Beautiful Otherworldliness, Silent Despair

Robert Smith

Quoting Robert Smith, "We work in a world where images drown too easily in a sea of mediocrity. Create something good enough to float.” With a mug of builder’s tea in one hand and a camera in the other, Rob sets about the business of floating, one inspired frame at a time. His work is deep. It is riveting. It is anything but expected. His is a portfolio fat with images that require you linger. Often, it isn’t pretty, but that's what makes his work a true force of nature.

I usually have a bit of a problem with artist's statements as they often sound pompous, pretentious, contrived and slightly ridiculous. I will just say that Photography is an art and like any art it takes dedication, passion and commitment. It's not about equipment or process or technicalities. It is about you. The images come from you, you are the lens and your camera is just a tool." Robert Smith

Kujaja: When did you get your first camera?
RS: I got my first proper camera back in about 1897, a Praktica LTL complete with a Pentacon 50mm f1.8, when I was fifteen, a Christmas present from my Parents. Prior to this I had borrowed my father's cameras. They were, like him, always quietly there in the background.

Kujaja: Tell us about your beginnings shooting analogue.
RS: My father was (and still is) hugely influential. He had set up a darkroom in the small spare bedroom and it was almost inevitable that I would begin to develop and print. The whiff of chemistry called and I made countless mistakes. Later, when I went to study Art in a big building with strangers, photography was on the curriculum and I embraced the quiet darkness and aroma of chemicals like an old friend.

Kujaja: What were the difficulties you encountered when you began your photography journey?
RS: All the maps were wrong for me. I could see where I wanted to be but got lost regularly. I looked through books and followed directions of course, but my own needs frustrated me. I always want to be able to do something perfectly, straight away, and my drawing and painting could keep up with my imagination. Photography was narrow. It had constraints, limits, rules. The science of it tied an arm behind my back, yet the possibilities urged me on. It is so much easier now, with digital and software, I have the option to be limited by imagination. I can achieve what I want, when I want it.

Kujaja: I quote you, "The world is full of camera owners. It is not full of photographers". What makes you a photographer?
RS: Cameras are ubiquitous and photography is much more than using a camera. I equate photography to cooking. Owning a nice kitchen and learning to use the oven does not make you a chef.

Kujaja: How does black & white vs. color play into your work?
RS: For me the two are not in competition. Mono and color have a place. The simple fact is that some images just work better in one or the other, but I am a sucker for mono. That impossible simplicity draws me in and pins my imagination. It is quiet, introspective, beyond the sum of its parts. Color offers me a get out of jail free card. Mono makes me want to stay locked inside.

Kujaja: What are your photography ‘must haves’ (without this/these, I will not shoot)?
RS: Tea, what in Britain is known as builder's tea... in a mug, hot, strong, milk, no sugar. That and passion. Everyone needs passion. Without passion you are a camera owner.

Kujaja: Your images often seem to have a story or purpose. What do you want viewers to take away from a photo?
RS: I am undemanding. My viewers are free to take or leave what they want to. For me, art is a mirror. You look into it and it reflects what you want to see. Some see nothing. Others see more. Many of my images are very personal. They are my bathroom mirror and that smear of toothpaste is there for a reason. You either get it or you don't.

Kujaja: The interview lead photo, ‘Boathouse’ is truly profound. Please tell us something about the making of this image.
RS: This may sound strange, but that image made itself. An alarming number of my pictures do that. They creep up on me and smack me in the face with a wet fish. I see some small thing which by itself is maybe meaningless, but a whisper can trigger an avalanche. Often I will wake up at 3am with an idea or a finished image projected onto the inside of my eyelids and I act on that instinct and try to make it work, turn that surreal non-dimensional notion into a two, or three, or four, dimensional thing.

Kujaja: Your photo, ‘Rock and a Hard Place’, combines analogue and digital images using Photoshop and Lightroom. Talk about processing the image this way and why you did.
RS: A couple of years ago I did a digital shoot for some reenactors, a living history group based on the Border Reivers who lived and fought in the debatable lands between England and Scotland in the sixteenth century. A few months ago I shot a waterfall called High Force, quite near to where I live, using film in my Mamiya medium format camera and I thought it would be appropriate and fun to combine the two. I shoot a lot of film, develop and scan the negatives so I ended up with a digital file. Photoshop was exploited and images montaged to create a new image greater than the sum of its original parts. I have absolutely no qualms about mixing analogue and digital, it is a logical thing and a progression to be exploited. Plus, it upsets some of the purists. I like upsetting purists.

Kujaja: In many of your portraits, your subjects are shot from behind or walking away. Why this preference?
RS: I’ve never really understood the fascination with shooting people facing the camera all the time. The human has a front, sides and a back and most humans are much more interesting when they are facing the other way. I like that mystery and the lack of eye contact with total strangers soothes my Aspergic tendencies.

