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Aline Smithson Talks To


Aline Smithson’s series, Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Photographer’s Mother, opens today at the Davis Orton Gallery In Hudson, New York. Taken with a Hasselblad, the photographs incorporate traditional photography techniques on hand painted silver gelatin prints. “My patient 85 year-old mother posed in over 20 ensembles, but unfortunately passed away before seeing the finished series. I am grateful for her sense of humor and the time this series allowed us to be together.”

I first met Aline Smithson several years ago while I was a reviewer for CENTER’s annual Review Santa Fe. Although she is often called upon to be a reviewer, Aline came to be reviewed. I was impressed with her work using various subjects and styles. I fell in love with her mysterious black and white series, Inside Out, and Daughter, a photographic journey from childhood to adolescent to adulthood of her daughter Charlotte; and many of her photographs incorporating her family on their yearly vacations on a lake. As she was a former New York Fashion Editor once working along side the greats of fashion photography, a world I was familiar with, I liked her immediately and we kept in touch throughout the years.

Aline radiates her own personal power – she is known as a superstar among her peers. While working full-time on her own photography career, she generously promotes and supports the work of mid-career and emerging photographers daily on her award winning journal, LENSCRATCH; as well as giving workshops at the Los Angeles Center of Photography and jurying exhibitions and portfolio reviews around the country.

I spoke with Aline recently about her ongoing work projects, her upcoming exhibition and her collaboration with her mother.

Elizabeth Avedon: What sparked the idea for your series, “Arrangement in Green and Black”?

Aline Smithson: The idea was sparked when I came across a small print of Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother by James McNeil Whistler at a garage sale.  Whistler has always been one of my favorite painters. Revisiting the composition again made me ponder the possibilities of using it in a photographic series. Within an hour, at two other garage sales, I happened upon a leopard coat and hat,a leopard fabric, a cat painting and a chair that was similar to the one in the painting…and I knew it was a sign to proceed.
EA: Was it a collaboration or all one of yours or her ideas?

AS: It all came from me…my mother didn’t quite understand what I was doing but she was game. We spent two years collaborating, either waiting for me to amass more props and paintings, or for her to feel better. She was often ill and our sessions took on a whole other level of meaning, having extra time together that was often filled with laughter. She died shortly after I finished shooting 21 images. I could have produced more, but I’m so thrilled with what I have.  She never got to see the painted images, but in my heart, I know she has seen them all.

EA: Which of the 21 was the first?
AS: The first was the leopard coat and hat and the cat painting. I immediately loved the result and it set my imagination on fire.  I would lie awake at night thinking of combinations and scenarios. I was also working on a couple of other series at the same time. It was a period of immense creativity.  
EA: This series seems as much about your mother as about you. Any thoughts?

AS: Absolutely, my mother brought her formal side to the portraits–she was very proper to the outside world, but at home, she had a wicked sense of humor (as did my father) and a great sense of fun. She didn’t show that side to everyone, so these portraits reflect her dignified self, but the photographs also show her willingness to make fun of herself. As for me, the series encapsulated everything I love–searching for props at thrift stores and flea markets, ebay surfing, setting up the backgrounds and styling, humor, and spending time with my mother. The whole series was a total joy.

EA: Was your mother an artist?

AS: She was not an artist–she was a music teacher, but her brother was an incredible artist. He was the head of all the art programs in the Los Angeles City Schools and lived in wonderful mid century homes surrounded by Eames furniture. He definitely shaped my aesthetic on many levels. But my mother inspired me by supporting whatever I wanted to pursue in life.  

EA: Whose dog is in the photographs?

AS: The dog was my most wonderful yellow Labrador, Riley–the most patient and willing model I have ever worked with. I have used her in many of my series. Whenever I would set the backdrop up, she would walk over and sit in the middle of it, waiting for me to take her photograph. She passed away two years ago and I miss her so much. 

EA: How were they photographed and what is your printing process?
AS: At the time I was a black and white photographer–shooting on film and creating all my prints in the darkroom. I am self-taught, and a lot of my learning was standing in dark rooms learning to see through the developer. I wanted to start working in color, but I hadn’t shot color medium format film and I didn’t know how to print in color, so for this series, I shot it with a Hasselblad, cropped the images in the darkroom, made silver gelatin prints and then each is hand painted. Each time I sell one, I have to make a print and repaint the image.  So in a way, they are unique prints. And each time, I get to spend time thinking about my mother.

EA:  Tell me about your upcoming show?

AS: I am thrilled to be exhibiting at the Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, New York. I met Karen Davis when we were both reviewers at Photolucida last year, and it was a delightful surprise to be asked to exhibit.

There will be two solo shows. The other is Sisters of the Commonwealth by Meg Birnbaum, a friend and photographer I’ve known for a long time, so I am very happy to share in this experience with her. 

