Aline Smithson@

Interview with Aline Smithson


Fabiano Busdraghi: After working as a fashion editor with many master photographers, you become a successful photographer and artist. Today you are also the editor of Lenscratch, one of the most important photography blogs in the world, as well as a portfolio reviewer and curator for several magazines and galleries. Finally, you perform several educational activities in form of workshops and lectures.

A current romantic cliché is that an artist should concentrate all his energy on artistic creation only. Personally I think an eclectic array of occupations makes life interesting and enriching, but -for example in my case personal- it’s easy to do to many things and never finish any of them. As a consequence, sometimes I’m afraid that too many different activities can somehow dilute artistic production. At the same time an interesting life, makes interesting art works possible.

Do you think that all your activities support and improve your artistic creation? Or all the different aspects of your professional and artistic life are just different manifestations of your love for photography? Or maybe your various experiences are simply the results of your eclectic interests?

Aline Smithson: Honestly, I am not sure that my activities support or improve my work… in fact, I think they hinder me in the sense that I have less time to make work and focus on myself. Truly, there are days that I just want to throw in the towel when I see so many amazing projects being created in the photography world. It’s inspiring and depressing to see:

  1. how many photographers are making work these days;
  2. how good so much of it is;
  3. what one can achieve with an iPhone.

But none of that stops me from making work, or influences the work I make. I have a strong personal vision, but that doesn’t mean I don’t drool over work I see other photographers making.

My enthusiasm for photography, and my desire to understand and give back to my community is what drives all the things that surround the production of my own work. When I started writing my blog, it was going to be a place for me to share new work and ideas, but after a few months, I became bored with the idea of me, me, me and looked at it as an opportunity to learn about contemporary image makers, right along with the readers. And as an educator, I thought my students would grow from a daily dose of photography too.

When I feel like I have too many balls in the air, I clear some space—take a week with no distractions and clean my office, make some new work, read some articles and reboot myself. I wish we could have at least one day a week with no e-mail… it’s the e-mail that is beginning to kill me.

Fabiano Busdraghi: You have been quite successful in every field you explored. What do you think is the key of your success?

Aline Smithson: Hard work, not taking myself too seriously, being curious, kind, and professional. Saying thank you to every hand that has pulled me along. Celebrating those around me. Staying true to my own vision of the world. And did I say, hard work?

Fabiano Busdraghi: Personally, I think it’s very difficult to promote my photographic work. I enjoy every step in the process of creation, but promotion is something almost painful. Yet I understand is necessary. It’s a shame to close my photos inside a box or a hard drive, so I regularly force my self to make some promotion. When it happens, it seems to me that it takes all my energies and time, leaving no space for new creations. Recently, attending a lecture on young photography at Festival Circulations, I asked to all the present photographers, how they where able to find an equilibrium between creation and promotion. Everyone’s answer was that it is quite difficult, and extremely time consuming.

Do you agree with this statement? In your personal case, how do you balance diffusion and creation? In your opinion, how one young photographer should deal with promotional activities?

Aline Smithson: Promotion is like exercise… you don’t enjoy it, but you need to do it! I tell my students that they had better be making work that they will be happy to promote for the next 10 years. After you finish a body of work, you will be struggling to get it under the eyes of the photography world for years. After an intensive year in 2011 of exhibitions and travel, I have backed off submissions this year and now am only submitting to things where the juror or the venue is of interest. I am not jumping on all the varied bandwagons. One has to think of this journey as a long road, and we don’t need rush it or show up at every party. I slogged away for years, submitting, knocking on doors, attending portfolio reviews—none of what I have achieved has come without effort. But life gets in the way, and we can’t always have the same focus or energy to create and promote work, and once you make your peace with that, it feels more comfortable. I am in for the long haul, and if one year I’m in lots of shows, it’s fine with me to slow down the following year. We truly need time to NOT promote ourselves. I step in and out of the promotion place and the creative place all the time… you sort of get used to the rhythm of it.

But it IS a drag to have to constantly promote your work. You feel as if you are waving a flag saying, “Look at me, Look at my work”, and I hate that. But, the key is to surround yourself with a supportive community and when they wave their flags, you celebrate them in kind. As photographers, we are SO lucky to have the amount of opportunities available to get our work out into the world. There are amazing organizations like Center and Photolucidathat totally support emerging photographers, and many many galleries and photo centers offering exhibition opportunities. Plus the on-line opportunities are endless. I’d suggest setting small goals… submit to something once a week… a small thing on-line, or one major thing a month. But spend the most time on making quality work.

Fabiano Busdraghi: How late-2000s financial crisis affected your practice? What is your business strategy during these difficult years? Do you have any suggestion for emerging fine arts photographers?

Aline Smithson: To be honest, there are very few fine art photographers that can actually make a living off of their work. Most are educators or work in some other field or are retired. I am teaching more and more, I have a stock agency, I have an agent that places my work into TV shows and movies, and I try to have lots of little venues to make money so it adds up to something. I am selling the same amount of work—actually selling well in Europe, but the galleries are drying up, and that is really, really sad. It’s time that we create a new template to selling work. It seems that the low and high end continues to sell, but the middle range is very slow. And technology has made everyone a photographer, so people are basically giving it all away.

Fabiano Busdraghi: I have been blogging with Camera Obscura during the last five years, and I still ask myself why I’m doing it. I know the answer, it’s not only to spread photographic culture, but above all my way to keep thinking and exercise my mind. A kind of brain gym. Anyway, the question is still important for me, and I like to ask the same thing to all the bloggers out there.

Can you describe why you decided starting your blogzine Lenscratch and why you still curate it today? Why blogging is an important activity for you?

