Childhood memories about the importance of the arts in shaping a career became a driver for Brian Smith’s recent portrait sessions with more than 80 celebrities, many of whom were Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony winners. Commissioned by the Creative Coalition in support of arts education funding, Smith’s portraits laid the groundwork for the book Art & Soul, which was presented to The White House and Congress in May, where it received an overwhelmingly positive response.
Project: Photo shoot for the Creative Coalition with more than 80 celebrities in support of arts education.
All images in this article © Brian Smith
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
BS: I started shooting photographs for the local newspaper when I was in high school, so “forever” is basically the answer…
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
BS: I’ve been an ASMP member since 1992.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
BS: I specialize in celebrity portraiture.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
BS: Since I’m sponsored by Sony, I probably should say it’s the incredible 24.6mp Sony a900 with the razor-sharp Sony Zeiss 24-70/2.8 lens. But honestly, the most valuable best piece of equipment is your mind…
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
BS: I work hard and show up on time.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
BS: I simply did my best to make people feel comfortable and at ease and they did the rest.
ASMP: Please describe the Creative Coalition and the work that they do. How did you connect with them for this project?
BS: The Creative Coalition is an organization that advocates for causes that are of importance to creative artists, including funding the arts and arts education.
ASMP: Tell us, in general, how you were compensated for your work on this project and how the book project was underwritten.
BS: Funding came from Sony, Hachette and American PHOTO magazine. Splashlight provided digital techs and studio space in New York. Blurb donated a thousand copies of the book. Warren-Tricomi Salons supplied the hair and make-up artists. Anne Hathaway showed up with cupcakes.
ASMP: How was the list of celebrity subjects assembled? Did you have any input into the final list?
BS: The Creative Coalition sent out invitations to their members and supporters.
ASMP: What was the timeframe for shooting these 80+ celebrities and how was the scheduling set up? Do you have any general advice about scheduling portrait subjects for a project of this magnitude?
BS: Our original shoot was over a three-day period during Oscar Week in Los Angeles. It was more successful than anyone imagined, so we added three more days in New York. The celebrities were scheduled at least 15 minutes apart so there was a nice flow though hair and make-up, but beyond that we were very flexible and ready to shoot whenever we got them.
ASMP: Who else was on set during the shoot and how many celebrities were in attendance at various times during the shoot? Do you have any strategies for keeping a relaxed atmosphere when shooting a high volume or high intensity studio project?
BS: In Beverly Hills, we had a really small set — just 9x14 feet, so there were not any extraneous people in the room, which the celebrities all seemed to like. We had anywhere between 5 minutes to half an hour with each celebrity, and we tried to keep the set relaxed enough so we got great images, no matter how much or how little time we had.
ASMP: Please talk about the decision to use a black background for the portraits. Were the celebrities given any instruction about wardrobe or to keep within a specific color palette?
BS: I wanted the photographs to have a simple, classic look. Everyone was a bit nervous about going with black, since we knew that a lot of the celebrities would be wearing black, but I love the simplicity of black on black.
ASMP: Did you supply hair and makeup artists or were the celebrities free to bring their own people?
BS: Warren-Tricomi Salons supplied a total of 17 hair and make-up artists over the course of the six-day shoot.
ASMP: Had the celebrities written their testimonials at the time of your photo sessions, or did your conversations during the shoot serve as inspiration for the pieces they wrote? How close were their final testimonials to what you discussed on set?
BS: Most of the celebrities wrote their page after their shoot. They all had very clear ideas about what they wished to say.
ASMP: You mention that your conversation with these subjects revolved around their childhoods and how they were influenced by the arts. Please tell us about your earliest artistic influences and the artists who shaped your work.
BS: The arts teach you to create, improvise and think outside the box. That’s a skill set that will take you quite a ways in life.
ASMP: What was the most memorable portrait you made for this project and what did you talk about with this subject?
BS: It’s pretty hard to top a day that starts out by photographing Anne Hathaway in the studio and ends shooting Tony Bennett in his Central Park apartment at sunset.
ASMP: Which portrait was most challenging and why?
BS: Honestly, there were very few challenges once we started shooting.
ASMP: The list of celebrities featured in this book includes many artists who work in film and music. Were any artists who work primarily in the visual realm included in the project? If not, do you think this would have made a valuable addition to the project?
BS: That’s entirely possible. We’re actually working to expand on the book for a larger commercial release, so we are always looking to add more portraits to the mix and I’d love to see the expansion move in that direction.
ASMP: Has this portrait series had any effect on how you approach to working with new portrait subjects?
BS: I’ve always worked quickly, but I learned to work faster.
ASMP: What kind of response did this book generate when it was presented in Washington? Do you feel that it had or will have an actual impact on funding or opportunities for the arts?
BS: Our meeting in Washington met with an overwhelmingly positive response from the White House and Congress. It was really a case of preaching to the choir and asking what we could do to help them out. The budget proposal from the House, Senate and the White House all increased funding for the arts and arts education.