Ok, so I know you’re involved with the University of Sydney and you’re also working on various projects with young people. How important to you is that role as an educator, guiding other photographers?
I don’t guide anyone mate, I don’t believe you can teach creativity you see. Creativity is by definition taking a risk, sticking your neck out and going in a direction on your own and seeing what happens. I see myself as putting students in situations where they can make discoveries and I comment on what they come up with. So my method is immersion in situations, lots of discussion, I have peer group comments, all the students are paired up and they comment about each other’s best images and then I’ll comment later online. I have a policy of positive reinforcement, I never criticise anything. I don’t say “this is shit” or “you should have done that” ever. If I don’t like it I won’t say anything because the easiest thing in the world to crush is a creative spirit. And a lot of people are out to crush it, so I’m a professional encourager, my job is to let these green shoots emerge.
I love it, I hate it when classes finish. I’m sad when they’re finished, I want them to stick around, I think it’s fabulous! It’s not whether people absorb what I tell them, it’s them stumbling into a course, having difficulty…one of the key difficulties they all have is they don’t know how to approach people. They want people in their pictures but they’re apprehensive. There are various techniques you can teach people about how to deal with that. Nothing is guaranteed but there are various techniques that will make it easier for them to approach people on the street. It’s seeing them flower, seeing them decide ‘I can do this, I’ve got it’, that’s magical! It’s great to be in their presence when they get it. It’s like champagne! But it’s not that I teach them anything, they’re not learning from me. I’m allowing them to discover…
Do you get any benefits from the educational process that feed into your own work at all… Maybe in discussing someone else’s stuff it helps you to understand your thoughts about your own work?
Maybe, but let’s be honest I’m not teaching undergrads, people who decided to be artists…I’m teaching hobbyists. These are short courses and there’s all sorts of reasons they come to my classes. So I don’t necessarily expect a high level of engagement from them.
For example, I did run course on ‘Street Photography: Conceptual’…nobody signed up…nobody! And it’s a whole genre that’s really interesting. Gregory Crewdson, he’s an American who shoots with a crew of 50 on the street, so his stills are like a movie compressed into a single frame.
There’s an English photographer called Gillian Wearing who, one of her series was to take an A3 notepad out on the street, hand the pad to people and say “write down what you’re feeling now” and she shot them, just straight snaps. And there’s a cop saying “I feel insecure” and there’s a mixed race couple with the sign up saying “work for world peace”. So that was a conceptual series that Gillian Wearing did.
There’s also a Chinese guy called Liu Bolin, he works out of Beijing. He got up the Government’s nose about 10 years ago so they chucked him out of his studio in Beijing, and he said “ok, well you think you can deprive me of my studio, the world will be my studio”. So he stands in front of ordinary things on the street and has someone paint over him what’s behind him so he disappears into the environment and then he’s photographed. His series is called Hiding in the City and it’s a beautiful series. It’s a great idea and he’s trying to say to the Chinese authorities that you can’t just tear stuff down without tearing our souls. I mean this rampant rebuilding and ignorance of cultural history is hurting us, that’s his point.
Those three people are conceptual street photographers, they all work on the street. They use it as a kind of stage in order to put forward intellectual propositions. So it’s a very rich multi-layered genre, street photography. I tried to get some people involved with that…nobody! And I had some people who did three and four courses with me who baulked at that one. It was a dead duck! (laughs)
19 - Lynn Smith
I want to talk more about the academic side, you mentioned it was a marketing exercise, do you feel that was the only benefit you gained from your studies or did you gain anything more?
No no, not at all…that was my rather crude objective but I gained a lot more than that, a surprising amount. It enabled me to work out where I sat in the art world which was a real advantage. So I know my peers, I know where I sit, I know who I overlap with and who I’m different from and so on, so that was really useful.
Do you think your studies helped you to articulate yourself as an artist, or were you good at that anyway?
No, when I started off writing I thought this would be a breeze, you know I’m a professional writer with 25 years in advertising, then got pain and got hit over the knuckles very quickly by my lecturers who said “listen Lynn this is not idiosyncratic, this is not vernacular, this is not impressionistic, this is academic writing, buckle down sunshine!”
So I found that quite difficult.
But the interesting thing is, with the second Masters, I submitted my 15,000 word paper, my major creative work to the examiners…they liked the work, they felt moved by it and they felt it was substantial, had depth and it was saying fresh things, but they didn’t like the paper. They said “your paper seems to be almost like it was written by someone else, your medium is street photography but you talk about other stuff, we’ll give you a year to rewrite two chapters then you can re-submit”.
I got a new supervisor who said “I’m gonna get you through this, what do you think you’re doing?”. I said “I’m doing Film Noir”, she said “no, no you’re not, Film Noir is a cinematic medium”. I said “that’s pedantry…I shoot on film and my look is noir!”.
She said “Lynn! Let’s get some things straight. There are some terms that are understood in the art world and one of them is Film Noir and it’s about cinema…if you keep on with this shit we’re not going to get anywhere!”
But it was from precisely that argument that I developed this new concept of Street Noir, so out of an argument with my supervisor…I was nearly gonna walk, I thought ‘I’m finished with this, I don’t think I can cope with this shit!’ It struck me as pedantry, but in her putting a position, a very firm position, and me bashing up against it, out of that came this notion of ‘yeah what I’m doing is a hybrid between street photography and Film Noir’ like the Hawaiian people are a hybrid between Polynesians and Japanese…there are many examples of ethnic hybrids, and why not cultural hybrids. So it was that clash that led to this new thinking, so I'm glad we had that argument. The second paper was about two thousand percent better than my first and I’m glad I got kicked in the arse!
