Rarely in ones life do we come across people who have meaningful impact on our lives and careers. They are someone with whom you forge a strong bond, and can call friend. Their work and their wisdom crosses all cultures, ethnicities, genders, and nationalities. They produce the work willingly and selflessly, and are most certainly encouraging, supportive, and honest. You simply cannot get to know and love someone like Aline Smithson without all of these things becoming solid, bonafide truths. The funny thing about this is that she handles it with presence and grace - and for someone who provides so much inspiration and guidance, she is quite humble about it. Aline does it all…photographing, instructing, curating, writing, and above all, guiding those in the photographic field with a way to be your best and most fulfilled self. Sure, I know this sounds like I’m gushing, but I do not bring up any of this without knowing with one hundred percent accuracy that I am right. Simply graze her orbit for a moment and you will understand. She is professional, she is kind, and she is the subject of my first interview for this new endeavor I call Catalyst: Interviews.
Aline Smithson is a Los Angeles based artist best known for her conceptual portraiture and a practice that uses humor and pathos to explore ideas of childhood, aging, and the humanity that connects us. She received a BA from the University of California at Santa Barbara and was accepted into the College of Creative Studies, studying under artists such as William Wegman, Alan Ruppersburg, and Charles Garabian. After a career as a New York Fashion Editor working along side the greats of fashion photography, Aline returned to Los Angeles and her own artistic practice.
She has exhibited widely including over 40 solo shows at institutions such as the Griffin Museum of Photography, the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, the Shanghai, Lishui, and Pingyqo Festivals in China, The Rayko Photo Center in San Francisco, the Center of Fine Art Photography in Colorado, the Tagomago Gallery in Barcelona and Paris, and the Verve Gallery in Santa Fe. In addition, her work is held in a number of public collections and her photographs have been featured in numerous publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, PDN (cover), the PDN Photo Annual, Communication Arts Photo Annual, Eyemazing, Soura, Visura, Shots, Pozytyw, and Silvershotz magazines.
Aline is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Lenscratch, a daily journal on photography and has been teaching at the Los Angeles Center of Photography since 2001. In 2012, Aline received the Rising Star Award through the Griffin Museum of Photography for her contributions to the photographic community. In 2014, Aline’s work was selected for the Critical Mass Top 50 and she received the Excellence in Teaching Award from CENTER. In 2015, the Magenta Foundation published her first significant monograph, Self & Others: Portrait as Autobiography. In 2016, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum commissioned Aline to a series of portraits for the upcoming Faces of Our Planet Exhibition. In the Fall of 2018, her work will be exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Michael Kirchoff: Your start in the photographic industry has already been very well documented, as well as being covered in your biography. What I’m wondering is, has there ever been a specific event or action taken that has propelled your vision and creativity forward more than anything else?
Aline Smithson: The biggest shift in my thinking and way of working was when I started shooting medium format, particularly with my 1960 2.8F twin lens Rolleiflex. Discovering medium format coincided with my interest in creating/making photographs rather than simply documenting the world around me when I realized I could use a camera to create art. The larger negative and the square format really helped me see differently, giving my work more structure and formality.
MK: When you do so many things within this industry...photograph, curate, write, and teach...what do you concentrate on most, and which one feeds your soul the most?
AS: To be honest, the balance is not great right now. Lenscratch consumes a lot of my time, as does teaching and it’s really hard to find significant periods of time to make work. I block out days on my calendar to focus on my practice and I’m hoping to take the entire month of August to just make work.
Obviously making work is what feeds my soul the most, but I think of Lenscratch as my MFA—I have learned so much from writing about photographers for the past eleven years. I really enjoy looking at work and meeting photographers from all over the world. I am so grateful for this community for enriching my life in a deep way. But there are certainly times I wish I could pull the covers over my head and disappear into my work for long periods of time.
