Fashion Forward with Jez Smith
Whether he’s shooting the latest campaign for a fashion label, or delivering a concept piece for a client, photographer Jez Smith has turned his commercial shoots into fine art.
Since leaving his native Birmingham in the UK to embark on a career in photography, shooter Jez Smith has made a name for himself as a commercial artist with a knack for crafting beautiful images for clients that are bang on brief.
If the Brummie shooter looks familiar, it may be because you’ve seen his mug on popular cable TV shows Australia’s Next Top Model and America’s Next Top Model, where he often sits on the judging panel (he’s the compassionate one) and usually shoots the final model assignments of the series. But long before he was making a name for himself as the judge with a heart of gold, Smith was a naïve young shooter who travelled to New York to ply his trade. Fortune must have been smiling on Smith that day, as he walked straight off the plane into an internship at Interview magazine, where he rubbed shoulders with the rich, famous and talented on a daily basis. From there it was a short leap to working as a photographer’s assistant and then on to making his mark in the business.
“It had always been a dream of mine to go to New York,” explains Smith, who originally studied graphic design at university before giving it up to pursue photography. “I remember going to my lecturers and saying I wanted to concentrate on my photography and they were like ‘that’s great because you’re a much better photographer than graphic designer,” he laughs.
Once he’d decided on his career path, Smith was like a man possessed. “I remember thinking at the time that I would never have this kind of access or opportunity again,” he said. “Not to studios or equipment or technicians – so I picked everyone’s brain. They ended up giving me the keys to the dark room, as I was always the last to leave.”
It’s a work ethic he took with him to NYC and his time at Interview. “I was working in the art department doing everything,” he tells Better Pictures. “I’d be helping out with production. I’d be the first person to come in in the morning with coffees for everyone and the last to leave at night.
“People sometimes ask me how I got my lucky break, but I think it was just that I worked harder than everybody else. I think because of where I grew up – I had no artistic background – I was just really grateful to be doing something I loved.”
His ‘big break’ came one day when the magazine was down a photographer and they were in need of someone to shoot product. “One day they had to have a shoot done for these quirky little accessories – so I put my hand up and said ‘I’ll do it’. I went to Coney Island and did a shoot with my old FM2 with an on-camera flash. I took photos of these things on the beach, and because I‘d only been in New York for a little while, I didn’t know where the professional processing places were. I just went to a one-hour-photo shop and got them developed and literally handed it in to them in the Kodak envelope and they were ‘oh, that is so cute, we love it’, and I started from there.”
Smith says his time at Interview and working with New York photographer John Dolan served him in good stead. Much of his photographic ethos stems from those early days.
“I think more than anything I learned a lot from the guy I assisted, John Dolan. He very much saw photography as art – and watching him burn a print was like watching an artist at work. He was magical and he had great ethics about the way he worked and I think that really impacted on me. He was very pure in his attitude towards photography.
“I shoot a huge range of work now, some of it very commercial – and I think those ethical standards he instilled in me have stood me well. Every photo is personal to me. You don’t just turn up and press a button.”
Those early days at Interview also taught him the power of collaboration. “I was meeting Julian Schnabel – and Madonna would come and hang out – so for a 21-year-old who grew up in a little town in the middle of England, that was very creative and inspiring. To get called into the office of the creative director and asked what I thought – I do that now. I think I learned a lot about collaborating there and also about pushing things further.”
Smith recognises that today, photography has become a ubiquitous pastime, with people snapping off great images on their smartphone camera. “I quite often say I don’t get paid for the camera that I use, I get paid for my taste. For my aesthetic. For me, digital is just another tool.”
When it comes to planning a shoot, Smith said he finds inspiration in all manner of places. “I’m very inspired by film. So I can sit and watch an old Hitchcock or noir film and I’ll freeze-frame it. There may be one frame from a movie that will inspire a whole fashion shoot. My friends laugh at me ‘cause I kind of believe in a world where every light and shadow is beautiful.”
Typically he says he spends a lot of time researching. “I tend not to look at other photographers’ work though. Maybe in the early days – but less and less now. Now it’s more about trying to find something that hasn’t been shot before.” No mean feat considering the number of photographers posting to Instagram and Flickr.
“I think Instagram is amazing and I love posting photos. I follow lots of people – but it’s different for me. I’m a photographer so I have to make sure my pictures still stand out. Still, sometimes my pictures are very average and other times I pull one out and I’m like ‘that’s not bad for an iPhone’.”
Smith admits he tells everyone he has the ‘best job in the world’, and his advice to the young snapper starting out is to simply go for it.
“It’s very competitive and hard and when I first came over here, people laughed me out of meetings. They said I’d never work because my work was too moody and dark. But through sheer stubbornness and an inability to do anything else, I got somewhere. I still can’t believe it, in a way. I walk into a studio and I get paid to make something beautiful.”
What’s his best advice to anyone wanting to make a career out of photography? Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. “I made lots of mistakes. But I think I would also say always have an opinion about what your shooting. Even if I get a strict, tight brief, it’s still my job to take it to another place. You’ll never hear me saying ‘I don’t really know’.”
In the bag:
Phase One 64FDF camera body
P40+ Phase Digital Back
Schneider 80mm lens
Schneider 55mm lens
Schneider 110mm lens
External hard drive
Shoot like a pro:
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