Storytelling can easily be considered the oldest art form in existence. Stretching across a vast sea of mediums, stories define who we are, allow expression and bind us together. In our current digital world of sharing, one that revolves around rapid creation and immediate gratification, photographer Aline Smithson is quite content to take her time. Embracing a more ‘analog’ approach, Aline still shoots only on film and is completely devoted to the process it demands. And the results are worth the wait. In fact, Aline has been touring the US this past year celebrating her recent book, Self & Others: Portrait as Autobiography. An intrinsically nurturing woman, and prolific by nature, the mother of two doesn’t slow down when it comes to her schedule; Aline teaches fine art photography at the Los Angeles Center of Photography, runs Lenscratch, a daily photography blog she founded, and somehow still finds time for workshops, panels and exhibitions. Despite her crazy calendar and a tendency to be a bit camera shy, Aline found some time to welcome us into her home and let us get to know the woman behind the Rolleiflex.
When did you first realize your love of photography? Was there a particular event or experience that compelled you to become a photographer?
Growing up, my life was surrounded by photography and I had a great love for it– my father was a photographer, we had a darkroom in our basement, and my uncle was an editorial travel photographer. Much of my childhood was spent watching slide shows of not only our vacations, but travels of my parent’s friends and other family members. Sharing photography was a social activity. One of my biggest influences as a teenager was lying on the living room rug and examining album covers. It was during that time, I began to look at photographs in a different way and understand to power of photographic storytelling and develop a great appreciation for the square image. During my years as a NYC fashion editor, I stood next to the most amazing photographers for over a decade (Patrick Demarchellier, Mario Testino, and Horst, to name a few). But I never considered photography my path (I was a painter before becoming a fashion editor) until I was raising two small children and felt a strong desire to get back to my artistic roots and capture their lives in a more profound and artistic way, different than the usual family snapshots of birthday parties and Christmas cheer.
How did you learn, practice and evolve your technique over the years? Did you have a mentor or receive any formal education?
I took a few classes to better understand the camera, but I knew that it was important to just jump in and learn on my own. For a number of years I was simply photographing what was in front of me—my home, my children and their friends, our vacations—and then spending hours and hours in the darkroom learning the artistic craft of printing silver gelatin. I do not have a formal photography education and have never had a mentor, though I could have surely used one. In some ways, it was lonely to make work and not have any critical feedback, but I believed in my abilities and knew how to be a tough editor from my years in fashion.
What risks have you taken to get to the level where you are today?
I was very naïve—I was working alone, not connected to a photo community or to an educational institution—and had no template for the career of a fine art photographer. I made a lot of mistakes and when I began sharing my work and having some success, I had no clue what to do with that success. There was a huge learning curve, but I learned so much from both success and failure. Nine years ago, I made the commitment to myself to write about a different photographer every day, so I could understand the community that I was part of. I started a blog titled Lenscratch and it has now become a well-read photography site—I have a staff of 10, none of us get paid, but we all want to give back to our peers. Being the founder/editor has allowed me to attend photo festivals all over the U.S. as a portfolio reviewer and educator and has given me an amazing perspective of what work is being created in the fine art photography arena. It was definitely a risk to start a photography blog, when I had no formal education in photography, but I now consider it my MFA.
Your work is so multi-faceted, including your teaching, writing and contributing to publications – what are you most excited about when thinking about the future?
I am most excited about making new work. Last year, the Magenta Foundation published my first retrospective monograph, Self & Others: Portrait as Autobiography. I am just coming to the end of a year long book tour, which ended with a retrospective exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Boston. The book tour, my teaching at the Los Angeles Center of Photography (and other venues), and Lenscratch has taken up all my time and I am feeling a bit desperate to be creative again. I didn’t become a photographer to do everything BUT take photographs. But creativity doesn’t just rear it’s head when you are ready…so I feel like I need some time to get the ideas percolating again.
We’re impressed that you only shoot with film. What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of committing to this approach?
I teach in my classes that the most important tool a photographer can use is their brain. All the bells and whistles of the latest digital camera do not necessarily create meaningful photographs–photographs that have deep thinking and change how we see the world. I love the process of using film and using cameras that have the patina of age. I shoot medium format (a twin lens Rolleiflex and a Hassleblad, plus some Mamiyas and toy cameras) and the slowed-down nature of those cameras leave room for deeper considerations. Because of the cost of shooting film, I take fewer photos—maybe 3 -5 images per shot. My students at LACP will take hundreds and I’ve realized that my art is created in the viewfinder, where their art will be created in the digital darkroom in their editing. I feel like with film, you have to shoot with intent and make artistic decisions in the moment and commit to them. I also love waiting to get my film back from the lab…it’s a little bit like Christmas.
As a teacher at the Los Angeles Center of Photography, what is the most important lesson you try to convey to your students who are learning how to portray the world around them?
I believe in telling our stories. We each have a unique life experience and each person’s story is fascinating. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I imagine getting into the car of the person next to me, going home with them and learning about their lives. Curiosity is so important to being a photographer. Photography is such an incredible medium to express things that are profound and personal, and also a wonderful way to bring voice to concerns and issues. I’m not interested in simply photographing the world without showing something new, something unique, about a culture, a population, or a person. I don’t believe in passive photography.
Roughly 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day – what’s your perspective on the current over-saturation of image sharing on Social Media? How do you think this has shaped the photography industry?
I struggled with accepting cell phone photography as an equal medium, but then I realized that the cell phone is a tool and why not use it. But what concerns me the most is the legacy of those photographs. If my computer crashes, I still have my film, but my children’s own photographic legacy may disappear, as there are no physical or tangible documents that will be passed on to their grandchildren. I feel like there will be an entire generation that will have no documentation for the future and I find that really concerning. Unfortunately, no one else seems that concerned. I’m still trying to figure out how to get my photographs off my old Blackberry! Photography is the new universal language that needs no interpretation. Social media has shown us the power of examining our lives through images…almost to a fault. We are addicted to documenting our experiences rather than experiencing them. Do we have to photograph something to make it real?
Much of your work focuses on story telling through portraits. If you could shoot a portrait of anyone past or present, whose story would you tell and why?
I never met my father’s parents or my mother’s mother. I would love to meet them and make their portraits, learn about their lives, and feel more connected to my past. And if there is a God, she might be someone I’d like to photograph.
Aline wears the Richmond optical frame in Citrine Quartz.