MK: In some of your work I see a reflection of your past life as a fashion editor. Images of vintage paper dolls and all of the wonderful styling done in your portraits of young girls. Is this a part of your former career peaking into your photographic career?
AS: I think the stew of our past creeps into all of our work…the paper dolls really came from a childhood interest—in turn, that probably influenced my career in fashion. I definitely feel influenced by my years as a fashion editor…I pay more attention to detail and styling, but also, as part of my job, I was required to edit all the film that came in, which was a skill that really helps in the editing of my own work. But I do leave the fashion photography aesthetic at the door with a lot of my projects.
MK: Was there a specific point in time where you felt that you had found your voice in photography and became satisfied with the direction of your work? Do you ever truly find yourself in a good place with your images, or are you always searching for more?
AS: It’s interesting to be 20 years in…I look back at my early work and think that maybe it is my best work, but I love the challenge of considering new ways of creating photographs and new ways of thinking about photography. The definitive project for me was Arrangement in Green and Black, Portrait of the Photographer’s Mother. I had no connection to the larger photo community when I made it, but I was riding a high of creativity during it’s inception. I had no idea where that series would take me…I was simply making photographs in my backyard with my beloved mother. I was completely consumed by the project, in a way that has not happened since. It’s a bench mark that I am always seeking when I set out to make a new work. So yes, I am continually searching for more.
MK: With the proliferation of digital technology taking over the photography world, there seems to be some pushback from the analog world. We are beginning to see a trend of more and more photographers taking on historical processes. Do you feel this is exactly that, a trend, or that possibly people have a desire to return to the way we used to create work before the pixel took over?
AS: We took the film experience for granted—it was just the way a photographer worked: the slowed down nature of considering a photograph before you snap the shutter, the Christmas morning wait for the film to be developed, and then the hours of artistic consideration in the darkroom. It was very methodical, artistic, and soul filling.
I think there is a hollowness in shooting in digital—it’s all about screens. The photographer is not getting their hands dirty, not experiencing the physicality of working with film. I think that is one reason so many photographers have turned or returned to alternative processes. Those processes make photographs more artful, the photograph a more cherished object, and there is a lot of appeal to that.
Photographers are returning to film for a variety of reasons…there is magic to watching an image develop, to getting contact sheets back, and understanding the nuance that film brings to color imagery. As an editor and someone who looks at thousands of photographs on a regular basis, I can almost always spot a film image. There is a beauty and fragility to the colors that just aren’t there with digital. I’m afraid that digital will always out weigh the film world, but at least some of us are hanging on.
MK: Your photographs have been the source of inspiration for so many, but what is it that inspires Aline Smithson on a frequent basis?
AS: I am always inspired by going to art museums and looking at paintings. As I mentioned, I am constantly looking at other people's photographs and though I get excited by what I see, I am not influenced by them. My great love is to look at compositions and clues in paintings. Some of my more contemporary paintings heroes are David Hockney, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and RIchard Deibenkorn. And I draw a lot of mental and visual inspiration from movies…I get easily transported by films and in another life would be a cinematographer or director. I just rewatched Paris, Texas and just, wow.
MK: Do you collaborate with like minded individuals on projects, or do you find it more productive to handle everything yourself? Are there any collaborations in the past that have been particularly beneficial?
AS: I love to collaborate—with The Six Shooters project, five women photographers and I created a collaborative project that lasted for 3 years and it was so much fun…I’m currently collaborating with Melanie Metz for the site A New Nothing and have worked on a number of collaborative projects with photographers in Los Angeles. I’m always up for a challenge and think it’s great to have additional creative outlets beyond my own practice. I’m hoping to do a couple of projects with writers I know.
MK: Within the context of your teaching, is there advice or information that you give to your students that you feel gets overlooked or ignored? What have people been missing in pushing their work forward?
