From design school in the UK to the set of Australia’s Next Top Model and beyond, Jez Smith talks to Fran Molloy about his unorthodox photographic journey.
There is no such thing as a typical working week for photographer Jez Smith. He has photographed celebrities and models in exotic locations and recently completed a stint as a judge on the reality TV series, Australia’s Next Top Model.
For several months of 2011 he turned up at Sydney Dance Company rehearsals, often photographing dancers in near darkness as they drifted around the studio. The resulting series of photographs, exhibited at Sydney’s Opera House in September 2011, are a glorious interplay of light and movement. And astoundingly, most of the pictures involved little or no post-production work with the lighting effects produced in-camera with his Nikon D3s.
For Smith, working as a full-time commercial photographer was a long-held dream. After finishing school he moved from his childhood home near Birmingham to the south coast of England to study design at the University of Brighton where he mainly chose photography subjects.
While Smith has been away from his Birmingham roots a long time, he acknowledges that growing up in England’s industrial heart has influenced his outlook hugely.
"I didn’t grow up with fresh-faced girls running along the beach, which is a bit ironic as I’m now shooting the Tigerlily [bikini label] campaigns” he says.
But even his Tigerlily work has the Jez Smith “look” – artistic portraits that interplay light and dark to give these summer shots a very different feel to the bright, blue-sky images typical of a bikini label.
During a student exchange to UTS in Sydney in the second year of his university course, Smith made a lot of friends, including Tony Moxham, who later became the art director for Interview Magazine in New York.
Smith worked in bars and cafes part time, saving up to fly to New York soon after he graduated and soon landed an unpaid internship at Interview Magazine.
“I had tunnel-vision, I was very passionate and determined to succeed, so I was the first person in the office in the morning and the last person to leave at night,” he recalls. “My goal was to make myself absolutely indispensable!”
With no income and not much in the way of savings, Smith lived a precarious existence, occasionally sleeping in a park when he couldn’t afford other accommodation.
New York in the late 1980s was not the safest place, and Smith recalls getting mugged at gunpoint when he was walking through the meat-packing district in the early hours, returning from a club with no money to pay for a subway fare.
“I think the mugger felt sorry for me; he got me to empty out my pockets and I had nothing!”
The chance to use his photography skills soon arose and Smith volunteered to shoot some images for the magazine at Coney Island.
“I got them processed at a one-hour photo lab, which they thought was incredibly charming and naive. Eventually I had the chance to assist photographer, John Dolan, who became a huge inspiration for me.”
Dolan was a traditional portrait photographer who preferred to shoot in black-and-white, regarded photography as an art and would spend hours in the darkroom perfecting one print.
Eventually Smith was paid a small wage and got additional experience assisting photographers. He spent a year in New York before flying to Australia, where he door-knocked until he landed some regular work with Black and White magazine.
“I would make appointments with the art directors of these major magazines, looking for advice, and turn up with my little box of 35 mm slides of multi-layered photo-illustrative stuff where I would shoot an image, print it through things and distress it then photograph it again. It was all “arty-farty” stuff, influenced by David Hiscock, from my degree show,” Smith recalls.
“They would look at me in amazement and say, ‘How did you get in to see me? God, you don’t even have a book.’”
Black and White bought four of his photo-illustrations, gave him some freelance jobs and he was soon working for a number of Australian magazines.
A flatmate who worked as a stylist convinced Smith to shoot some fashion tests. “My first few attempts were pretty tragic, shooting with a 35mm with on-camera flash, but it went from there and I started shooting fashion stories for Juice magazine.” Smith was soon in demand as a fashion photographer.
But in mid-1996, Smith thought that a tongue-in-cheek fashion spread he had done for Juice magazine was such a colossal blunder it may have ended his career.
The series, “Live Fast: Fashion To Die For,” posed models in staged death scenes, one with a shower hose wrapped around her neck. At the end, Smith and the stylist debated whether the final result was a bit lame. “I wondered if we should have pushed it a bit more!”
There were various outraged reports and A Current Affair even covered the controversy. Designers were interviewed claiming they would never let Smith shoot their clothes again.
“I’d been working in New York and reading fashion magazines like The Face and ID. In Europe and the States, things were far more edgy than they were here.”
But the outrage was short-lived and within a few months, Smith’s reputation as a photographer who could deliver fashion photography with a hint of the dark side had been cemented.
After several years in Australia, Smith returned to London and spent about four years shooting fashion there, but the UK glossy magazines had slashed their budgets and he was returning almost monthly to Australia where his work was still in big demand.
Smith recently resigned as a judge on reality TV show Australia’s Next Top Model, where he worked closely with Alex Perry and Charlotte Dawson – but he admits that he was too much of a softie to cope with the reality TV format.
“I work with young girls all the time, and I used to get really upset each time one of them was eliminated, I just couldn’t keep doing it!”
His current portfolio is a mix of corporate, advertising and fashion work, with his trademark style evident across the range.
“I love playing around with light; my photography is all about lighting and technique,” he says. “I’ve always had an experimental side to my work. The whole thing with photography, for me, is that when you experiment – that’s when you get that little bit of magic happening, and often it’s the mistakes you make that create the magic.”
Smith says that an art school background trains you to have an opinion about what you are doing. That’s what distinguishes good photography from great photography.
“I am not that interested in photographing reality; for me, it’s about creating a fantasy.”
This image was part of a personal project. Taren is a model and
actress. She played the young Tilda Swinton in The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button. I loved the idea of trying to capture real emotion.
Taren was in a darkened studio, sitting naked in a corner of cracked
mirrors, lit only from above. I didn’t direct her, she couldn’t even see
me. We just played music very loudly and she just moved and emoted as
she saw fit. It was kind of exhausting and slightly traumatic at times
but I got the moments of frustration I was after. Photo by Jez Smith.
Anothe image of Taren taken in the same studio. Photo by Jez Smith.
The Sydney Dance Company series was shot at their rehearsal studios, mostly in very low light. I used a Nikon D3s with a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom and the treatment was achieved entirely in camera. Photo by Jez Smith.
The Sydney Dance Company series. Photo by Jez Smith.
I shot this image for the Sydney Theatre Company to advertise the play Hedda Gabler starring Cate Blanchett. It was amazing to photograph Cate, she’s absolutely incredible on camera. Photo by Jez Smith.
This was from the Tigerlily campaign shot in Mexico with the gorgeous Pania Rose. I was exploring the idea of reflection and shooting through things to add another layer to each image. This image was simply shot through a glass window, but during the same shoot I shot through old car windscreens, reflections in mirrors, through palm leaves – anything that would add an extra dimension to the photo. Photo by Jez Smith.
This technique involves shooting through a piece of Perspex. By angling the Perspex I can reflect the lights behind or above me back into the lens to give this layered, ‘shot through’ look. It can be used to great effect at slow exposures, with the Perspex moving to create light blurs. Photo by Jez Smith.
Article first published in the December 2011 - January 2012 issue of Digital Photography + Design (now Australian Photography + digital).