filled with anywhere from 50-75 people on the set because they shoot both the TV and still segments on the same day. Each job has some degree of stress but the more you do it the more it affects you less. I now look at it as part of the process and consider myself blessed to be able to make a living doing what I truly love.

10. What was the inspiration for your book, Sepia Dreams?
Gordon Parks! I read about Gordon as a kid and his life inspired me to really look into doing photography as a career. Seeing images of Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee fueled me and because a book has such a strong impression on my and changed my life I hoped I could inspire other in the same fashion with Sepia Dreams. Today I am doing another book project very similar to Sepia Dreams and never thought that my first book would lead to a career as an author.

11. Matthew, you have been so succesful achieving your dream to become a great photographer. What advice would you give others who are on the path?
My first advise would be to really dream big! By that I mean imagine the best and hold that vision in your mind, no matter how crazy or far fetched it may seem. The universe makes things happen and all you have to do is dream and dream big! You can do anything if you first see it in your mind. Little by little it won't seem as far fetched as it did in the beginning. The beauty of dreaming big is the reality is always much better than your initial dream.

12. What is the best advice you have been given?

I've been given great advise on so many levels in my career, but one thing I'd like to share is to become comfortable with your own decisions. In the beginning of my career I was always looking for the approval of other on my work until someone sat me down and told me that I had my own vision and that no one else could really pick my images. From that day forward I slowly became comfortable selecting and editing my work and with my vision. The secret is to find what you love and only shoot and show that. If you like it then it's not the shot. You have to love it!

Thank you, Matthew!

Next week, we'll have another interview with Jennifer Causey.

add to sk*rt


Greg said...

Great interview... thanks! (Beautiful shots, too.)

Laurel said...

WOW! I loved this interview... went back and read over and over. Thank you Matthew for the inspiration, and sharing so much. Your images are so easy to stare at. Thank you Nicole for bringing him to your blog.

Julie said...

Thanks for that! I so needed to read that last part. I enjoyed the interview, and I especially enjoyed the confidence boost.

Being comfortable with your own decisions. What a concept!

melissa said...

Thanks for doing this - he is an inspiration!

Faith said...

What a great interview. It was inspiring. I'm looking forward to others in the future.

Colleen said...

Wow, so cool! Thank you!

Susy said...

Great! By the way good luck to you and the husband in S.F!

lola said...

thank you so much for that amazing interview. as an aspiring photographer, i really appreciated his words of encouragement and advice!!

Greeneyes said...

Great interview, amazing images! Hope your move was smooth, and best wishes on the new chapter in California.

Katie said...

This is such a great addition to your blog! I love it.