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Member Spotlight - Ali Smith


[ December 7th, 2009 ]   When I first saw photographs by Ali Smith, I was struck by the vibrancy, energy and intimacy of her portraits, in particular. After that, I found myself caught up in the social commentary which was often combined with whimsy. As I have gotten to know her work better with more time, returning again and again to certain images ("Portrait of Kelly", "The Kiss"...), I realize that the most profound appeal of Ali's work is in the tender, open hearted, needle sized moments that she is able to extract from the haystack of photographic opportunity. She uniquely sees subtle transitional moments and connections. In her pictures, it often seems like something riveting has just happened or is about to happen.

Born in NYC and bred shooting bands in New York's legendary punk scene, Ali now makes much of her living shooting book covers, with various advertising and editorial work thrown into the mix. Gossip Girls, Sisterhood of the traveling Pants and hundreds more book titles sport her poppy, graphic style.

Ali's powerful and heart felt personal work often looks at the lives of women and girls and celebrates a vital, sometimes controversial, always vibrant spirit in them.

Why photography?
I view photography as a passport into all sorts of interesting and intimate situations.

I love my life as a photographer because after many years doing it, I'm still incredibly excited to look at images after every shoot. I still get a buzz when showing up to a job. I laugh an inordinate amount on set. I even found joy in photographing female prisoners and their children in a maximum security jail. (That one didn't involve real fall- down-knock-out hilarity, but there are always poignant moments shared with the people I shoot, so there's always some warmth and humor.). I just get a lot out of the whole thing. And I hope never to have to work for anyone else again. I love being self-employed.




What about your book projects ? I'm a big fan of your first book, Laws of the Bandit Queens. I like how intimate you obviously became with the women involved, like Janeane Garofalo, Sandra Bernhard and Alice Walker. They seemed very open and vulnerable to you and I responded to that as a viewer. Is that connection hard to achieve, especially with celebrities?
There's so much room for intimacy when you photograph someone. Unless that person is determined to stay distant, or you're really in your own world, it's almost hard not to get somewhat intimate. You're looking at them so carefully and moving towards them and around them in a little dance. You're clearly interested in what they're about and they make themselves vulnerable to you. There's courtship in being an admiring eye, giving your undivided attention to an individual. It pretty much encompasses all the up sides of an intimate relationship (well, not all of them).

I find that aspect of photography really beautiful. Your subject offers you a lot of trust. That can be a bit less intense with commercial work, but it's still there; trust and mutual respect.

The very few times it's been totally missing from my shoots, when I've felt the other person has had little respect for me or was too full of themselves to participate in that dance, it's felt like a real waste or even a backwards step.




What did you learn while producing Laws of the Bandit Queens?
I learned that the best thing I did was to have blind faith in myself and my abilities to get a book deal, get all these people I was interested in involved, and make a big important deal about the release when it came out.

I also learned some real things about how to keep quality control over my work in the future. Some of the QC issues in my first book make me cringe today. But that's the nature of making art and putting it out there. Often by the time it's out, you know how you could have done it better.

What is the new book about?
The new book is called Momma Love; How the Mother Half Lives. Laws of the Bandit Queens celebrated renegade women who have been an inspiration in my life, and, more specifically, in my career. This book depicts the realm where life as a Bandit Queen meets motherhood. It still reveres an enthusiastic, vibrant, longing spirit in women, but it shows the ways in which that spirit is inevitably altered-sometimes frustratingly diminished, sometimes gloriously enhanced-by becoming a mother.

Momma Love is not only about the love a mother gives her child. It's also about the love she gives herself and is given by the world around her.

That's definitely an ongoing issue for women. So your new book is about where ambition meets motherhood. Now that you're a new mom (Ali's son is currently ten weeks old), how has your ambition combined with your life as a mom?
Hmmm... That's a good one. The part of my ambition that was driven by things like need for external affirmation has been modified. I still want my work out there and seen, but I'd like it seen for personal reasons. More because it's important to me, less because it's important for me to be noticed. Everything I do is more precious these days in part because there's no extra time to fart around. I get finite windows of productive time, but when I do set to a task, it's often more satisfying. Even if that's just having a swim or writing down a concept for a shoot- or doing an interview. In certain ways my ambition may have intensified. I care more about making a good living for my family and I have to think more about not starving to death in the long term now.

What do you hope for your creative and professional prospects long term?
While my life has become more about home and family, my work life is typified by expansion. I'm moving towards more varied kinds of commercial work; more international work; more work done on my book, which I hope to find a home for in a drastically changing publishing industry in this next year; more various ways to share my views on justice and fairness for women and girls.

I'd like to open people's eyes more to ongoing equality concerns without always focusing on the most tragic extreme examples. Every life has drama, not just the ones on the fringes.

It feels like an exciting time for change all around.


- Contributed by Joshua Bright


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