Michael Ash Smith, a wedding photographer from Philadelphia, PA was voted as one of Rangefinder Magazine’s 30 Rising Stars of Wedding Photography in 2013 and has been featured in magazines including The Knot and Wedding Bells, as well as online blogs such as Junebug Weddings, Ruffled Blog, Style Me Pretty, Snippet & Ink and many more.
Michael discusses his love of film, how that affects his style and the importance of experimenting.
Interview by Sachin Khona // September 2015
Profile photo by Andrea Kösters
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
Hi Michael! Thanks for being a part of this and letting us get to know you better. let’s start at the beginning … When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
After dabbling with photography and doing it for fun, a colleague of mine at the time was in need of a wedding photography. Her wedding was only a month or so away and I small, backyard wedding was planned. At first, I wasn’t so sure I would be able to handle it but friends and family had been encouraging me to start photographing people so I agreed to documenting her wedding. It was on a Saturday afternoon in September and I still remember leaving that morning and being crazy nervous.
She didn’t need much time from me, only 3 hours, which at the time seemed like a lot. But nevertheless, I got through it and had so much fun.
I walked to my car, sat in the seat, called my wife and said .. “I just found out what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
And there it began in the fall of 2008. By spring of 2009 I left my safe, full-time job, to pursue photography and never looked back.
Where is home for you and where do you work? Have you always lived there or was there a conscious choice to move to where you currently live? In what way, if any, does your location influence your work?
I currently live in the far Northwest suburbs of Philadelphia. I have lived in this area since I was a baby. I’ve never lived anywhere else but plan to move away one day.
The Northeast sees its fair share of weather. We get all 4 seasons, often in a harsh way, and it definitely affects my style. I wasn’t aware how much it did until I started to travel for photography. I would come home from trips and the images would look distinctly different.
Do you have a designated workspace or office?
I converted half of my garage (at home) to an office.
you primarily shoot film. Can you share a bit about your gear?
My go to gear for weddings include a Mamiya 7II and 7, Leica MP, Leica M240, Holga, Polaroid 680, 50mm Summilux and a 35mm Biogon.
Other gear I love and use often include a Polaroid 195, Leica M3, Polaroid SX70 and a Mamiya RZ67.
What has been the most defining moment in your career? OR
Do you feel there was a turning point, monumental time, or series of events in your life that you were felt as though you were on the right path in regards to your photography career that bought you to where you are now?
I didn’t have a particular “defining moment,” however there are these moments in my life that led me to where I am today. I didn’t realize them at the time, however after reflecting on how far I’ve come I started to see them.
I used to love looking at cameras in stores and I finally got one when I was around 10 years old. After a snowstorm, I asked my mom to drive me to school (instead of taking the bus) so I could take pictures along the way. I asked her to stop multiple times along the short ride which I’m pretty sure didn’t go over too well with her.
As a late teen a friend of mine had an assignment from school using an old 35mm SLR. I tagged along with him after school one day and ended up messing around with the camera for quite some time. To this day I can still remember the sound of the shutter and where I was standing in field.
In my mid 20’s I had the standard 9-5 job working with computers. A coworker of mine was selling his old film camera because he wanted to switch to digital – which was just starting to get big. I bought it from him and would wake up early on my days off and just spend hours driving around shooting.
What inspires and motivates you?
– Music. I feel as though most of my time is spent these days either listening to music, or playing it. I’ve been playing an instrument since 4th grade and my latest one is a ukulele (which I absolutely adore). I listen to a large range of music and am constantly drawing inspiration from it. Anything from obscure classical composers to old punk music from the early 90’s.
– Travel. My parents weren’t the ones that told my brother and I to see the world. They didn’t understand creative individuals, as neither of them were. They also didn’t seem to have a passion for seeing much outside of their region. So for a long time, I basically didn’t leave the tri-state area. That is, until photography. Now, I have friends all over the country, and some out of it, that I visit all the time and I’m always itching to get out of Pennsylvania. Each year, I get excited about the prospect of where photography will take me and each time I travel I learn something new and apply it towards my life.
What creative training do you do outside of your work?
I am constantly trying new things, new cameras, and getting together with friends just to hang out and shoot.
To me, the absolute best way to learn and get better is to experiment and practice on your own.
What do you feel differentiates you from other photographers?
I shoot what I want to shoot and tend to block out the influence of other photographers
When you get stuck creatively, what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?
Set up a time to use my camera and shoot.
How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no additional work?
This is hard to answer as it differs from image to image. The best way I can describe it is that I just have a feeling its “ready.” This could be after a simple crop, a small edit, or after spending several minutes on one image. It all depends.
Are there any key lessons in your career that you’d like to share? // Best piece of career advice you were ever given?
If you are happy and honest about the work you do, and the art you create, there will always be people out there that will enjoy it enough to invest their hard-earned money into what you made.
“Master what you love and success will follow”
CAN YOU SHARE A SHORT ASSIGNMENT / PROJECT THAT HAS BENEFITED YOU IN THE PAST?
Try something new EVERY time you shoot. A new perspective, a new idea, a new location, etc.
Can you describe an assignment that you feel can help those reading this interview?
I’ve always found the 365 project extremely labor intensive. Forcing yourself to take at least one photo a day sounds like it would be super simple, yet at least for me, it is not. If I was traveling nearly every day of the year it would be a simpler task however I’m not, and most people aren’t. The problems always arrive on those mundane days where you don’t leave your home. That’s the challenging part. It forces you to find/create a picture. I admire anyone that can complete this project. I’ve tried it twice and failed both times.
