Matthew Jordan Smith is an American photographer best known for his portraits of celebrities, actors and models. His work sits in the Smithsonian National African-American Museum and his commercial clients include Pantene, Olay and HBO. He is a Nikon® Ambassador and has been featured in Photo District News, and appeared several times on the hit TV show America’s Next Top Model as a guest photographer and judge.
Matthew’s love of photography reached far beyond his commissioned work and has inspired several personal projects including several books. Sepia Dreams, published by St. Martins Press, is a collection of wise words from fifty celebrities who speak candidly about the motivations and qualities they believe made and kept them successful. Lost and Found, sponsored by the Microsoft Corporation and endorsed by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, features moving portraits of families dealing with the loss of a child. Smith’s third book, Future American President, features portraits of 100 children dreaming big. Matthew is currently producing his forth book featuring images of his long-time client and friend, Aretha Franklin.
Matthew has taught at the prestigious School of Visual Arts and the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in New Mexico. He is the recipient of several awards and honors including the Microsoft Icon of Imaging Award, the George Eastman Power of Image Award and the Vision Award. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Smith now lives in Japan, working between New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo.
We are fortunate to be working with Matthew as he joins the team of ON1 Gurus. Matthew will be helping us with both education and driving the features he feels photographers need in their photo editing workflow. We’re also lucky to get some of his time to answer our questions for this interview.
What does photography mean to you?
Matthew: In the beginning of my journey as a photographer, I would have answered this question in a very different way. Today, photography means I am able to share how I feel personally with the world. When I create a photograph, it’s not just a picture, it’s a statement on what I am experiencing or how I am feeling in that moment. It is my way of expressing to the world exactly how I am feeling the instant I press the shutter. Sometimes the moments I capture are for a clients and sometimes they are just for me, but photography is always my view of how I see a moment or the world in that instant. It’s a way to freeze time forever. Think about that, when you are totally aware of this power as a photographer, you have the ability to freeze an instant that you decide is just the right moment and preserve it forever. To me, photography means I am able to share my feeling about my life in that moment, and if I do decent job, that moment will last forever.
What lead you to choosing a career in photography? Was there a certain moment you remember that put you on this path?
Matthew: My father was the one who introduced me to photography when I was twelve years old. At first, it was just a hobby but quickly became my passion and consumed my time. I was introduced to two books by the photographer Gordon Parks, The Learning Tree, and A Choice of Weapons. These books changed my life as this was the first time I heard about someone who looked like me, doing photography as a career. Gordon was photographing celebrities, models and became famous for his work. This was the first time it hit me that photography could become a career. Later, my high school guidance counselor told me about a photography school in Atlanta, Georgia, the Art Institute of Atlanta and I decided I would pursue a career as a photographer and I’ve been doing photography ever since. Thinking back now, I think photography chose me.
We love it when we hear parents involvement with helping set us on our path, especially when it’s photography. What is your most favorite thing to photograph? Why?
Matthew: Yes, if it weren’t for my parents, I definitely would not be where I am today. In terms of what I like photographing most, it’s no mistake I fell into the world of beauty. I love photographing faces. People know me for my work of celebrities, but I enjoy photographing faces of people period. When I’m traveling (my second life interest), I focus on the people in that part of the world. A great landscape isn’t the same without a person in the image. Faces tell a story without saying a word. Think about the painting of the Mona Lisa or the photography of the Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry. I guess this is also why my favorite two lenses are the 85mm and the 105mm because they help me capture faces in the best possible way.
Speaking of gear, what’s the one piece of gear you recommend for other photographers?
Matthew: People often ask me that question, and I always say a light meter. Today, many photographers think you don’t need to use a light meter because you can look at the histograms or look at the back of the camera, but that’s just guessing and will never teach you about light and how it works. For this reason, I meet more photographers who don’t know the foundation, and it gets them in trouble in the long run. Using a light meter will not only teach you how to get a perfect exposure every time, but it will make you look more professional, and it will teach you how light works.
In your immense photo library, do you have a favorite photo?
Matthew: The image called Yuki in Shibuya is one of my favorites because it is a technically tricky image. It was also taken in one of the most congested cities in the world, Tokyo, Japan. I spent a little over a month, figuring out how to create this image and did extensive tests in the States before going to Japan to create the image. The image was shot in bright sunlight at 1/4 of a second, but this was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to solving problems. I shot this in January, and it was a frigid day so I had to shoot fast so the model wouldn’t freeze. Then the sun was coming in and out, and I was trying to stay on top of my readings with a light meter and pretend I wasn’t taking pictures as well so people in Japan would walk by as usual.
In Japan, people won’t walk in front of you if they think you are taking a photo. For this photo, I wanted people walking in front of my lens, so I pretended to be on my smartphone as I took the picture with a remote in my pocket. All the while, I was shouting instructions to my model but looking in another direction. It was an insane shoot, but it worked out, and I’ve been shooting this series now all over the world. This image was the first and of this series, and I’ll never forget how good it felt to nail the shot, even in the face of all I had to go through to bring it to life.
Any parting advice for someone looking for a career in photography?
Matthew: For someone looking to start a career in photography, I say to study the most successful photographers in history and see what they all have in common. What you’ll find is that each one has something they do that make them stand out from the crowd. As you study the top photographers, also study the top artists in history and see what made them stand out. I love looking at the career of Picasso because his work stands out decades after his death and will stand out a hundred years from now. Discover what you love the most and put all your effort, all your energy into becoming a master doing what you love. Always dream big!
Say hello to Matthew! You can follow his work here: