Aline Smithson is a photographer, writer, teacher, and the publisher of the popular photography blog Lenscratch.
Jonathan Blaustein: Looking over your website, one of the things that popped up a few times is that you were born and raised in LA. A couple of blocks off of Hollywood and Vine. Is that right?
Aline Smithson: Yup.
JB: Well, we certainly don’t need to date you, or ask how old you are, because my mamma taught me better…
AS: God bless you.
JB: I write about LA a lot, and visit when I can. I think it’s got a mythology that people around the world are captivated by.
How do you view the place now, and how do you think it’s changed over time?
AS: I actually lived in New York for a long time. I had a whole other career, so I’ve actually seen Los Angeles in two incarnations. I left LA when I was 18, and didn’t go back for about 15 or 17 years.
Growing up, I lived in a very cool neighborhood called Silver Lake, which is now the Brooklyn-hipster community of LA.
It was that way when I grew up: a community of artists, and very ethnically diverse. Beck and Leonardo DiCaprio went to my high school, so I was in good company. Not at the same time I was there unfortunately…
JB: Did they have craft butchers and pickle shops on every corner back then too? As I might imagine they have now?
AS: No. (laughing.) It’s not that kind of community. We’re car centric in LA, so we don’t have things like that. We just go to Whole Foods.
I grew up in this great, nurturing, artistic community. Then I went off to art school, and moved to New York, where I met my husband and had my first child. Then we moved back to LA, and I was sure it would be a short stint, because I swore I would never return. I was a New Yorker by then.
I had my second child while my husband was in grad school, and we decided it was too hard to move back with two kids and live in Manhattan. So we stayed, and it took me a long time to fall back in love with this place. But I have.
What I found interesting when I returned was the influx of whole new communities. Koreatown did not exist, when I was growing up.
JB: As big as it is now, it didn’t even exist?
AS: No. The Asian communities are so much larger. The Persian community, which has now sort of taken over Beverly Hills, did not exist when I was growing up either.
It’s a much more ethnically rich city, and that makes it exciting. Our food choices are truly spectacular. Downtown has completely transformed as well–Photo LA and Art LA were held there. It’s a thriving place to explore, and a great place to shoot.
JB: Your bio says you worked in the fashion industry in your time in New York. What did you do?
AS: I moved to New York to be a painter, doing large abstract oils, and got a job in an art gallery. But I had also grown up with an interest in sewing and fashion. I spent a lot of time on the couch reading fashion magazines, and imagining that lifestyle.
After about a year of working in the gallery, I got very disenchanted. The gallerist that I worked for was very shady. He ended up murdering someone three weeks after I left.
JB: Get out.
AS: Yes, it was called the “Leather Mask Murder.” He was deeply into drugs, and into the gay bar scene, and he had sex with a young, Norwegian fashion student. He put a leather head mask (with no holes) over his head to feel what it was like to have sex with someone who was dying.
They could not convict him, but they got him on tax evasion charges. That’s who I worked for. I had a really bad taste in my mouth about the gallery world, from that one experience.
AS: It was eye-opening, because that gallery drew really famous people. I would show work to Diana Ross and Steve Martin and the movers and shakers from all different worlds. I learned so much about NYC in that year.
After that, I got a job putting together fashion shows, even though I had no background in it. And then I traveled around the US and put on shows in different cities. I did that for about a year, through Vogue Patterns, and then they asked me to be their fabric editor. All of this with no background.
JB: So how did it happen?
AS: I’m just a hard worker. I’d grown up sewing, so I knew a lot about fabric. Then I became the fashion editor for not just Vogue Patterns, but also Vogue Knitting. Ultimately, I was responsible for 19 publications a year, and went on all the shoots, and had to learn on the job.
What was unique was that every single day was creative. I picked out all the fabrics for the clothing, worked with the dressmakers, the art director, the accessory editors, hired the models and hair and make-up artists.
Then we made it all come together on the set, and the art director and I had to edit all the film. I did it for 10 years. I worked a lot with Patrick Demarchelier, Mario Testino and many others, and even once with Horst. Just amazing photographers. I learned a lot about working with people from them.
We went on a lot of exotic trips. I know I’m kind of rambling here.