Aline Smithson: I too often ask myself why I am carving out so much of my time to promote other people. On those nights, when I’ve had a cocktail or two and I’m just fading into sleep, I’ll remember that I didn’t write tomorrow’s post and force myself to do it. I have set a very high standard for myself by posting everyday—I may change that up in the future, but writing every day is truly, as you say, a brain gym. By writing daily, it becomes easier and easier. I remember once reading that soap opera stars had incredible memories as they had to recite pages of dialogue each day, and this feels the same.

I have also met or connected with hundreds of photographers through Lenscratch and when I can help them further along their road to success, it makes me very happy. I don’t want my photo journey to be a solo expedition, I want a band of merry makers along with me, and the blog has provided that. I have heard from photographers who have been working in isolation, what a remarkable thing it is to have someone take the time to really look at their work and who they are. That makes it all worthwhile.

Fabiano Busdraghi: Everyone will agree if I say that the Internet is a formidable tool to spread a photographic work to a really wide audience. But at the same time I have the feeling that is quite difficult to use it to convert the simple diffusion of the artist work in a concrete business. I mean, an art gallery exposition usually is visited by a maximum of a few hundreds visitors only, but often some of them will buy some prints. An on-line portfolio may be visited thousands of time every month, but how many visitors are interested in actually buying the artworks? Printed magazines generate money but most of the blogs are no profit. It seems to me that, even if Internet is perfect to spread a photographer name, this not necessary imply that it will be easier for him to sell his work and finally make a living from his art.

What is your opinion about this topic? Do you think is really useful for photographers to spend a lot of time and energy to spread their work on the Internet or is still better to make promotional work in the real word?

Aline Smithson: Well, ultimately, the work has to be stellar, and then it really doesn’t matter how the word gets out. In the commercial world, the pendulum is swinging back to physical promotional tools—postcards, etc, as art directors are tired of the flood of promotional newsletters and mailings. The Internet will get your work all over the world in a heartbeat—photographers I have featured have been contacted the next day by publications all over the world, showing interest in their work. That never could have happened by snail mail. We don’t even have a clue as to the amount of Internet opportunities these days—new magazines, blogs, and sales sites are starting up daily. We can spend our whole lives going down the rabbit holes of things to submit to or explore.

If you want to get your work into the world, the gallery show should not be the goal. Getting your work in a well-read magazine or blog will bring the eyes of the world to the work. And then think about galleries…

I am making sales because of that exposure. My galleries can also benefit from the exposure and my own self-promotion. My friend, Cole Thompson, sells directly from his site, and when I asked him who his collectors were, he said that most were photographers themselves. I think when Jen Beckman’s 20×200 started, every photographer I know was collecting work from that site. So all that exposure, geared to the photographic audience, pays off. We are supporting each other.

Fabiano Busdraghi: Another surprising aspect of Internet is the amount of available information and how this impacts our approach to information. I receive every day tens of post in my feed reader, and it’s difficult to find enough time and concentration to carefully read each of them. A well-known Internet behavior is that visitors tend to scan a page instead reading it. Sure, there is a lot of noise out there, and we have to find filtering strategies, but I notice that even the valuable information is still too abundant to be assimilated. In my opinion this problem determine a kind of cultural consumerism, and a tendency to superficially read every text, no matter the quality of the information inside it.

Do you agree with this description of Internet fruition? Is still valuable to write long and in depth analysis or it would be better just to tweet? What can be done to inverse this tendency?

Aline Smithson: I am one of those scanners. I hardly have time to read other blogs, and I’ve always been a person who is first drawn to the pictures before reading the article itself. I also think everyone has Attention Deficit Disorder. My children talk and text in a new language and the whole world is just looking for the next soundbite. Writing the blog is one of the few times during the day that I completely focus myself. Otherwise I’m doing a million things at once and not totally focused on one element. I sadly don’t have time to digest long, indepth articles, though I do read tweets… and I am fully aware that I am digesting the fast food of photography, and it doesn’t always make me feel good.

I’m not sure how to change it… Actually, I think it’s only going to get worse. I worry about the effects of all of this on our children. As someone who grew up without a computer, it feels like a tidal wave of technological pressure is always nipping at my heels. I know my children don’t feel that at all, and look at every new invention and app as something to relish.

Fabiano Busdraghi: I’m particularly interested in real life stories, anecdotes and behind the scenes. Can you chose some photos from your portfolio that are a bit special for you and tell their stories?

Aline Smithson: The image, Harmony, was created when I was in the throws of learning photography. One of my teachers told me that I needed to stake out what I was going to shoot and wait for the light. This is not always easy with small children underfoot. So, I was on a family vacation and was in the driver’s seat on the way down the California coast. It was raining and I passed a sign that said “Harmony” and knew it was make a great shot. I did a wild U-turn on Highway 101 and pulled over as my husband and children were all screaming at me. I jumped out with my toy camera and took one shot. I never followed that teacher’s advice again.

Lexie with a Peacock is an image that I thought about for a long time. I have always been enchanted by Lewis Carroll’s images of children, and I love the idea of color, texture, and exotic props all adding to the beauty of a composition. It also doesn’t hurt that I happen to own a taxidermied peacock. Lexie lives down the street and looks a lot like my daughter at that age; she also has that old soul quality that brings more substance to the portrait. What the viewer doesn’t see is that her mother, little sister, and a 13 year-old boy cousin from the Midwest, are sitting behind me thinking, “What is this woman doing!” In today’s photographic conversation, I think we have turned away from beautiful things and the desire to make beautiful work. I just felt like it was time to make some.

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