EA: Can we see your work in Europe?

AS: I am with the Tagomago Gallery in Paris and Barcelona

EA: Your (fabulous) online magazine, LENSCRATCH, has been voted one of the “10 Photography-Related Must-Read” blogs by Source Review,, Rangefinder and InStyle Magazine. How did it all begin?

AS: I started writing LENSCRATCH (named for a camera part: LENS, and for writing: SCRATCH) almost 7 years ago.  At first it was like every other photographer’s personal blog, where I would post new work and announce exhibitions.  After a few months, the experience felt very hollow–I was asking the same 10 friends to “like” my new posts and I’ve never been very comfortable with seeking validation.  Then I realized I could use the blog to learn.  I am an educator, but don’t have a traditional academic background, and thought that my students could learn about contemporary photographers along side me.  I set a goal of writing about a different photographer every day, and for the most part, have kept that up for the entire time. I have been inviting guest editors to feature work from around the world, or on topics they are interested in, which helps ease the burden of the daily grind. It seems on the days that I am ready to throw in the towel, I get a lovely e-mail from a photographer or educator letting me know how much the blog means to them and how it has helped them in their careers. Many projects that I have featured have not had exposure prior to being on LENSCRATCH and many have gone viral, ending up on sites all over the world– some photographers have even received gallery representation and exhibitions from the exposure.

EA: And an artist’s post in LENSCRATCH is now given as an award for Santa Fe’s CENTER Choice Award winners.

AS: I have been a long time fan of CENTER and all that organization does to promote photographers, in fact, that was where I first met you Elizabeth, at Review Santa Fe. Laura Pressley, the director of CENTER and I decided to join forces and offer even more exposure to the winners of the CENTER Awards. She is a tremendous advocate for photographers and is seeking a variety of outlets to help the winners gain recognition–and I’m happy to help in that.

EA: You redesigned LENSCRATCH this past year and added more features. Would you comment on the redesign?
AS: Last year, I brought on a team of people to help with editorial and upgrade the site. Grant Gill and Sarah Stankey live in Wisconsin and have been my editorial staff, putting together all the LENSCRATCH exhibitions and creating posts of work that have been submitted to LENSCRATCH.  Pauline Gola is the managing editor and had a vision for what the site could be, Jonas Yip is the Technical Director and built the site from the ground up, Clay Lipsky is the Art Director and created a new look and logo for the site, and Mindi LaRose is the tireless Resource Editor, keeping up the Resource pages that are a wealth of information for photographers. I am so grateful to this amazing group–all are photographers themselves, and none of us are financially compensated in any way.  It’s our way of giving back to the community.

We have some new ideas and programs that we will be launching soon, and are excited to have a call for The 2014 LENSCRATCH Student Prize, where winning portfolios will be featured on the site.

What I am most proud of is the listing of photographers that can be found by genre and subject–I wanted to create a site where an educator can find a series of projects based around subjects…it ranges from broad ideas such as “narrative work” to specific work about a particular subject, like aging or family.   It took me a solid week of key wording thousands of posts to get that in place and it was worth it.

EA: What are you overall most proud of from the success of LENSCRATCH?
AS: I am proud to celebrate other photographers and see them succeed. If exposure on LENSCRATCH helps them on their journey, then I have done my job. I think we all feel a sense of pride that we are creating a quality site with quality work, with a broad range of interests and subjects. I am open to all kinds of photography and I very much understand and appreciate the hard work that goes into being a photographer.

I am also proud that this is a daily commitment. Readers sometimes forget that this is something I do after hours on top of everything else I do as a photographer, educator, mother and wife. I don’t want it to take over my life, but I also feel lucky that as Founder and Editor, I get to attend photography events and meet photographers. The good out weighs the bad and ultimately, creating the site has enriched my life and photographic journey tremendously.

EA: How are you able to post an extensive profile of an artists work, a weekly or monthly in-depth Mixtape Interview, and constantly creating images and exhibition as well as portfolio Reviews?
AS: My husband would tell you that I work all the time, and unfortunately there is some truth to that statement. I make time for 3 dance classes a week, but beyond that, I am answering e-mails (the bane of my existence), collecting materials for posts, doing my own photo shoots, working on my images, promoting my work, tutoring photographers at my house or via Skype, teaching long term workshops at the Los Angeles Center for Photography in the evening, also teaching workshops around the country, jurying competitions, traveling to Photo Festivals, giving lectures…it’s a bit crazy making.

Everyday is totally different and it’s all a juggling act. There are times that I am on complete overload and lately all I want to do is just make work. It’s not easy.

