Technology has made it possible for anyone to seem like they possess a high level of photographic ability. Between cameras that do the thinking for the user, and user-friendly apps that can reduce or even eliminate most errors and leave the user with a professional-looking finished product, it’s easy to forget that photography is more than just taking pictures: It’s art.
A photographer who crosses over into the realm of art, Matthew Jordan Smith took up residence here in Japan six years ago. His resume of celebrity portraits reads like the red carpet roll call at a Hollywood bash: Aretha Franklin, Oprah Winfrey, Queen Latifah and Zendaya, to name a few.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, the 58-year-old Smith found his way to Tokyo in part thanks to his now wife, Maki. The couple met in the 1990s but didn’t start dating until 2014. Two years later they were married.
“I moved to Japan because I’ve always loved it here,” Smith says. “I came to visit about 20 times before moving here. Also, Maki was here and we were doing the long-distance relationship thing for two years. So I made the decision to move.”
One of the most fascinating things about Tokyo is meeting non-Japanese residents with impressive histories. In addition to his celebrity clientele, Smith has shot commercial photography for Pantene, Revlon and HBO, and has published three books: “Sepia Dreams,” “Lost and Found” and “Future American President.” The former showcases his celebrity portraits while the latter two works focus on families whose children have gone missing or have been abducted, and children across the United States — any of whom could be president one day.
Discovering the camera
Smith only spent some of his upbringing in New York, his family later moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where he was introduced to photography. Unfamiliar with southern customs and norms, and sporting a New York accent, marked him an outsider and left young Matthew open to bullying. It was during this painful period that his father presented him with his first camera.
“It saved me, the camera did,” Smith says. “My father taught me how to use it, he even taught me how to develop my photos. I took to it right off the bat, shooting as often as possible, and developed the photos in a bathroom my father converted into a darkroom. It used to drive my sisters crazy! They’d be knocking on the door, and I’d shout, ‘I’ll be out in a minute, the photos are in the fixer!’
“I was drawn to shooting people. I would shoot black-and-white photos of people in my church, or sporting events or my mother braiding my sister’s hair. Stuff like that. I think it’s safe to say photography found me rather than my finding it.”
After seeing the work of Black photographers like the great Gordon Parks Sr., Smith began to imagine himself shooting subjects professionally as a career. He enrolled at The Art Institute of Atlanta in 1982 to further his study, and would shoot sports events around the city. One time he snapped a picture of a marathon roller-skater and sent the photo to Sports Illustrated magazine.
“And they actually bought it,” Smith recalls excitedly. “It was my first submission and they paid me $100 for it. After that, I was the big man on campus. Not only had I sold a photo, but I had a check from Sports Illustrated in my pocket! Not many college students could say that.”
Despite the success, Smith dropped out of school long before graduating, a decision prompted by the words of one of his professors.
“He told the class that the best photographers are in New York and Europe,” Smith says, “and that if a young photographer wanted to break into the photography game, he or she should make their way to New York or Paris or so forth, find a photographer plying their trade and assist them. It was great advice!”
Smith moved back to New York in 1987 and began working as an assistant for one photographer after another. His first job was assisting a catalog photographer, shooting for JC Penney and Sears for about $200 a week, barely enough to pay the rent on the apartment he’d found in Harlem. However, once he was in the door of the industry, other opportunities presented themselves and it wasn’t long before he was working as a freelance assistant for some of the more renowned fashion photographers there.
“And, in New York, that’s your training,” Smith says. “I worked with everyone and traveled everywhere. I never traveled before in my life, and here I was traveling all over Europe with fashion photographers shooting fashion spreads, meeting all the models, meeting all the magazine editors, and that established me in the world.”
The Essence of photography
Smith would work as an assistant for another 3½ years, building a solid reputation in an industry where Black men were still a rarity. While his color caused some embarrassing moments, like when one Victoria’s Secret editor mistook him for a messenger, for the most part, things weren’t any more debilitating than they would be in any other industry.
He developed relationships with many of the models, shot them on his own after work and then used these pictures to build up his own portfolio. The models were so pleased with the work Smith did for them privately that they began to spread the word about him and his gifted eye. His big break came when an agent approached him about taking him on as a client. Once he had representation, he began to get jobs as the lead photographer. His assisting days were over.
Smith got his first major job as lead photographer in 1992. It was a shoot for Essence, a monthly lifestyle magazine ubiquitous in the Black community that covers fashion, beauty, entertainment and culture. This led to steady work with the magazine including his first high-profile job, shooting Anita Hill during the height of the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for judge Clarence Thomas. Hill made headlines when she accused Thomas of sexual harassment, a term that wasn’t widely known in the zeitgeist at the time.
In 1994, Essence gave Smith his first celebrity cover shoots, three in the same year: actress Halle Berry; former Miss America, singer and actress Vanessa Williams; and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
This string of shoots broke down any barriers left standing in Smith’s way. Word-of-mouth reviews were positive and he developed a reputation for getting a job done quickly, efficiently and well. He soon became an in-demand photographer who was getting calls from magazines, major corporations and even Hollywood.
Aretha and I
Smith branched out into the role of author at the turn of the century, publishing “Sepia Dreams” in 2001. His latest project is a book about Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, who passed away in 2018.
“We had such an amazing relationship, Aretha and I,” Smith says. “I spent the last 13 years of her life shooting her. Sometimes she’d call me in the middle of the night asking me which name I thought was best for her new CD. She was great like that. She was the only celebrity I know that didn’t want to talk to you through an intermediary. She’s working with you? Then she wants to talk to you.”
Through his photography, Smith has traveled all over the world. This included a trip to China after a surprise request.
“Out of the blue, I was contacted by Jian Cao, a wealthy Chinese businessman,” he says. “He hired me for a photo project and flew me and my crew to China, first-class, to shoot 75 Chinese directors and actors. He put us up in a nice hotel and we did shoots all over Beijing and Shanghai. It was unbelievable.”
Smith and his wife now live a shorter distance from China, in Tokyo, one of the most photographed places in the world. And with photography becoming a more common hobby thanks to ever-improving smartphones, Smith says that budding photographers need to refine their artistry to make a career out of it.
“There are probably more photographers in the world now than ever in human history,” he says. “So to stand out in this world, you have to have your own vision. There are like 7 billion people on the planet, each with a unique fingerprint? Well, you need to find your fingerprint visually, and use it so you can stand out. Discover what’s unique about you and only shoot your photos using your own vision. That’s what will make you a star.”
For more information on Matthew Jordan Smith, visit www.matthewjordansmith.com.
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