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Remembering Michael A. Smith Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

27 December 2018

In an interview five years ago, Michael A. Smith said, "In our photographs we feel that we are responsible for every square millimeter of the picture space, the same way a composer is responsible for every note or a poet is responsible for every word."

The use of musical composition as a metaphor may remind you of Ansel Adams, who talked of the negative as the composition and the print as the performance. And the comparison between Adams and Smith, who worked in large format and printed contact black-and-whites, is not a bad place to begin.

But just as a familiar starting point. Smith conceived of photography in quite his own terms.

Smith's attention to every square inch of the image was based on his concept of form as "frozen energy." And it is these rhythms he tried to be sensitive to and capture.

That attention to the entire composition -- positive and negative space, center and corners -- led him to contact printing where he found "the blacks were richer and there was a glow to those small prints that I just couldn't get in the enlargements."

And that appreciation for contact printing's longer tonal scale required him to work in large format photography starting with an 8x10-inch view camera and eventually including an 18x22-inch view camera.

His sessions in the darkroom were marathons. Michael Marks described one session that started at the crack of dawn and went late into the night in Printing With Michael a. Smith, published just a year ago. He described Smith's approach as "deliberate":

Focus on the task at hand so you can get to the finish line efficiently. Do not sit. Do not listen to music. Do not take phone calls. Do work in the same manner every time you print. Write down your steps and make a print recipe.

All this starts in the field, as Marks points out. Smith himself put it this way:

When looking on the ground glass we just concentrate on the rhythm. It is the underlying abstract structure of the picture that creates the rhythm. It is an unconscious thing. One feels it or one doesn't. By understanding what a black and white photograph is -- a flat surface of tonal relationships, ideally where those tonal relationships have an abstract underpinning -- one can develop this sense of universal life rhythms.

Those exposures were not developed by time and temperature but by inspection, "a time-honored method, one in use since the early days of photography," as he put it in Developing Film by Inspection.

His meticulous working method was dealt a blow when Kodak stopped manufacturing Azo and other black-and-white papers. It took him six years to develop Lodima Fine Art paper (the name was inspired by the developer Amidol, spelled backwards), a replacement paper manufactured in Europe.

"This paper is similar to the old-style Kodak Azo and Agfa Convira papers that Edward Weston and other master photographers used to make some of the most beautiful prints in the early and mid 20th century," he described it.

A visit to Iceland in 2004 persuaded him that sometimes the subject demands color. So when he returned in 2006 and 2010, he shot 8x10 color film.

But he had no patience for the digital age. Even using an iPhone "was way too complicated," he complained.

Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1942. He was in his early twenties when he began working in photography. But it only took him a year to start photographing exclusively with an 8x10-inch view camera and making contact prints. Later he would work with both an 8x20 and an 18x22-inch view camera.

He traveled widely in search of subjects. During his 50 year career, he visited every state in the continental United States, western Canada, Mexico and Europe.

His work is included in the permanent collections of over 125 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Art Institute of Chicago, Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

He passed away in November after suffering a series of debilitating strokes.

You can see a selection of his work on the Web site he shared with his wife, the photographer Paula Chamlee.

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