Outtakes: Mike Smith

Outtakes is a series of interviews with contemporary photographers who have been asked to share alternate versions of some of their most meaningful, successful and celebrated images. By looking at these outtakes along with the final image and by hearing from the artist directly, we hope to examine the different working methods and criteria that photographers regularly employ in an effort to push past the romanticism of the singular, iconic image and learn more about the way photographs are really made.

Outtakes comes from photographer Joshua Dudley Greer and begins today with images from Mike Smith.

Mike Smith has been photographing the landscape and people of the American Southeast for over thirty years. Born in Germany, Smith received his BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and his MFA from Yale University School of Art. His photographs are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition to his many teaching accolades, Smith has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a USA Lowe Fellowship. In 2004, a monograph of his work, You’re Not From Around Here, was published by the Center for American Places.

Piney Flats, TN, 2007 © Mike Smith

© Mike Smith

© Mike Smith
Piney Flats, TN, 2007

Joshua Dudley Greer: In 2007 you began work on a series of portraits of people inside their cars. Those pictures have always seemed kind of aggressive to me. You know, it takes a certain kind of photographer to get into somebody’s car. Not only to talk your way into it, but also to feel safe and to be that assertive. So I’m wondering what that process is like for you or at least what it was like with her.

Mike Smith: Well with some of the people, I wondered myself what I was doing. They were characters to say the least. Some very, very rough people. But the intimacy of that space was what I was interested in. This picture comes out of a series of pictures where I photographed mostly men in their trucks. I felt the trucks were where the men felt the most empowered or the most at one with their worlds. So to me to jump into that was a wonderful opportunity to enter into this privileged zone.

I do remember when I was a young kid, I used to hitchhike quite a bit and I’d get all over town. So jumping into people’s cars is something that I’ve been accustomed to throughout different points in my life. And I was always kind of fascinated by some of the things in people’s cars or the conditions of their cars.

This girl I met at a convenience store and she was just a wreck. It was completely awkward for me to approach her, but in doing so I tried to listen to what was going on and keep the feelings that she had going so that I didn’t try to distract her. I tried to keep her in her pain so to speak, so that hopefully she would open up to the idea of being photographed in that space. Which she did.

JDG: You made a number of photographs of her, both inside the car and outside. But what is it about the picture that you use?

MS: Well I’ve printed two of these pictures. The troubled, dark sky is I think a wonderful analogy for her emotional state. But then there’s this obvious choice to me to use the wider, interior picture. One has this angel over her head and the other has that dark, brooding sky and I think they both work because of the accessories - those things add up in terms of where that picture might take a viewer.

But the framing in the wider picture is without question, in my opinion, the one. It has to do with the bottom edge and the way that peculiar, floating object is on the windshield. The way the foot is located and the tensed up, almost nauseated gesture. There’s something about the two eyes and the lights that extend past them and seem to me to just line up well and hold the frame. The frame is just perfect in that picture in my opinion. So the gesture I think is far better than the other. It’s just one of those pictures you work up, you know? You can see her face, you don’t see the face in the other one.

But I think in both pictures you can tell there’s something going on. I’m not going to try to characterize the feelings that she was having, I think it’s pretty obvious in the pictures that there’s some traumatic moment being experienced, whether it’s a physical pain or an emotional pain or both.

Gray, TN, 1996 © Mike Smith

© Mike Smith

Gray, TN, 1996

JDG: These two frames are directly adjacent to each other on the contact sheet and what I like about examining both of them together is that we get to see an extension of the physical space and maybe even a slight passage of time.

MS: Well I’m a sucker for a squall line, there’s no doubt about it and the variant is more about that than anything. But then I have taken a lot of pictures of cows and the paths there were as good as they ever get. I’ve always loved the ephemeral aspects of things and that was one of those moments that just happens, it’s there for a few minutes and then it’s gone.

JDG: The second picture comes after chronologically, do you recall having any sense that the first picture was actually it, but this one might hold something else?

MS: My feeling in general is that I don’t have that capability or I’ve trained myself to wait to see what the outcomes are rather than anticipate because I’m usually disappointed more often than not. So I’ve learned to wait to see what the pictures are rather than what the experience was or the thinking was or the feeling or whatever.

I often think of photographs as symbols, so the context or the potential for meaning in the path picture was a little richer to me than the pure landscape. I think that’s a big part of it, the poetic possibilities or what might come about in a picture as something other than what was there. The transformation.

JDG: Right, the first one just seems to loom a little larger. I feel like when I look at it, I’m not actually looking at what you photographed but something else. Something big.

MS: Well that’s the thing, they’re just cow paths but the picture suggests more than that. I guess that’s the magic or that’s where I draw the line - if the picture doesn’t offer us any more than what we know or what was there then it’s not very interesting. It has to take it to the next realm of possibility and that’s what the good stuff is.

Johnson City, TN, 2005 © Mike Smith

© Mike Smith

© Mike Smith

© Mike Smith

Johnson City, TN, 2005

JDG: Here we have four images that represent a very small fraction of photographs taken over the course of one morning in a motel room. Set the stage for us a little bit, how did you come upon these people in this place?

MS: I was urinating in a parking lot nearby and I had assumed that the hotel was abandoned, because it was kind of run down. It turned out that they were in a room with a prime view and they knocked on the window and laughed. I kind of waved, nodded my head and went to finish my business and they knocked again. The second time, the girl had her shirt up and she was exposing her bra to me as I was getting into my car. I had a camera on my seat so I held up my camera like I was going to take a picture and they waved me to come in.

