MIKE SMITH: BOSTON
Sep 13 – Nov 14, 2021
A brief conversation with Mike
Since you were in the Army until 1972 and then attended Mass College of Art, leaving in 1977, I gather you made these photographs while in college? What pushed you towards the subject of portraiture...as opposed to landscapes, still-life or abstraction?
Yes, this is my undergraduate work at MassArt. I came out of a two-year program in Social Work at a community college in Brockton. I quit MassArt in ’77 but did not graduate. When Tod Papageorge invited me to apply to Yale, I went back and completed my course work and got the degree in ‘79. August Sander was the most influential to my work. I had a book of his work and wore it out.
Who did you study with at MassArt? Anyone of note in your class?
Briefly with Nick Nixon, mostly with Gus Kayafas, one class with Tod Papageorge (he had a gig at Harvard and picked up a class at MassArt). Nick was a little vague and liked to quote literature, making us feel ignorant, but he had cred and was a star at the time. Tod spoke clearly, was articulate, intelligent and frankly blew all others away with his insight and understanding. He was the one I admired.
The most gifted and hard-working classmate at MassArt was Christine Cresenzi. Christine, Cathy Griffin, Henry Cataldo, Tim Feresten and I all went on to Yale at about the same time, so it was a bit of MassArt II for us.
Why did you decide on black-and-white photos of people in Boston as opposed to color? Were you looking for any "people types" or special locations? Since most are straight-forward portraits, anything to consider about their contexts?
B&W was the medium of choice at the time. Only a few had by then made headway in color, and it was not practical for a home darkroom practice. I always set up my own darkrooms in bathrooms, bedrooms, or kitchens. I never worked in a communal facility until Yale, and that was for two years. Sander aside, typology was of no particular interest to me—it was always the individual that attracted my attention. Arbus was more akin to my thinking, I suppose. I was learning to acknowledge others’ existences and to show some respect by letting them present without any strained direction.
My family was in Westwood, and I went through high school there. Married my high school sweetheart. Started at MassArt while married. Soon not. Diapers, washing machine versus cameras and paper…. hmmm.
Are there any images that have a story attached to them?
The upright woman with the shawl and large purse was one of my earliest attempts. It was made at the Prudential Center where I was working on a project photographing “people as form,” if I remember correctly, for Nick’s class. Mostly “street pictures” of gesture etc.
One day, a very large man fell and hit his head on the concrete while chasing me. He was sitting on a ledge and had told me that he did not want to be photographed. I respected that until a beautiful model passed in front of him, and I took the opportunity to photograph her. The next thing I know, he is running toward me, and he tripped. BAM…right on the forehead. Ambulance, siren, the whole thing. The next day I went out and made that portrait. The day after that, I went to Phil Levine and bought the camera I use for most of these pictures. (6x7 Linhof Press 23. I bought a second one while editing this work for the current book. It's gorgeous.) I remember showing it to Tod and Nick, and boy, did that get their attention! Pure nostalgia!
Why a book now?
I gave a print of the young attractive woman wearing a fur collar to Mark Steinmetz years ago. A year or so ago he encouraged me to make a book of that work. I always felt like it was just my undergraduate work and served its purpose as such. Then, when I looked through the work after years of not seeing it, I realized that I had something more important.
Does this early work inform your later East Tennessee work?
Of course…all experiences lead to the present. As an artist, I think change is important, so the work I am doing now and have done in East Tennessee is different (color, often landscapes, and weird shit), but overlapping. I still make portraits, still have an underlying respect for others, and I’m still trying to learn how to make a picture. My interests have expanded; the social environment varies greatly from Boston, so the response is naturally different. I am still an outsider in ET, which has its perks. The social work program (which I did not complete) affected me strongly. I think it gave me assurance of how my personality projected to others and enabled me to approach people comfortably and with a measure of confidence. I’m interested in them as individuals, and they sense that.