AS: That it takes a lot of effort over a long period of time. Everyone is in a rush to get their work onto walls, not appreciating the importance of a period of anonymity, where you can make mistakes and try out ideas in private. Success is not about shows or gallery representation. Success is the work itself. And work only gets better with the patina of time--you are able to articulate it on a deeper level, edit with more authority, and consider all the layers that are possible.
It’s also important to understand that creativity is not a straight line and there will be periods where one feels unmotivated or uninspired. Periods away from photography are equally important to refill the tank…by simply living life, reading, thinking, and seeing without a camera.
Trust me, I am always taking photographs, but not always with a camera.
MK: In your photographic practice you make images only with film. If somehow you were forced to create a body of work with a digital camera, do you think it would be an utter failure, or do you think it would bring out something new and wonderful in your creative process? Is taking you out of your comfort zone a good thing or a questionable action?
AS: I have been working on a portrait commission for the Smithsonian Art and Space Museum for the past year and a half and it is shot with a borrowed medium format digital camera. To be honest, I’m not loving the experience (though I love the project)—it’s wonderful to have such large and pristine files, but there is something different about the work that I can’t put my finger on.
There are days that I get frustrated by the limitations of using film but not enough to shift to on digital. I still don’t own a digital camera, other than my cell phone.
MK: You have been writing and producing posts for Lenscratch, a photographic journal that examines a different photographer daily, for over ten years. That is in itself an incredible and commendable feat. How do you keep that going, and have you ever had reservations about keeping such a thing active all this time?
AS: Every day! It is a huge effort to juggle everything and there are days I feel completely overwhelmed and worn out. There are constant e-mails going back and forth, photographers wanting to share their work and books with me…. the bane of my existence are e-mails.
Over time, Lenscratch has grown into a huge site and many educators tell me that it has become an incredible resource for their teaching. I have a lot of pride is keeping the engine chugging along—none of us get paid. It’s a complete give back to the community. We have created a lot of exciting programing: The States Project with editors from all 50 states, Art + Science Weeks edited by Linda Alterwitz, On Collaboration with Barbara Cuirej and Lindsay Lochman, Mixtapes that highlight those who surround photographers and are often reviewers, etc. We have two new programs coming up: a month of Photographers on Photographers and Melanie McWhorter is going to have a regular column on books. I love feeling that it’s a site that the whole community participates in. Plus, a South Africa Week, a Mexico Week, and a Dutch Week.
MK: Also in reference to what you have seen in producing Lenscratch…what do people need to stop doing? This is your chance to be brutally (and necessarily) honest with everyone. Sometimes we need to hear the bad news in order to continue in a positive direction.
AS: They need to find a unique voice that comes from an authentic place. I see a lot of work inspired by certain photographers; I see a lot of work the uses metaphors we’ve seen a thousand times; I see a photographer doing something completely unique and soon after I see other photographers using the same techniques…there are more photographers than ever making work today and it’s really, really hard to be totally unique, but my advice would be to look at sources other than photography for inspiration.
MK: Who or what has enabled you to grow as an artist more than anything else in your prolific career?
AS: Complete support from my family and friends. My children both dutifully sat for me over the years and my husband has been incredibly supportive. I still feel like a beginner, with much to learn, and much to do…and I’m excited to continue to grow as an artist and thinker.
MK: As a writer and an instructor, you have given so much to so many. What is it that we can all do for you (that a humble person like you would accept)?
AS: Buy my work? Just kidding, just watching my students have success is an incredible reward. I don’t need to be given anything—the friendships this community has allowed is gift enough!
MK: What’s next for your photography? Any new projects you have in the works?
AS: Lots going on—I have 3 books in the works, and excited to take the last half of summer to be quiet, sit on a lake and see what I come up with. I’m working on a project about my father, want to do something humorous again--like my Counting to Ten in French series, and create a new conceptual portrait series. My goal is to be so excited by a project that it keeps me awake at night.
MK: From the bottom of my heart, Aline, thank you for your time, your words, and of course, your photographs.
You can find more of Aline's work at her website here.