10 minutes with Walter Smith

Interviews with Photographers September 29, 2016 11:00 am

When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?

I knew very early in my life that I loved making movies and taking pictures. Probably 9 years old. I started with an old Bell and Howell movie camera of my fathers. In school I was not a great student. This kid named Guy McClave always had a camera around his neck and the cool kids seemed to hang around him because of it. I figured if I learned how to properly take pictures then I’d be popular as well. It certainly didn’t make me popular but I fell in love with pictures and stories. The camera was a tool to connect with different people and it took me into world I would never had ventured close to without a camera. That was 13 years old. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t take a picture. The camera takes me out of myself.

I googled Guy McClave, he’e a captain now. Do you remember the first photographers whose work you loved?

I reached out to him through likedin a couple months ago. I didn’t tell him he’s part of the reason I started this.

The work of other photographers that I loved.

Andy Summers of The Police had a book out called Throb. I remember this was the first photo book that I thought was cool and had some value.

Allen Ginsberg. He work told stories and it has stayed with me for years. I wanted to photograph him when i was a student in Philadelphia. I phoned…left messages…waited then forgot about it. One day he left a message on my answering machine with a contact number and an apology as to why it took so long to return my call. This was one of my favorites from the shoot.


Walter Smith

Duane Michaels. Another storyteller. I also got together with him to take his photograph and show my work. He loved 1 image out of everything and I completely understood why. His criticism played a part in how I presented my work.

Arnold Newman. I loved how he worked with large format. It was a fleeting romance.

Irving Penn. A very long romance.

Diane Arbus. Every student loved her work.

Richard Avedon. His work was so honest. Holds up against anything created today.

These were the more important ones.

That might be one of my top Ginsberg stories, and I have heard many.
Looking back, do you see how – or I should say, if – these photographers shaped your own work?

When Allen answered the door to his apt I was immediately reminded of his photographs. He made me a bowl of rice and I sat at the table when he made a few portraits from. I looked out a window I saw in his work. He wanted to know how much money I made with my work, which was basically film money. He shared Gregory Corso’s number as well as William Burroughs number with me to shoot them. I called Gregory and he wanted me to meet him in AC with a fistful of cash. Crazy on the phone. William died just as I was calling him and I regret not shooting him earlier. Allens work still stays with me.

I wouldn’t say that once persons work influenced me more than anothers. They’re like friends…visual friends…who I check in with regularly. Avedon has had a big impact on my work. Aside from the photographs I love HOW he made the photographs.There is a book called “Avedon at Work in the America West” that is a book about that series done by his producer I believe. Great BTS stuff…great inside information. “Annie Leibovitz AT WORK” is another treasure. Again lots of inside info.

Robert Frank has stayed with me particularly his polaroid work.

I have a new romance with Sally Manns work after reading “Hold Still” this year. A wonderful book…one of my favorites of 2015 and I never thought it would be.

The week I was graduating from AIPH the head of the photo dept said this to me: “Your work is great but who are you going to copy next?” I was really caught off guard and hurt by this but I knew what he was talking about. Although I was always shooting on my own…making images in my own style, there was a part of my work that was influenced by other photographers. He was referring to Arnold Newman at the time. I got the message and from then on focused less on other photographers work and more on where I was headed and what I wanted.

Thats a sort of soul-crushing comment for a graduating college student.. What about photographers you have recently discovered, are there any new names or bodies of work that you have recently found and are excited about?

I see tons of work that I quite like in the moment but the images generally don’t stay with me. A friend, Eric Thompson ( a great young photographer) turned me onto Dana Lixenberg’s book, Imperial Courts. Just beautiful. Makes me want to take photographs and there’s no bigger compliment than that. I love images…love thinking about them…love creating them…love images from others… I wish there wasn’t so much visual junk out there so the great work could really be seen. Imagine all the great things we’re NOT seeing!

Any words of wisdom for the up and comers?

I was with my agents and a fellow photographer today and we talked about what we’d say to someone new.

The particulars change a little here and there (as I get older I assume).

My suggestions to newbies…

BE A GOOD PERSON. Be honest and genuine. Listen and grow from relationships. Don’t take things personal. People will never love your work as much as you do. If you don’t love it, clients will realize it.

Be a good photographer. Make as many images as you can. Be open to your work flowing in different directions. Explore your own work.

Don’t over email. Print your work and put it up around you. Live with it. Grow from it. Make promos, even cheap ones, and send them out. Realize that advertising yourself if important. Grow and protect the brand of “you.” (Ok thats cheesy I know but I don’t know how else to put it) Be smart with social media and understand its value. One ignorant/inappropriate/disrespectful/stupid post has a long reach…think about what you post.

Walter is based in New York, see more of his work here.

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