Celebrity Portrait Photographer Brian Smith Recalls How He Got Started

Harrison Jacobs


Celebrity portrait photographer and Sony Artisan of Imagery Brian Smith has been busy. In his 30-year photographic career, he’s gone from shooting high school sports for a local newspaper to photographing celebrities for major magazines such as GQ, Rolling Stone, Time, and Sports Illustrated. This past year, he released a tell-all guide to professional portraiture, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography: Photographs of the Famous and the Infamous. Smith may now be at the top of his game, but he remembers what it’s like to be just starting out. He remembers what it’s like to be an emerging photographer.

Smith first picked up photography in high school while shooting sports for the local newspaper. It was a hobby at the time and, according to him, he did it because it gave him certain privileges that other students didn’t have. Namely, he could slip off campus whenever he was on deadline. When he went to college, he wasn’t sold on photography as anything more than a hobby, but he loved journalism. He quickly became the chief photographer for the college newspaper and, by the end of his first semester, it was settled. He was going to be a photographer.

Smith may have an inexhaustible work ethic and obvious talent but, according to him, his success may be due to “a series of lucky-to-be-in-the-right-situation” moments. When Smith was 20, he interned for a summer at United Press International of Cincinnati. He was sent to Canton, Ohio to cover the funeral of New York Yankee Thurman Munson and, at the funeral, he captured an iconic picture of Yankees manager Billy Martin crying. The photograph was sold to LIFE magazine and received a full-page.

That lucky break was one of the many small breaks that Smith contends is essential to a young photographer’s career. However, Smith believes that there’s no such thing as one “big” break and young photographers shouldn’t go searching for them.

“Your career is compelled by small breaks,” says Smith. “You have to utilize everything that comes your way to move on to the next situation and make the most of it.

For example, the publication of Smith’s photograph in LIFE lead to an internship at the New Orleans Times-Picayune the next summer, which opened the doors for him to win a major contest. The contest win forced a number of in-the-know editors to take notice. After graduating, he took a job with the Times-Picayune which gave him the experience he needed to get a dream position at The Orange County Register. It was while working at the Register, that he, along with other photographers on his team, won a Pulitzer for their coverage of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The Pulitzer win was a result of Smith quite literally being in the right place at the right time. Director of Photography Ron Mann took a risk with his photographic team that opened the doors to the Pulitzer. The Register had only three photographers to shoot the Olympics games compared with the Los Angeles Times’ 28. Mann realized they couldn’t win in a numbers game. Instead, he told Smith and the other photographers to go to vantage points no one would think of.

“We were told to swing for the fences and go places nobody else was, instead of trying to stand shoulder to shoulder with everybody at the finish line,” Smith said in an interview with Ron Egatz of Seksonic blog. With Mann promising to back up his photographers if they failed, they shot fearlessly and the result was a Pulitzer.

Smith worked on newspapers for a long time before he realized that it was time to move on. While he loved the opportunities that newspapers provided, he eventually found the nature of the medium to be limiting to his style. He recalls bringing in studio lights and backdrops for subjects he was shooting for the newspaper. His subjects expected the standard one-and-done photo-op with a reporter, which he never wanted to do. He wanted to take his time with an assignment, trying out different concepts until it was just right. It became clear that newspapers were no longer his medium of choice, magazines were.

To make the switch from newspapers to magazines, Smith says, he spent a considerable amount of time “burning the candle at both ends.” He spent six years working full-time for the Miami Herald while freelancing for other publications. He shot for Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated and Town and Country, among others. To be able to do both, Smith would swap days off, take vacation time, or work late-night shifts to make room for his other shoots. Smith recalls taking 3 to midnight shifts so he could fly to the Bahamas in the morning, do a shoot, and be back in time for his night shift at the newspaper.

“You can do that for a while when you are young,“ says Smith, “but then it catches up to you.”

Smith made a pact to himself. When he was making more money freelancing than at the newspaper, he would quit his job. Eventually, that time came, and he went off on his own. Twenty years later, it was probably the best decision he ever made.

Smith’s fascinating career is only just the start. If you want to read about his process from pre-visualization to post-production and all the incredible stories he’s picked up along the way, from getting drunk with George Clooney to sharing cupcakes with Anne Hathaway, purchase his book here.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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