Michael A. Smith 1942-2018

One of my photography mentors, Michael Smith, has passed away at 74. The next morning when I heard the news, I sat down and wrote a blog post, one that mistakenly included lots of stuff from his CV. Then I realized that what I really wanted to write about was Michael’s, and his wife Paula’s (my other mentor) impact upon me.

I met Michael, and his wife Paula, when I flew to Ottsville, PA to attend a seminar given by them on marketing your photographs. I learned of the class from an ad in Black and White Magazine, whose editor Henry Rasmussen would later publish my essay about Jack London’s photography. I was familiar with Michael and Paula’s work from B&W and, having had photos published in magazines such as Popular Photography and Photographer’s Forum, books like The Best of Photography Annual, and a prestigious photo contest, I thought I was ready to market my work.

What I discovered was that I had a lot to learn as a photographer. Michael and Paula’s photographs were the most extraordinary I had seen. Having grown up about four hours from Monterey, which is the home of straight black and white photography, I thought that I had a grasp of the history of the medium. While at Michael and Paula’s I came to realize that there was a whole school of straight photography in the eastern part of America whose compositions are more complex and, to me, more engaging. Through them, I gained an appreciation for Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, Harry Callahan, and others.

After completing their class on marketing photography, I attended their Vision and Technique symposium in Monterey (which involved visual theory but no darkroom work), and then, several years later, their full class in PA. Michael pulled me aside while in PA to let me know that I was the only person who had taken the course twice. All I can say is that I’m a slow learner.

During those classes, Michael and Paula both were indefatigable supporters of all the attendees. They didn’t care what anyone’s skillset was; they wanted to help and encourage them to grow as artists. I felt that they considered it their obligation to give back to photography. And their classes didn’t end once the weekend was over. They were always there to offer more support. I mailed them some pictures of rock formations that I’d taken outside of Las Vegas for feedback, and they let me know they were kind of boring. While I didn’t like the verdict, I loved that my prints came back with a little jelly on the back. I could easily imagine them looking at the photographs over breakfast, which was so humanizing.

Michael and Paula taught me to compose for the edges of a photograph, and in doing so, the center of the image would take care of itself. I also learned not to identify or define what I saw on the ground glass (and now in the viewfinder), but to instead see how objects related to each other. So a road that ran through my composition wasn’t a road but a line, and as a line, it either contributed or detracted to my photo — that proved liberating. What a photograph is of is irrelevant. How it’s composed is everything.

Michael and Paula’s photographic mantra is that the only rule is that there are no rules, and they may believe that cognitively. But when I looked through their oeuvre, I realized that they lived by one rule: never embarrass or shame someone in a photograph. Each of them has a full body of work that includes people, and everyone I saw depicted by M&P was portrayed with respect and honor, and it is clear that they maintain tremendous empathy with their subjects. In a time when paparazzi try to get upskirts of starlets, and shooters are trying to make their careers off of photographing the homeless without actually getting to know their subjects, M&P’s approach remains a breath of fresh air.

Not long ago I was able to buy a photograph by Michael that was taken early in his career. It’s an image that I don’t recall seeing the day that I examined all of his work. The photograph is of a nude woman laying on a couch, taken in 1975, and one can see hints of Michael’s love of Edward Weston in the image. It was Weston, who died eight years before Michael seriously picked up a camera, who inspired Michael to become a photographer. Michael saw the documentary by Willard Van Dyke entitled Edward Weston: The Photographer on television. Seeing that documentary was what I call a “Saul of Tarsus” moment for Michael - he experienced immediate life-changing insight and realized what photography could be. From that moment he embraced taking photographs as a way of life, soon moving from 35mm to the large format camera and exclusively making contact prints.

I spoke with Michael by phone several months ago after he’d returned home from being hospitalized for a series of strokes. He was still Michael through and through, though he talked of being tired and spending much of his day sleeping, but with each day he was improving. And, in true Michael fashion, he didn’t sugar coat his situation.

I had hoped that I would be able to visit him in person again. Now I know that I won’t.