David A. Carol meets celebrity photographer Jez Smith, a chap of many parts.
JEZ, how would you describe your trademark photographic style, and how did it develop?
I think my style developed because of where I grew up in a small town in the middle of industrial England. It was very, very grey. As is typical in the UK, there is a seemingly constant soft grey drizzle. I feel my style is both a rebellion against and tribute to that. I love shooting strong women, sculptural shapes and atmospheric lighting. The kind of women I grew up admiring in film and fashion pictures, but didn’t often see where I lived. I often place these goddesses in decaying glamorous surroundings, or industrial, gritty urban locations. To me, the shadows reveal as much in a picture as the areas that are lit. I love textures, peeling paint, concrete, wood, anything that contrasts with the beautiful creature I’m shooting.
How did you get your first big break?
There have been a few ‘how did this happen to me’ moments: interning at Interview magazine when I was 21 and straight out of uni, living in NYC and getting my first little shoot. I was working for Interview as a graphic designer at the time and in an editorial meeting I just put my hand up and said, “I’ll shoot it!” They actually said yes. I got the film processed at a Kodak one-hour processing lab because I didn’t know where the professional labs were and handed in it over in the branded envelope. They thought it was some cool naive street thing! I guess the moment that really changed the direction of my career was when an amazing man called Eric Matthews, then Creative Director of Harper’s Bazaar Australia, called my newly-acquired agent for a meeting. He looked through my book which was a mix of shoots for independent magazines – great mags like Oyster. He told me none of it was appropriate for Harper’s, but he loved my lighting and if I was prepared to shoot a “more sophisticated woman” then he wanted me to shoot for them. I did two shoots and they put me on contract. I was 24 or 25. I bumped into him recently and thanked him, and he told me what a bloody demanding pain in the ass I was!
How has improved technology changed the way that you work over the years?
Technology is just a tool. I don’t care what camera I use, from my iPhone to my Phase 645DF. It’s just a way for me to get the vision in my head out there. I’ll shoot on whatever tool is best for the job, and I don’t care about megapixels, I care about the quality of the light.
How often do you use the camera on your smartphone?
I use my iPhone camera all day, every day. My Instagram feed is split into mostly iPhone pics, which I date, and uploads of my professional work which I don’t date. Eighty per cent is iPhone I would say. Anything that’s not clearly a job is taken with the iPhone.
What are your feelings about Bali?
I love Bali. I think coming from the UK I didn’t know what to expect. I came here on holiday before first shooting here a few years ago. It was so beautiful, the people so amazing, and I was surprised by how much the sense of culture and way of life remains despite the huge tourism industry. It felt more “different” than I expected it to, which was hugely refreshing. I pretty much fell in love with the beauty of the people, and the chaos of the streets.
What’s it like to shoot here?
Shooting in Bali is always fun and an adventure. It’s unpredictable, with some beautiful places to shoot. My ex-producer, Omee Moon, lives here now and always finds me the most amazing locations. She knows my taste so well that it’s like she’s seeing through my eyes when she’s location scouting for me.
What are your favourite haunts in Bali, and why?
I’ll admit to being a Potatohead fan. If only there were something like that in Sydney. La Lucciola is an old favourite of mine. I always have at least one meal there when I’m in Bali. A lot has changed since I first shot the Tigerlily campaign in Bali. Some of my favourite places no longer exist, as with any place that’s growing, developing and changing.
How did your life change when you became a judge on Australia’s Next Top Model?
To be honest, it didn’t change that much. Obviously, I got recognised on the street, but I was relatively used to people in my industry knowing me by that time so it wasn’t a huge deal. Mostly, people are very kind and sweet so it’s a pleasure to meet people who enjoy the show. It certainly didn’t change where I went or who I hung out with. I’ve always shot celebrities, and some have become my friends over the years. I’ve met everyone from the Dalai Lama to Madonna so I’m not really fazed by any of that stuff. It’s all part of the job, and I’m much more in awe of someone because they’re an amazing person, incredibly kind or mind-blowingly talented than simply because they’re famous. Doing the show was a lot of fun. We were very passionate about finding a great model, and we genuinely had different tastes so it was just like every casting I ever do! What was interesting was that the audience had so little idea of how involved photographers are in the casting and pre-production of shoots.
What prompted you to leave the show, and did people understand your reasons?
I left the show because I’m a big softie. I always got very protective of the girls and would get upset when they got eliminated. I genuinely become attached to whomever I shoot, particularly when they are young, and I feel very protective of them so it was tough for me. I used to hear the producers saying, “Jez is crying again, get a close up!” After three seasons on the Australian show, I felt that I’d had “the experience”, and it had been exciting. Most importantly, I’d fought my phobia of being filmed while I was working, which was the original reason for doing the show. I’m still involved with both the Australian and US versions of the show. I was a guest judge and shot the final two shoots for three seasons of the US show. I still do guest-spots for them as I did on The Face with Naomi Campbell. Now it’s just become great fun.
If future generations could only remember your work by a single photographic image, what would you choose it to be?
Probably one of my more personal photographs of the dancers at the Sydney Dance Company. I love the company, am a huge dance fan and came to know the dancers well. I’m in awe of their work ethic and talent. My first solo exhibition was of them in rehearsal, no lighting, no production, just two months of hanging out with them as they rehearsed eight hours a day. It was at the Sydney Opera House so was a big “pinch me” moment. Actually, I hope that the shot they remember me by is yet to be taken.
What can we look forward to from you in the near future?
Hopefully, I’ll be taking more pictures that people love, that make them smile, and maybe even move them; pictures of the places and the people that I love… in the cool twilight.