JB: It’s a good story.
AS: For me, though, the job that has influenced me the most was waitressing. I did it all through college. That ability to see the one table, and what they need, but also to see the eight tables in the section, it teaches you to see the minute and the big picture at the same time. And it teaches you how to work with people.
When I applied that to the fashion editor job, it made a huge difference. For instance, we would travel to far flung places where we would not be able to find any accessories or that last minute item. So, before we left, at night, I would lie in bed and imagine the different outfits we were taking. I’d imagine every possible thing I needed to bring, so we were prepared.
It was a fantastic job, and then my husband and I moved to Los Angeles so he could pursue a masters degree in architecture. It was really hard give up a job where you have so much creative expression.
JB: Not that I would ask you to dish, but did you have any personal contact with Anna Wintour? Was she your buddy?
AS: No. Even though Vogue Patterns was at one time associated with Vogue Magazine, it wasn’t in the same building. Though I did interview at Vogue when I first moved to New York, and it was right out of “Devil Wears Prada.” People were raking me up and down.
I have to tell you this story. I went to college in Santa Barbara, so I was not coming with to New York with a suitcase of Chanel suits. I didn’t even own a coat when I arrived. I made one dress for myself. A beautiful Givenchy green silk dress. I wore it to my interview, and they loved it, and asked me back for a second interview.
But it was the only dress I had.
JB: (laughing.) I can see where this is going.
AS: Right. I had to wear it again.
JB: Oh no.
AS: So of course they said, “You’re wearing the same dress as last time.” They remembered.
JB: Of course they did.
AS: And I didn’t get the job. But that’s what gives you character. Going through these things.
JB: While you were working in fashion, were you also taking pictures for fun? Snapshots?
AS: I never considered being a photographer. I was a painter. After we moved to LA, and my kids got a little older, I decided to go back to school and get my degree in fashion design. I went to Otis Parsons, at night and on the weekends. Then, the day I graduated, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I realized it was way too much about business, and not creativity. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and went into a funk. I decided to take a photography class to learn how to use my camera better, and at the end of that class, the instructor told me I should start showing my work.
I hadn’t put it together. My father was a photographer; we had a darkroom in our basement. My uncle was a travel photographer. And I stood right next to the camera with some of the most amazing fashion photographers. As an editor, you have to see what they see.
I had been surrounded by photography all my life, and yet never considered it as my path. But as soon as I got that camera in my hands, that was it. I never looked back.
JB: I think we all have some version of that Aha moment. But let’s jump ahead a bit. Our readers are by now familiar with my thoughts about the 21st Century Hustle. And you seem to embody that right now.
You’re publish the popular blog Lenscratch, you teach, you make and show your work, and you’re a Mom. I was going to ask how you came to that, but you already described the progression for us. It sounds like you’ve always had multiple talents and interests, and the gumption to go for it.
So this current version of musical chairs is not so different for you?
AS: Yeah, I feel like I’ve always been a multi-tasker. I’m not someone who can just sit down and watch TV. I’m doing five other things at once. But trust me, I AM watching TV while I’m doing them.
I don’t come from any formal education, photographically. So part this journey, for me, especially with Lenscratch, is educating myself. What makes my blog different, maybe, is that I’m really looking at it as someone who is still so excited about photography and wants to figure out why people make the work that they make.
I’m not bringing the intellectual, MFA point of view about the analysis of photography. I just write about work in simple language.
JB: (laughing.) I hate those intellectual MFA types. They’re the worst. (pause.) Shit. Wait a second. I am one of those guys.
You’re answering my questions before I’m asking them, which is not the way it’s supposed to work. I was just about to ask how you came to found Lenscratch. It’s a very popular blog, where you show a different photographer’s work every day.
How many years has this been going on?
AS: Almost seven years.
JB: Almost seven years. Every day.
AS: Every day.
JB: That sounds like a lot of work.
AS: Hell yes. I’ve developed a muscle. It’s really helped me write. I write quickly now. A lot of students will send me their statements, and I can whip out the edit in ten minutes.
I’m getting to the point where I need to shift. I want spend more time on my photography. I want to put that role first.