Kujaja: You have published a book of your photography, ‘Mono’. In it you state, ‘It (photography) is not all sunsets and flowers’. With that statement in mind, talk about your work that reflects those words such as Amusements, Flower Seller, North East, and The Business of Death.
RS: I am rarely interested in representing the pretty. Pretty is an enjoyable facet of life that makes up a small percentage of emotions that we have to deal with on a daily basis. I find dead or dying flowers much more interesting than fresh ones.

I am drawn to subjects that hint at the other sides of life, the sadness, despair, that beautiful otherworldliness which many choose to dismiss as depressing or strange. In Amusements this speaks for itself, the facade of 'enjoyment at a price' stands in contrast to the silent despair of life. The Flower seller faces an onrush of humanity, most of whom despise or mock her for being different and not fitting into a normality many embrace and expect. The Business of Death comments on the reality that everything holds profit for someone. Death is inevitable and someone makes a living from it.

Kujaja: History is also one of your recurrent themes, particularly in your digital art. Why history?
RS: History defines us. It makes us who and what we are. The world is full of people who think they are doing something new when in reality, they are simply regurgitating something that has gone before. This is particularly relevant to photography and art in general. I like the idea that the latest fashion or fad is nothing new.

Kujaja: I quote you, “Break the Rules”. What are the first three rules every photographer should break?
RS: Rules have always been applied to creativity, usually by institutions who are scared by it or the uncontrollable and inexplicable forces that drive artists to explore subjects that exhume moralities that some would prefer to keep buried. I don't like people telling me what to do. It causes problems sometimes when I tell the uniformed among us to fuck off. Photographers should be aware of rules, and then break them at will. The first three which spring to mind are composition, correct exposure and the myth of sharpness.

Kujaja: Most of your seascapes are mono. Why do you converted them?
RS: I convert most of my Seascapes because Mono is better suited to the expression of raw emotion without the distraction of color. Someone once said that if you shoot a portrait in color, you shoot the clothes. In mono, you shoot the soul. I am drawn to the Sea. I love its ability to effortlessly destroy our castles. It has purpose and a soul and I want to convey that.

Kujaja: Do others recognize your work when your name is not attached?
RS: It has happened and is always a pleasure when it does, it shows you are doing something right. Perhaps the biggest single danger facing photographers today is ubiquity, drowning in the flood of images that engulf us.

Kujaja: Today, photographers feel that we're all inundated with images due to the web. Have you seen a change in the way people interact with your photos because of this?
RS: It is a problem if you allow it to happen. Too many people don the water-wings of gimmickry or imitation to tread water. We work in a world where images drown too easily in a sea of mediocrity. Create something good enough to float. If it won't float change something to stop the drowning and only post images that you truly feel are your best. How often have you seen someone post a folder of images to Facebook which might contain only one or two images worthy of comment and praise? God knows, I have posted enough shite online, but we can learn to recognize our own worthy images and share only our very best work. Don’t be afraid to be daring. Don’t follow the herd. Do good work and together we can float.

Kujaja: Breadth is the word that best describes your work. Is this by choice or necessity?
RS: Choice. I tried to pigeonhole myself into one particular genre because people said to me that it was necessary to be recognized, but it just does not work for me. I see images everywhere and in everything and I don't see why I should limit myself to one thing. If it is ultimately damaging to me, so be it.

Kujaja: Would you consider yourself the James Dean or John Bender of photography?
RS: Rebel without a cause? More of a rebel without a clue! I am a quiet Englishman with issues and appreciate the sun rising over the home for the blind. If I must be presumptuous then I am perhaps the Orwell of Photography.

Kujaja: You’ve been published a number of times. How did you put yourself on the map?
RS: I didn't. All of the people who believed in and supported me put me on the map.

Kujaja: Many photographers dream of becoming professionals. You are. If you could turn back time, would you change that?
RS: I detest the word professional, it bestows something that does not exist onto people who think it does. If anything I possess a small talent which has been noticed by some. I wouldn't change that for the world. It is simply what I do and who I am. I have been persistent and lucky. Luck is important.

Kujaja: How difficult is it to make a living as a professional photographer and what advice can you give to aspiring professionals?
RS: I am perpetually poor. My advice? Believe in yourself and your abilities and trust your instincts. If you crave a glamorous life, success and fame, you might like to try something else.

Kujaja: Looking back at your years in photography, what is your one single regret?
RS: Wasting time and money messing around with camera equipment. Ignore the marketeers. If your camera works it is good enough, use it 'till it breaks and then buy something secondhand. The secondhand market is flooded with the cast offs of upgraders. Invest your time and money in yourself and your art, for that is what creates the pictures.

Kujaja: Thank you for this interview Robert.

Robert Smith at Kujaja (click)