EA: What Photo Festivals are you involved with?
AS: I have had a long relationship with the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago (though not attending this year) as a reviewer and workshop instructor, Photo NOLA in New Orleans as a reviewer and workshop instructor, The Medium Festival of Photography as a reviewer and workshop instructor, Review LA as a reviewer, the Flash Forward Festival in Boston as a lecturer and exhibitor, and have been a keynote speaker and workshop instructor at several SPE events.

As a photographer I have attended FotoFest, Photolucida, Review Santa Fe, and LensCulture FotoFest reviews in Paris. It’s a little unusual that I will be showing my work to someone who I recently sat beside as a reviewer at another review event, but it’s important to me to sit on both sides of the table.

EA: You are involved with The Los Angeles Center of Photography. What is their mission?

AS: Formerly the The Julia Dean Photo Workshops, the Los Angeles Center of Photography (LACP) started in 1999 and has been a school of photography devoted to advancing the skills and increasing the personal enrichment of photographers of all experience levels and ages. I have been associated with the organization since 2001 and teach a lot of the core Fine Art Photography classes. I started off teaching Toy Camera classes, but realized that no one was teaching classes about the journey of the fine art photographer and how to get work out into that market, so I created a program entitled Next Step, where I teach Next Step 1, 2, and 3, offering mentorship and insights in the fine art world. It takes students about two years to complete that cycle and then they can take a 9 month class with me titled The Personal Project where photographers work on a one project for 9 months resulting in an exhibition of the work and a book.  I also teach a weekend intensive, titled Shooting With Intention, which helps photographers make work with focus and deep thinking.

LACP offers nearly 170 workshops per year, along with a variety of community events, group and one-person gallery exhibits, and numerous calls for entry. In addition, LACP offers workshops with and provides access to some of the most well-known and respected photographers in the world, including: Greg Gorman, Duane Michals, Mary Ellen Mark, Sam Abell, Douglas Kirkland, David Alan Harvey, Keith Carter, Phil Borges, Bruce Davidson, John Paul Caponigro, Alex Webb and Joyce Tenneson, among others. LACP the West Coast’s largest non-degree based school of photography with a broad range of classes ranging from photojournalism and fine art photography to studio photography and portraiture.

EA: What is Julia Dean’s background?

AS: Julia is a remarkable woman who has unending enthusiasm for photography- a photographer, educator, and the founder of the Julia Dean Photo Workshops (now LACP). Throughout her career, she has traveled to more than 40 countries while freelancing for numerous relief groups and magazines. She is also the author/photographer of the award-winning children’s book, A Year on Monhegan Island. Julia received a Bachelor of Science degree in photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Master of Arts degree in journalism at the University of Nebraska.

She began her career as an apprentice to pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott. Later, Julia was a photo editor for the Associated Press in New York. She has taught for 29 years at such places as the University of Nebraska, Los Angeles Valley College, Los Angeles Southwest College, Santa Monica College, the Santa Fe Workshops, the Maine Photographic Workshops, Oxford University and the Julia Dean Photo Workshops.

EA: Lastly, can you tell us who or what is “Bootsy Holler”?
AS: Ha! Isn’t that the best name?  Bootsy is the wonderful photographer I follow each Friday in our Six Shooter Project.  

EA: And Six Shooters?

AS: Six Shooters is a photographic project started about two and a half years ago. Five photographer friends and I met for lunch several years ago and the conversation navigated over the usual terrain most photographers cover when sharing notes and photo war stories, and eventually the discussion moved on to the desire to stay inspired and make new work. An idea blossomed—to create a visual dialogue with each other–as a way to stay in touch and use images that might not be part of a project.

Our goal is to express six points of view, over six days, creating a thread of visual connections whether it be through subject, color, light, or gesture, leading the viewer on a photographic journey — a visual train, so to speak, with each image dependent on the one in front or behind to make the engine operate and stay on track.

The founding members are Nancy Baron, Noelle Gilbert, Cat Gwynn, Heidi Lender, Aline Smithson, and Ashly Stohl. After reaching 500 images, two of the original Six Shooters, Heidi Lender and Ashly Stohl, moved onto other projects and we welcomed the addition of Eleonora Ronconi and Bootsy Holler into the conversation.

As photographers, we each approach our craft in a unique way. Some of us are film shooters, using vintage cameras and age-old techniques. Some of us have wholly embraced the digital revolution, and some straddle both worlds. What we have in common is that we love to make photographs. And with Six Shooters, we let our photographs do the talking!

Photographs by Aline Smithson
Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Photographer’s Mother
Artists’ Reception, Saturday May 17, 6-8pm
May 16 – June 22, 2014
Davis Orton Gallery
114 Warren Street
Hudson, NY 12534
Also showing:
Photographs by Meg Birnbaum, Sisters of the Commonwealth


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