I don’t want to get off topic, but I’ve noticed lately how quickly people are churning out new work. As a reviewer for Critical Mass, when I see a new body of work from someone every year, and sometimes two or three a year, I wonder if that project has had time to percolate.
JB: You make a good point. It’s crossed my mind a bit lately. A new body of work becomes a product line. Just like, back in the day, when the car companies would totally change the design of each car every year.
At some point, the hustle does begin to take away from the contemplative, creative practice that art is supposed to be about. We’re all working so hard to pay the bills, and still have time to make art, it’s very easy to lose sight of what you’re talking about.
If you’re always thinking about the next marketing campaign, it stands to reason you might have less time to think about how to make the pictures better, and what your process means to you.
AS: Frankly, I haven’t been pushing my work out for about two years. Maybe I needed that time to reboot. A lot of my work is conceptual and you can’t churn that out quickly.
We all love to make work. That’s the high that we get from this journey. The making of the work is the reward, not anything else.
As you get further along in your career, have your museum show, and meet the traditional goals one seeks as a photographer, it doesn’t feel like what you think it’s going to feel like. It’s just another marker. And when the fanfare dies down, you realize you have to start from square one again.
The true thing that gives you the high is the making of the work in the first place. I think that’s why people push work out so quickly. Creating work is a joyous thing.
JB: It’s really easy to forget why we fell in love with the process. We think acclaim was the goal. Social media makes that part worse too. We’ve become so accustomed to the instant gratification. And signs of popularity.
AS: Some of the major players, they’re not on Facebook and tweeting. They’re busy making work.
AS: And I think about all the time we waste on social media that we could fold back into our journey. I’m really re-thinking it.
JB: I’m trying to build structure in the way I use the tools. I think they’re brilliant. But I also think they’re addictive, so I’m trying to find some structure to limit that pull. I began to feel like the monkey tapping at the lever all day to get the peanut.
AS: That’s a great description.
JB: Thanks. Tap. Tap. Tap. I don’t want to do that anymore.
With all the things you do that we’ve talked about, I want to focus on the teaching a bit. This interview is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and you’re giving a workshop there this March.
Could we talk a bit about your teaching philosophy? What do you think are some of the key elements of being a great educator?
AS: I’ll give you a little history on my teaching career. Never in a million years did I think I’d be a teacher, though my mother and sister were teachers.
I used to have two great fears in my life: snakes, and public speaking. About 13 years ago, I went to a portfolio review with Julia Dean, who has a photography school in LA. She was there, along with the photo editor of the LA Times.
I was working alone in the darkroom, at that time. I had two or three photo friends, and no real photo community, beyond the darkroom. About a month later, Julia called me up and asked me to teach her toy camera classes, because that’s how I was working back then.
I told her I was too afraid to stand up there in front of people, and she said, “I’ll teach with you. I’ll help you.” So I went to the doctor, and asked if there was a pill for the fear of public speaking, and he said yes.
JB: (laughing.) It’s called Valium.
AS: No. It’s called Inderal. It’s a beta blocker.
JB: I was kidding. You’re serious?
AS: Yes. If you ever have to give a lecture, and you’re a little panicky, it’s called Inderal. It’s a beta blocker that keeps your heart beating at a regular pace. You can get scared, but you can’t panic.
It really helped me. I started out teaching toy camera classes, and then realized that no one was teaching anything about the journey of the photographer, at least in Los Angeles.
I began to teach things like how to navigate the fine art world, and learning from the mistakes that we make. Those classes helped build a fine art community in Los Angeles, and now I am so lucky to have a huge community of photo friends, many who have taken my classes. I work hard at keeping us all connected.
When the Santa Fe Workshops asked me to teach for them three years ago, I realized it was an opportunity to combine several of those classes into something titled “The Big Picture“. I help photographers become more visually sophisticated, give them a tool belt of ideas for making imagery, and then put it all into context of how to shape work and launch it into the fine art market.
Students finish the class having written their statement, bio, and are working on a resume. I try to answer every question a photographer has about the complex world of navigating the fine art market. And it’s in a very safe, nurturing environment for anyone at any point on their journey.
You asked about my philosophy as a teacher?
