Michael Penn Smith
When did you first think of yourself as an artist?
When I got out of college I’d been interested in photography, but I hadn’t actually done it. In the last semester of college I took a very interesting course called ‘Media Culture.’ It was in the Marshall McLuhan era (1960’s, 70’s). When I got out of college I wanted to get into film-making and I bought a Canon 8mm camera and started to do a little work with that. But then I realized that it was going to be very expensive, so I transitioned to still photography. I got an Olympus camera and started shooting a lot. I’ve been into photography ever since.
That said, I have worked most of my life as a cameraman, mostly in video. I’m a cameraman, not a director or producer. So, I’m working for filmmakers. What I’ve done more than anything in the last few years is operate a ‘jib arm’: a piece of equipment with a camera on one end of a long arm, and a weight on the other end. So, you can ‘fly” the camera around. It’s used a lot for concerts and music videos.
I’ve also been transitioning back into still photography over the last 10 years. I guess the moment I thought of it being something I could make money at was just a few years later. I was in my 20’s, living in Austin, doing all kinds of odd jobs to make a living. I was barely making a living, but it was not very expensive to live there then, so that was alright. On ‘The Drag’ right across from the University of Texas (UT) there was a little cordoned-off space they called a market. You could get a license from the city, set up a place, and sell there. I did that off and on for a couple of years. I had to print work, frame it, and try to sell it. That’s probably when I first started thinking about making art out of photography.
Who have been your mentors or people that inspired you?
There were lots and lots of photographers, but Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson are a couple that really impressed me. I got a chance to do an Ansel Adams workshop during that time – in the late 60’s early 70’s. Ansel Adams was leading the workshop. What was amazing was that most all the west coast photography establishment came annually to his workshops just to hang out. So, there were all these world-renowned photographers who were just hanging out there. There were maybe seven or eight who were instructors in the workshop, but all the others were just hanging out together. We went to Brett Weston’s studio and visited him. He was selling his prints for $75. I wish that I had bought a bunch! Cartier-Bresson’s influence on my work was about the spontaneity of capturing the ‘decisive moment’. Some of my work is that: capturing the decisive moment. Cartier-Bresson was ‘the’ original street photographer, in my estimation.
With those diverse influences, how do you pick subject matter? What do you think about when you go out to photograph? Are you looking for any particular thing?
My philosophy of photography is that you should be able to get a good, interesting photograph anywhere, anytime. The richer the environment for photography, of course, the better. But I feel that you can get a good photograph anywhere, and that’s a very, very useful skill. In order to get a good photograph, you have to be very open to seeing everything in front of you. Many people don’t really see what’s right in front of them. They look and think, “Well, this is a table and that’s a chair over there”, and they decide they don’t need to look at it anymore because they have already identified it. Getting past that routine way of seeing things is an important skill, I think. One way to cultivate that skill is, regardless of the situation you’re in, practice finding something interesting about a particular thing that you can then photograph.
What three artists, living or dead would you like to have at a dinner party?
Well, Leonardo da Vinci because he wasn’t just an artist, he was also ‘the’ original Renaissance man. I would include Ansel Adams and Edward Weston (Brett Weston’s father).
What’s the weirdest or funniest thing anybody ever said to you about your work?
When you set up a booth or tent and sell to the public, people approach, and I get this an awful lot, “Are these paintings?” They ask that because the photographs are printed on canvas. The question that really used to get me was: ‘“Did you copy these from National Geographic?” It’s funny because it’s both an insult and kind of a compliment.