It was very frightening in some ways because I knocked on the door and there were three of them in there - two guys and one girl. I stepped in and one of them jumped behind me, closed the door and locked it, put the chain on it. I didn’t know what I was in for.

JDG: Since you hadn’t initially set out to photograph those people, when you went in did you have any idea of what you would photograph?

MS: No, I had no idea that it was even going to happen, I was going on a hunch. They invited me, so I took the invitation.

JDG: I think there are a lot of strong images here so in this particular case, I don’t think editing is necessarily about selecting the "best" picture but rather finding the one that says what you want to say.

MS: I didn’t want it to become an erotic thing, so to speak. So the first two here sort of suggest that a little bit more. That image of her by herself, for one I don’t like the placement of the lamp, but second is that I think it has to do with the stare to the lens and the sultry look. I think that’s more between me and her which I kind of didn’t want, I didn’t want that to be the play. The interaction between them is what I was interested in.

JDG:  It seems like maybe she’s dictating more of what’s in that picture, instead of you being the one who’s driving the picture.

MS: Yeah, she was present at all times and very conscious of what was going on. She didn’t let go of the guard, that’s why in large part so many frames were made.

JDG: You ended up using the very last frame from more than 5 rolls and I’m interested in the choice to go with a picture that in my mind most limits the context of the experience.

MS: Well I did have a feeling with the last one, that it was more of what I was interested in. In part because it’s more photographically charged with the ambiguity and the anonymity - there’s something about the bare bulb and the man’s one fragmented piece. I rather like that part of the picture, that it emphasizes that kind of framing choice. It was right - the hand on the abdomen and the exposed naval - that looked right to me. All I know is that the dynamic of the situation was peculiar all the way through and this one looks right. The rest of them just seemed a little uncomfortable. I couldn’t quite forget the tension in the air between them and myself being there, but this one overrides that, gets beyond it.

Washington County, TN, 2009 © Mike Smith

© Mike Smith

Washington County, TN, 2009

JDG: So you’re driving onto someone's farm, you’ve got your 8x10 and he lets you borrow his truck?

MS: Yeah, he gave me his brand new Chevy, big ass truck. Have fun, see you later. I put the tripod in the back and drove around like it was a damn machine gun. I had the legs almost fully extended out so that they were hitting the edge of the walls, so they weren’t going anywhere. That was quite a day.

JDG: When you went onto this guy’s property, you had seen the new subdivision and you were interested in that?

MS: Yeah I saw this field, which was sort of mature and, in the distance, the development I had been up in earlier that afternoon photographing. There were at least 15 or 20 cattle in that pond when I approached it but I had to drive around in a wide circle because of the mud around it. This truck was immaculate and I was four wheeling in the mud up to the damn hubs. So as I moved around this pond, I wasn’t photographing, I was just trying to get through the mud to the point where I could see the animals and the houses clearly. By the time I got there, I literally had to climb over the cattle because they were at the door waiting for food, so I cracked the door open and stepped over the animals and into the back of the truck.

It was kind of a panicked picture because I was afraid that they would all come out of the pond, so I really thought that my time was very limited. The cows were all walking around underneath the truck, nudging it and that’s another thing that I was concerned about was that they were bumping the truck and that it would move while I was making the exposure. Fortunately the camera was pre-focused, all I had to do was shove a holder in there and frame it a little bit, but not much.

The outline of the houses is perfect. That was the right spot to stop at, the fun part was trying to imagine where the lens on the back of the truck was versus where I was sitting in the cab, so there was a lot of parallax, about 4 or 5 feet of parallax.

JDG: Well for me, what makes the picture is the parallel between the cows and the houses - five and five. There’s something uncanny about that relationship that the other image just doesn’t have.

MS: Well there’s also the foreground and the animals that are blended in with the edge of the pond and that’s not the case in the other one, they stick up and become more than just the 5 or 6, so the way they blend into the foreground is nice. I knew that there was something about the cows and the buildings, but I didn’t know how it was going to transpire. There was an element of chance there, just rolling the dice and seeing what happens. I couldn’t predict anything.

JDG: What I love is that this particular scene didn’t exist until you got there and the animals responded to you, and in turn, created the picture. I think that’s such a wonderful thing to think about - that the act of making a picture really initiated what ultimately became the most successful photograph.

MS: It kind of played itself out, once the criteria were laid out. There was something there although I didn’t know exactly what. I got lucky on the precise relationship between the cows and the houses.

JDG: You think it was lucky?

MS: Well yeah I think it was lucky that at one point there were five and five, I didn’t have anything to do with it.

JDG: Well what’s that quote? Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity?

MS: Well I was definitely prepared for something to happen. But wasn’t it luck that the couple was in the window? Yeah that was luck. It’s just that I’m out a lot, so I have odds. If you’re out a lot, you have your camera, you have your wits about you and you’re there for a purpose, something happens and you take advantage of it. That’s the idea I have when I go out, something’s going to happen and I’m going to be there.

Joshua Dudley Greer (b.1980 Hazleton, PA) received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2002 and his MFA, with distinction, from the University of Georgia in 2009. His photographs have been exhibited throughout the United States in venues such as the Knoxville Museum of Art, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Catherine Edelman Gallery. His photographs have been published in The Collector's Guide to New Art Photography Volume 2, Flash Forward 2010, Smithsonian Magazine and Le Monde. He has received grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, Tennessee Arts Commission and in 2012 was named one of the New Superstars of Southern Art by Oxford American. He is currently living in Johnson City, Tennessee where he is a visiting assistant professor of photography at East Tennessee State University.