AS: When I was in art school I had some crippling critiques, that I can still remember. I decided I was never going to be the kind of teacher that devastates students. I really teach with enthusiasm and the idea of possibility. I look at every student, no matter how unsophisticated the work, and believe they have the potential to make amazing work.
I’ve seen it happen in my classes, right in front of me. The work they bring in initially is something they been doing in a vacuum. Then they see the bigger picture, figure out other ways of working, mine their own lives for subject matter, and then, all of a sudden, incredible work begins to emerge.
JB: You encourage them, I imagine, to mine their own lives. You say it like it’s an afterthought. But for so many people, when they first start out, they’re doing it for entertainment. For diversion. We all know how exciting it is when you first learn you can “rectangularize” the world.
That initial impulse can only carry one so far, before you need to become willing to inject yourself into it. To learn the self-criticality that is so necessary to improve.
You’ve explained that you’re positive and supportive. But what are your tricks for getting people to have the bravery to look at themselves, and then to share?
AS: I create a safe environment, where I don’t say anything negative. Instead I show them something different. There’s a way to guide someone without annihilating them, and that’s the way I work.
I feel like a photo-therapist. I know that sounds crazy, but…
JB: No. I love it. I’m not going to steal it, but I love it.
AS: Sometimes, I feel like the photo whisperer too. When I do portfolio reviews, I ask photographers to tell me their life story before I look at their work. Because I want to know what brought them to make the work they’re doing. Sometimes, I’ll see a connection to their life that they don’t even see themselves.
It’s the recognition of why they’re making the visual choices that they’re making. I also think I’m just very personal.
JB: Looking at your work, two words that kept popping up for me. Family and history. You’ve photographed your daughter extensively, and a project about your mother was recently featured on Lens.
Do you feel a connection with the past? Or am I over-reaching?
AS: It’s interesting. Because I came to photography later in life, I look backwards as easily as I look forward. When you’re in your twenties, you’re always looking forward. I’m in a position where I’m considering life in a different way. That just comes with age.
I think I would be a much more irreverent, edgy photographer if I was in my twenties right now. You get an attitude in art school that you are the next great thing and like to challenge the norm. But now I have more wisdom and an understanding of humanity.
I’m not so flippant. We’re so quick to judge the things we don’t understand. With Lenscratch, I often find that when I don’t like work, I force myself to spend more time with it, so I can understand it.
JB: (pause.) The quiet moments don’t show up so well in the transcript, but you definitely shut me up there for a moment.
It’s something I probably need to work on. In my role as critic, in parallel to being an artist, I’ve probably become a bit comfortable in the seat of judgement.
AS: That’s something I find really obnoxious in photography today. The quick judgement.
JB: Did you just call me obnoxious? Or can we assume you mean other people?
AS: No, no. There is a lot of photo crap out there. Fine. Judge it. But I try to slow down in that judgement, and try not to make it public. That’s just me. If I don’t like something, I don’t put it out into the world. Being an artist is a tough road, and criticism is subjective.
JB: I do have a hard time sorting out how you juggle all of it, but you have an active exhibition record as well. Do you have any shows coming up?
AS: Yes, I have a show coming up in May at the Davis Orton Gallery in New York. And I’ve got some group shows coming up in LA, Palm Springs and San Francisco. I might have a solo show in Paris this year.
JB: We’ve been talking a lot about slowing down, and being more contemplative. One word that hasn’t come up yet is patience, which I’m still learning. People can’t see the video of you, obviously, but you project an aura of calm. Almost equanimity. Do you feel like patience is a strength for you?
AS: Jonathan, that’s such a brilliant observation. Because I feel like I was always the last one to get asked to dance or picked for the team. I’ve had to be patient in life, but I also don’t have huge expectations. I’m always thrilled when something happens for me, but I’m OK when it doesn’t. I’m not waiting for recognition. I just want to make more photographs.
This week on Lenscratch, I posted all about work that’s 30 years old. I think it’s really interesting that these photographers are getting their moment in the sun now. Three of the photographers I featured are 2013 Critical Mass winners, and for two of them, it’s work that was made in the 70’s and 80’s.
If that’s not patience, I don’t know what is.