So would you advocate that all photographers could benefit from some academic training?
Absolutely! Anybody that’s serious about this medium should do a degree! For a start you’re gonna have a show, you can’t postpone putting your work on the wall. If you don’t have a show you won’t get the degree, so that discipline is useful for a start. In two years time you’re going to have a show and you’ll be working towards that. That’s one benefit from it, quite apart from the theoretical stuff and the arguing that goes on between you and the supervisor.
And the peer group stuff was interesting as well. I had a lot of discussion in class, but I was the oldest person there in my class, so there was no discussion once class had finished…they were all talking about rock and roll bands I’d never heard of! But within the class there was a lot of discussion about the work and about photography.
Pinball Shop - Lynn Smith
I know you’ve curated your most recent show yourself and I’m interested in the idea of letting someone else choose how your work is displayed. Do you feel having someone else curate was giving away part of your voice, because you’re now taking that role back?
I have a curator who’s worked with me for about 8 or 9 years. Up till now she’s always chosen the pictures in the shows for me, she’s decided on them. We start with a shortlist and she does the deciding and she also does the arrangement, she will decide the sequencing as well.
Look, I learnt from her. If I didn't think she had a contribution to make I wouldn’t have allowed her to do it. The same with my printer…I don’t tell my printer what to do, ever! I'm from a corporate background in creativity, so I’m used to collaborating with musicians, film directors, art directors, producers, like the commercials that I made which got international awards were as a result of listening and working with, and fashioning things with, other artists, so i don’t find this unusual. With advertising really, if one was honest, you wouldn't be able to say that “I had the last word”…that would be bullshit, because there’s this whole rolling process where you’re modifying it all the time until it’s on a television screen, and you and the director and the editor are working this thing up all the time, and listening to the client. So I don't find the work on the wall, I don’t believe that I should be saying to anyone, because it isn’t true, that “I decided on this stuff, I had the last word, I was the man that said yes or no”…that’s not the way it goes.
Sandy who’s my curator, she’s a full-time gallerist who’s been working with the number one photography-only gallery in Sydney for twenty years, three days a week she works there. And she freelances the rest of the time and pulls us together in various shows, us other ‘B-level’ artists that are not really famous yet! So she knows a lot about sequencing, she knows a lot about presenting work, she’s done it for half her life. So I’m learning about that stuff from her.
Obviously you’ve exhibited your work widely over the years and you’ve published widely as well. Did your relationship with your curator develop because you sought her out, did she seek you out, how did that happen and how would you advise other photographers that want to exhibit their work to go about that?
Get a curator immediately! Immediately!
What it means is that you’ve gotta go to galleries that have shows that you like, and you get talking to people, you’ll find who the curator is and you introduce yourself, you say you’re interested in doing a show, and so you get that connection.
One of the most fundamental things about the art world I’ve found is that the relationships in the art world, at my level anyway - I’m what’s called a ‘mid-career artist’, I’m neither an emerging artist nor an established artist, I’m still trying to get some sort of reputation - in the milieu that I’m in anyway, unlike the corporate world where it’s really what you can get out of it for yourself, these relationships in the art world are like unrequited love affairs, you love these people, and they don’t alway work for money.
Sometimes they do a whole show for you and they won’t accept any money. You can go and stand in the gallery for a week and mind it and they’re quite happy for you to do that so you can have a free show here and there, so if you find a curator who loves your work and where there’s mutual respect, all sorts of possibilities can happen. They’re fabulous people. I’ve found gallerists and curators in the art world to be quite unlike anybody else in the commercial world, and I treasure the people that I work with. It’s only a handful of them, two or three, but I treasure those relationships.
So that would be your advice to artists, to find a connection with people…
Get a curator fast! Find one!
Stairway to Nowhere - Lynn Smith
How would you advise a photographer who wants to explore the possibility of having their work exhibited but isn’t sure if their work is ready…what would you say to that person?
Well it’s interesting because I asked my ex the same question. The very first show that I was invited to was a black and white show in 2003. And I hadn’t been shooting for long…I had only been shooting for a couple of years then seriously, and I said to her “I don’t know whether I’m an artist or if I’m any good” and she said to me “Lynn you’re good if you believe you are”.
That’s the only answer to that question. There’s no way of measuring it other than yourself really.
That is so true. If you don’t carry yourself in a certain way or consider yourself to be of a certain standing then no-one else will give you that consideration, so you have to step forward and see what happens.
One of the things I used to teach my advertising students and I teach my photography students this as well is never, ever, do what you're told. As soon as you do, you’re a dead man!
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn't listen to advice, but you decide what you’ll apply. You don’t do anything you’re told. It’s gotta be a rule!
So you're encouraging individuality and making decisions for yourself and being self-directed?
Of course, of course…and it means being loyal to your own instincts and not feeling that there’s a certain type of picture that you are after.
I think it was Josef Koudelka…He’s a Czech photographer. He’s a Magnum member who became famous by doing a series on gypsies in Europe and then he shot the Russian invasion of Prague in whenever it was…70s or something…
Anyway, he’s one of my heroes and Josef Koudelka says if he looks through the viewfinder and recognises what he sees he doesn’t press the button. So in other words if it’s not new, don't shoot it!
Thanks again to Lynn for taking time out to share his knowledge with me.
If you weren't able to visit his outstanding recent solo show in person, you can see a video that accompanied the exhibition and hear Lynn speak about his work (without me getting in the way!) here
To see more of Lynn's work or to contact him for print or exhibition enquiries you can find him on Flickr
And now also on Instagram
For further insights from Lynn, about publishing and much more, stay tuned for the next instalment of the blog. Till then, keep it interesting!