Seeing Oneself Through Pictures of Others

Aline Smithson’s Self-Reflexive Portraits

Alyssa Coppelman
Dec 10, 2015 · 8 min read

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a cross between a stalker and a hoarder—at least when it comes to my portrait photography. I lie in wait to capture the soul of my subject and then bring it back to my lair to examine.”

—Aline Smithson, from Self & Others

Aline Smithson is well known in the photo world for wearing a number of hats. She is a photographer and one of the Six Shooters; a beloved teacher and lecturer; a portfolio reviewer, juror, and curator; and the force behind the noteworthy photo blog, Lenscratch.

It turns out Smithson has switched hats throughout her life. In college, she studied painting, then moved from California to New York City to work on her painting while working in a gallery. After a year, she scored a job as Fashion Editor at Vogue Patterns and Vogue Knitting and had the opportunity to work with some of fashion photography’s titans: Horst, Mario Testino, and Patrick Demarchelier, among others.

© Aline Smithson, from “Self & Others”

Self & Others, her new monograph was published by the Magenta Foundation and, remarkably, fully funded on Kickstarter a mere six hours after going live. In concert with the publication, her work is on view in several galleries: through December 31 at Wall Space in Santa Barbara; through January 23 at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe; and through March 30 at Guthrie Contemporary in New Orleans, where she’ll be signing books on Saturday, December 12, from 6–9 pm.

The book details Smithson’s move from the early black-and-white work to the middle, when she photographed her mother in a series of costumes— modeled after James McNeill Whistler’s famous painting of his own mother—then hand-painted each of the prints; and finally, the luscious color portraits that feature Smithson’s children and family friends in carefully styled poses, which are steeped in both portrait-painter formalism and Hollywood glamour.

Smithson was kind enough to answer several questions about her work.

© Aline Smithson, from “Self & Others”

Alyssa Coppelman (AC): This book is comprehensive, yet I know you’ve also left a lot out. Other than the governing principle of portraying yourself through your portraits of others, how did you narrow down the work and approach the final edit seen in the book?

Aline Smithson (AS): When the Magenta Foundation approached me about creating a retrospective monograph, my first reaction pondered the complexity of showcasing projects that had a myriad of approaches, but after some reflection, I realized I could use my portrait work to represent my photographic journey in a linear way.

At the time, I had been thinking a lot about the idea of portraiture being a form of autobiography, and that idea helped in the selection process and in the focus of the book. MaryAnn Camilleri, the publisher, and I narrowed down choices from a variety of series, and fortunately we were on the same page about almost all of the selects. We wanted to expand the idea of what a portrait could be and pulled some eccentric images, but ultimately decided on a bit more traditional edit.

© Aline Smithson, from “Self & Others”

AC: Do you feel like the book achieved an accurate portrait of you?

AS: Absolutely. The early black and white work is the most autobiographical, as it represents a parallel time period when I was experiencing motherhood and also learning my craft. I used my life as subject matter and as my children grew older, I grew more secure as a photographer.

I look back at the early years with much fondness and have an appreciation for being anonymous — it was a time of experimentation and mistake making and I learned a lot through that process. Later, when working in color, my photographs began to reflect conceptual ideas that were based on my influences, my curiosities, and my interests.

© Aline Smithson, from “Self & Others”

AC: Your work is so rich with color, which you often use to stylize the images. Have you found yourself drawn to a particular palette?

AS: Color has always been an important part of my creative expression. As a painter, I created large oils that explored color relationships. As a photographer, I am drawn to saturated color, influenced by Kodachrome photographs and Technicolor movies of the ’40s and ’50s.

Color can be sensuous and seductive and it’s a quality that I want to continue to explore in new projects. I’d like to figure out how to replicate those colors that are almost edible, that don’t feel digitized like the intense colors that come from overuse of the saturation tool but instead come from the brilliance of film stocks.

