Countless forms and forums exist for photography that anyone interested in the field as a vocation may be hard pressed to choose between editorial or documentary, commercial, fine art, or any number of other areas and subareas. But in some cases this decision is made for the artist. For instance, in Gary Michael Smith’s case the decision to have photographs “document” events and to supplement the written word came naturally.
Born in 1957 in a small town in northeast Arkansas, Smith is from an entertainment family. His father, Hugh Smith, was one of the original announcers of the King Biscuit Flour Hour at KFFA radio station in Helena, AR, and both parents had a long history in the theatre as principals in some productions and supernumeraries in others in several hometowns. His sister, Carol, also worked in acting for a while—and even radio broadcasting like her father—until finding her niche as a “techie” in theatrical lighting, which coincidentally is the same field at the same time as her mother’s sister, Barb. (Barb also worked “liquid light shows” with Joe’s Lights (The Joshua Light Show) at the historic Fillmore East in New York’s East Village. (The light shows in the background behind the bands in these images could easily have been some of Barb’s work.)
While attending high school Smith began experimenting in photography, when an English teacher and family friend, Paul Lapeyrousse, lent him a twin lens Ricohflex camera to take home. He was hooked and made many pictures of classmates—both permissioned and not. Since there was already a high school photographer, Smith was offered the position of “high school dark room developer.” He jumped at the chance—not so much for working alone, in the dark, around odoriferous chemicals—but because it was a great way to expand his education in imaging. Here, he learned about exposure times, papers, chemicals, and manipulating others’ images. He was so involved with this extracurricular activity that he dropped out of ROTC and the rifle team (of which he was the second highest shooter out of a team of eight), to work in photography. As he states, “At this time in my life I found it more rewarding to shoot a camera than a rifle.” This feeling is still strong with him today.
As is usually the case, high school was a time of learning and discovery. Smith learned guitar from his Aunt Barb’s husband Alan and his sister, and played in a few rock and folk bands at high school parties and events. (He also picked up the banjo, ukulele, and alto saxophone although his parents were avid organists.) But his camera wasn’t far away, although it wasn’t a priority until years later. One of his most interesting series was shot with a Minolta 16-Ps. He happened to have this 16mm single frame camera with him when he and his college roommate Clyde took Clyde’s single-engine Cessna 172 Skyhawk from a small Cajun town in Southeast Louisiana to the Mississippi Gulf coast. During the flight Smith noticed a look of concern on his buddy’s face, and after inquiring was told to look at the clouds below.
Smith said they looked like clouds, but the pilot noted that there was no clearing so he couldn’t figure out where the small, unmanned airport was located. Snap! Image one: Bed of clouds below. Then Clyde mentioned that the cloud ceiling was so low that dipping below them could put the aircraft into the treetops. Smith suggested banking a 180 and heading back home but was told that there wasn’t enough fuel for a return trip. Snap! Image two: Look of concern on aircraft pilot’s face—not something you really ever want to see. While brainstorming what to do, the pilot noticed a small dot in the distance, and admitted that this “sucker hole” was the only hope. Snap! Image three: Sucker hole in the distance. So the two dove into the opening, which was about the size of an airplane, and sure enough the runway was directly below.
Immediately after high school Smith worked a few years climbing telephone poles, working in manholes, welding in shipyards, manning work and offshore supply boats, and flying to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the dangers of the offshore work that made him decide to go to school. One of the last rigs he worked on was the semi-submersible drilling platform Diamond M Century, a rig similar to the Deepwater Horizon, and his rig also experienced a similar blowout in 1979 while he was on his seven days off..
Smith headed to college not long after that to study journalism, English, and business administration where, as an independent study, he later put the courses together to develop a technical/professional writing degreed program for the university to be submitted to the Louisiana Board of Regents for implementation. After getting his undergraduate degree, Smith then progressed to graduate school to work on an MFA in Television Video and Film Production under a Communications curriculum. This brought him back to his photography roots, expanding on them through videography.
During and after graduate school Smith continued working as a technical writer because of the steady income. But while at Boeing he also was used in the corporate/industrial video department because of his background in this area. This gave him opportunities to literally “work in the salt mines” of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which allowed unique photo ops hundreds of feet into the earth. While in graduate school Smith interned with a few television stations, often working studio camera, but also was availed the use of broadcast quality editing suites. Even after college he enjoyed being able to walk into the TV studio, put on a headset, and tell the technical director that he’s giving a camera operator a well-needed break.
Technical writing maintained Smith throughout his adult life, but he also is a freelance writer with hundreds of articles in dozens of technical, trade, and consumer magazines to his credit. He has also authored 12 books on a wide variety of topics. His latest text is titled Through the Lens—A Field Guide to Digital Photography where he “shows you not what he can do as in a coffee table book, but rather what you can do with your own photography.” He uses this and other books to teach a number of continuing education courses in Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Charles parishes in Louisiana.
Currently, Smith shoots a variety of journalism, documentary, and commercial photography, sprinkled with a bit of fine art to satisfy his creative muse. He still works as a technical writer, book author, educator, and freelance magazine writer, but also is an editorial photojournalist for a state-based film industry magazine where he conceptualizes article ideas, conducts the interviews, and photographs the subjects for each monthly issue. He also assigns other writers and photographers on an as-needed basis.
Smith is a member of several prestigious photography organizations such as the National Press Photographers Association, Greater New Orleans Photographic Society, and the New Orleans Photo Alliance. He’s an officer and board member of the New Orleans/Gulf South chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers. His writing can be found at www.ChatgrisPress.com and www.GaryMichaelSmith.com and his photography work can be seen at www.GaryMichaelSmithPhotography.com as well as numerous websites and print publications.
Interview by Dean M. Shapiro