Jonathan Smith is one of ANFA’s newest artists for our current exhibition, WARM WATERS. He is an award winning film photographer originally from the UK and currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. We are more than thrilled to have him as a new addition to our roster.
How did you become ‘exposed’ to photography and what made you want to pursue it as a career?
I was lucky enough to have had an amazing high school art teacher who brought in his own darkroom equipment in and encouraged everyone in the art department to have a go at developing and printing. I was hooked immediately and spent far too much of my time in there when I should have been studying for other exams. I soon set up a dark room of my own in the basement which was leaky and definitely not up to code. One of the earliest photography books I remember seeing that blew my mind was William Klein’s, “New York 1954-55.” It’s an early street photography book that breaks many rules with cropping, grainy printing, out of focus subjects, off kilter angles, crazy street characters—it really opened my eyes to photography as an art form, and also was one of the reasons that I dreamed of living in New York City. To be honest, I never really thought of photography as a career, which may sound strange. I just had a desire to throw myself into it and see where it would take me.
What is your biggest inspiration as an artist and what photographers are you most influenced by?
Many years ago, when I first came to NY, I was about to start school at the International Center of Photography (ICP). I was wandering around Soho with my camera and at that time I had a tiny portfolio of my work that I carried around with me. I spotted out the corner of my eye a slender bald guy taking pictures with a Leica camera. I instantly knew it was Joel Meyerowitz, a photographer who I admired and had read about in the UK. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was having one of those rare moments in life, and I knew it meant something, so I followed him into Dean & DeLuca (a gourmet grocery) and plucked up the courage to go up to him and introduce myself and show him my portfolio. To this day I’m so glad that I did that. Long story short is that I ended up working for him and running his archive for almost 8 years. He had a profound impact on my early work and was incredibly enthusiastic about my projects. He allowed me to take time off to develop my work and ultimately to start my own studio practice. He was definitely the biggest inspiration to me in my formative years, and we continue to be in touch to this day. Other photographers who I would say had an impact on my work early on were landscape photographers such as Joel Sternfeld, Steven Shore, Richard Misrach as well as more classical black and white photographers such as Cartier Bresson and Walker Evans.
You shoot your images mostly in a 4×5″ large format camera. What is it about photographing in large format that you are connected to?
When I first started shooting with the 4×5” film camera I was really blown away by the quality of the large scale prints I was able create without losing any detail. Once I saw the nuance of color and clarity that’s possible with a large format camera, I was totally seduced. I really love that when you are using a camera like this, considering that it is quite heavy and unwieldy, you’re forced to slow down and take your time with each and every exposure. It makes you really look at the scene in-front of you and ask yourself what, why and how you are going to take that shot – as you only have one, or perhaps two to take. You don’t want to make mistakes. It makes you really disciplined and hyper-aware of what you are doing, It’s a heightened experience in that sense. Digital has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few years and I’ve finally invested in a 100-megapixel camera that I’m also using. To be honest, it is also mind blowing in detail, so for the moment I’m bouncing back between formats and enjoying that process. Regardless, I think the discipline that I learned from the 4×5 will always remain.
“By choosing to use a large format camera, which is a heavy and somewhat
unwieldy machine, I am able to observe the landscape at a much slower pace. In doing so, the moments when I choose to release the shutter have become ones where I find that all elements have synthesized into place in the frame. The photograph has thus become quite deliberate and thought out, allowing me to feel immersed within the scene around me rather than taking a snapshot from the sidelines.” – Jonathan Smith, East/West series statement
Do you have a favorite photo you’ve ever shot? If so, what is it?
It’s so hard to pick a favorite. I used to be so much more precious about one single shot being my best. I remember about 20 years ago shooting a street scene in Italy where there were elements that lined up so perfectly; geometric patterns and shapes that echoed through the frame along with the serendipity of a moment that was gone in a flash, that I thought myself very clever and then wondered how I would ever beat it. I think one thing I’ve learned slowly over the years, though, is that there isn’t that single shot or single moment that is the pinnacle. Rather, it is about developing an eye over time, and finding new and surprising avenues of interest that perhaps wouldn’t have been sparked if you hadn’t first made the 1000 mistakes prior to arriving there.
If you could go to dinner with one artist/photographer (alive or dead) who would it be? Where would you take them?
Well I could say Warhol. I’ve found him fascinating forever, but that would be too easy. There was a photographer in New York called Garry Winogrand who was long dead before I’d ever heard of him, but he was friends with my mentor Joel Meyerowitz in the early sixties. I heard so many stories about Garry that I felt like I’d known him myself. Garry was a chain-smoking New Yorker; born in the Bronx. He was a working-class guy who knew how to hustle and didn’t mince his words. He shot anything and everything that he came across, both for work and for pleasure (google him, his work is amazing). His photography was almost obsessive in nature and has amazing breadth. When he died, they found thousands upon thousands of undeveloped rolls of film in this archive because he could never catch up with developing it all. I think he was probably a bit of a mess on a day to day basis, but I’d have loved to have sat down with him and heard some of his stories. I imagine it would have been in a diner either in midtown or the upper westside of Manhattan… and preferably with a 60’s or 70’s NYC backdrop.
What are you currently listening to?
I’m editing away on new works from my last residency in Iceland and still have my Iceland road-trip playlist playing music of the time – Olafur Arnalds, an Icelandic musician, features heavily on it, I find it a joy to edit to. Re:Member is a favorite album.
Most things! But a spicy Margarita on a hot summer day would hit the mark. To be honest I’d love any cocktail right about now, shared with friends outdoors somewhere – I’m dreaming of when we can all do that again here in NYC.
Are there any books or podcasts that you highly recommend?
I planned to read a lot during lockdown, and even bought a new Kindle Paperwhite, but it hasn’t happened that way! I recently reread sections of “The Power of Now” which has been very helpful during these trying times, and finally read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” last summer, which is a wonderful read about the inner workings of the restaurant industry and Bourdain’s crazy life there. I really miss NY restaurants; I can’t wait to go and eat out again.
With our theme of WARM WATERS.. if you could be anywhere right now, what is your dream trip?
Well, where to start, I was supposed to be in Australia and New Zealand through April, so I have been dreaming about that trip nonstop. I also had tentative plans to return to the Amalfi coast this summer to continue projects there. It really is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, the light the water, the food… what can I say… 2021 will be catch-up time.
Jonathan’s work can be viewed here or by stopping in the gallery. Any of his work is available even if not in the gallery— contact us for more information.
—Logan Sutton, Gallery Curator