© Aline Smithson, from “Self & Others”

AC: Regarding costuming, set dressing, and props, where do you find materials and do you recycle them for later shoots? Do you go out with the express purpose of finding something you have in mind for a shoot, or do you accumulate materials randomly here and there?

AS: Though I am always on the look out for objects and articles of clothing of interest, I usually go on a quest to find specific things for projects. I am totally into the search — finding things on Ebay, on Etsy, in thrift stores, and at flea markets. Sometimes friends send me boxes of clothes or props, which is great. I can be a relentless hunter and it’s one of my favorite parts of the process!

“I’d like to figure out how to replicate those colors that are almost edible.”

AC: When you’re done with them, what do you do with them? (Yes, these are the things I want to know.)

AS: My garage has filled up with boxes of “finds.” I have a large collection of 1950s spring hats, paint-by-number paintings, costumes, fabrics for backdrops, etc. I tend to hang on to props, as I am never completely finished with a project — much to the dismay of my husband.

© Aline Smithson, from “Self & Others”

AC: Lets talk masks. I love the inside joke of the cover, which is that you often cover your face with something when photographed, just like the subject blocks her face with a mirror. After looking through the book a couple times, I realized that your subjects’ faces are often either partially or entirely covered, only partially visible, or have their eyes closed. What is it about obscuring faces that attracts you?

AS: I’ve always felt that work is more universal when the face is obscured or the eyes are closed. It creates more mystery and allows the imagination to flourish. Of course, all portraits can’t be captured that way, but I do like the idea of not giving it all away to the viewer.

© Aline Smithson, from “Self & Others”

AC: Was it always intentional, or was there a point at which you realized you did this?

AS: It was an approach I was drawn to from the beginning, especially using masks. I’ve always been a Halloween fanatic and realized the power of a mask, so using them with children seemed like a natural evolution. I didn’t see the work of [Ralph Eugene] Meatyard until much later, which I loved, of course.

In terms of cropping, at first it was completely by mistake. I was making a lot of work with the toy camera, and I would accidently crop off a head. I then realized that the photograph was more interesting and universal — that the viewers could project themselves into the photograph, bring their own history and memories. Then I started noticing how many book covers use cropped images or photographs where the figure is shot from the back or with their eyes closed. Those gestures allow the reader to complete the photograph with their imagination as they read the book.

© Aline Smithson, from “Self & Others”

AC: In the earlier, black-and-white work, faces are obscured or eyes are closed (a form of hiding) the majority of the time, but not so in these later color portraits. How did you come to show faces more directly, and was it a conscious shift?

AS: The real shift came when I began to work in projects and photography more conceptually. I was thinking a lot about classic portrait painting and set out to replicate the traditional idea of a portrait (with a twist). Creating this book has made me understand my work in a deeper way and put it into context. Through doing that, it has made me want to return to black and white work again, in addition to color, and begin creating singular images that don’t have to be attached to a project. Basically I just want to make work — creating and promoting this book has taken me away from the camera and I can’t wait to get refocused.

“Creating this book has made me understand my work in a deeper way and put it into context.”

AC: The color work is also when you introduce more costuming and staging. Do you think there’s any correlation with featuring faces more prominently, or is it just a coincidence?

AS: That’s correct — there is definitely a correlation with more traditional portraiture (showing the face) and the staging of work. These projects take a lot of preparation and forethought and are less spontaneous than the early work, and just answering this question has given me ideas for creating work that obscures the face. So thank you!

Aline Smithson’s monograph, Self & Others: Portrait as Autobiography, published by the Magenta Foundation, is available at Photoeye Books and elsewhere.

The work is on view at Wall Space, Santa Barbara through December 31; at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe through January 23; and at Guthrie Contemporary in New Orleans through March 30.

Smithson will be signing books at Guthrie Contemporary on Saturday, December 12th, from 6–9 pm.


Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

Alyssa Coppelman

Written by

Photo editor. Photobook consultant. Contributor to Adobe Create



Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

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