Do you have a photograph burned in your memory that you never took?
I would love to say yes to this question, but honestly, I don’t. Haha!
ARE THERE ANY MANTRAS THAT YOU LIVE BY?
Not really. I’m a pretty boring person.
What are the 3 most important things in your personal life?
My well being, my family, and my friends.
Do you work in any other fields of business?
Can you share a bit about your daily schedule? What within your work do you not like to do and why?
This is interesting, haha. It honestly depends on the day, week, and time of year. After thinking about it for a few minutes, here’s an average day:
- Wake up and make a quality cup of coffee. I’m a bit of a coffee snob so I look forward to this process each day.
- Breakfast and then an hour or two is spent either chatting with my wife, kids, or just relaxing.
- I usually spend around 11am – 4pm working in my office.
- Family time is generally between 4/5pm to 9pm.
- I spend some nights in my office doing odds and ends, chatting with clients, etc and then some nights I’ll just relax on the couch and pop on Netflix.
This all changes on days where I have a shoot, wedding, or something other planned but this is the gist of a standard weekday.
What was your hardest / painful creative failure to deal with and what did it teach you?
I just knocked on a piece of wood prior to typing this … as of right now, I have yet to experience anything really hard, super stressful, or any failures in regards to my business. At this point, the only thing I can think of is that I tried having a studio space outside of my home thinking I’d use it a lot more than I did. I realized only a few months in that it wasn’t really necessary and that I was able to keep a very low overhead and continue to work from home. Some photographers enjoy having a space and need it, I found that at this point in my career I don’t.
What will you be doing (or hope to be doing) 5/10 years from now?
Pretty much exactly what I’m doing now. I’d like to take on a few less weddings per year, teach a bit, and pursue other photography avenues. But for the most part, I’m super happy with what I do and would love to keep doing it.
Can you share an image that you’re particularly proud of and tell us why?
The reception had just ended. The remaining guests had made their way outside to take part in the sparkler exit.
Brittany and Tim were nearly alone.
I was outside attending to setting up the sparkler exit. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever photographed one. I organized the intoxicated guests as best I could and made my way back into the venue to let Brittany and Tim we were ready.
I found them mingling with some of the staff, overhearing several “thank yous.” I waited my turn and informed them we were ready and turned to walk back out. I made it to the doors and turned for just a brief second to see if they were following. They weren’t.
They were completely alone, soaking up the last moments of their spectacular wedding day, standing together on the dance floor. The lights were on, my camera was ready, and all I had to do was compose….
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
If you were no longer able to use a camera, how else would you express your creativity?
If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend your day?
Interesting. Assuming that I would have 24 hours from this exact point I probably wouldn’t waste any time traveling anywhere. I’d probably spread the word to friends and family as fast as possible and tell everyone to stop what they were doing and meet me somewhere and just spend the remaining hours I had eating, drinking, talking, laughing, hugging, loving, needing out on photography, shooting, swimming, eating more, shooting more, listening to music, and just having a real good damn time.
If you could change one aspect of our society through your work, what would it be?
Respect nature (the environment). Most people have little respect for our environment and what we are doing to it. This is our habitat and we are destroying it for something as stupid as money and power. It’s such a shame.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
Yes, ALL of the time. The only thing that seems to get me out of that funk is to go out and shoot. Anything.
All it takes is one solid image and your mood can instantly be changed.
A question that I haven’t asked but should have or something you’d like to share with others?
For a long time, wedding photographers had a “bad rep.” Very few of them pushed boundaries and images were solid technically, however most often they lacked a certain artistic punch. But that’s all changing. There are so many talented wedding photographers this day and age and it is my belief that wedding photographers are undervalued in the eyes of the photography world. There are very few areas of photography were you basically go in blind and have to adapt to so many changes and influences throughout one day. It’s not easy, and shouldn’t be taken as so. If you plan to be a wedding photographer get ready to have to deal with a whole range of situations and be challenged in ways you never thought of. Personally, I love that. I feel as though that challenge is what keeps me doing what I do and I hope I never lose it.
Can you describe your style via a series of 10 photos that you feel define the work you’ve done in the last year and where possible describe why each one was included.
1. Find new perspectives. I often find myself looking down while photographing and in this case the way Gina, the subject, was walking and carrying her hat through this amazing grass was mesmerizing. I snapped a picture.
2. Instant Film. A few years back I wrote off instant film however its making a comeback and I’m using it more and more.
3. I’ve been using a Holga WAY more this year and its paying off with some pretty stellar pics I’m in love with.
4. Documenting. At the core of my brand is documenting. I’m good at it and will always enjoy it. I’m there for anything and everything.
“You’re a fucking awesome wedding photographer. I said to my wife in the car on the way over (to the venue from getting ready) that this guy is fucking awesome.” – Father of the Bride (that’s him kissing his new son-in-law)
6. Experimenting. It was pretty dark for this shot, darker than it seems. It was rainy and I only had a roll of b&w in my camera. So I fired it off because I loved how the bride’s white shoes were highlighted against the water.
7. Boudoir. Because my boudoir style is fairly unique, I’ve been asked to photograph this type of session more than ever and I’m really enjoying the results I’m getting – especially when using instant film.
8. Double exposures. I’ve always loved them but I started dedicating full rolls of film to them using a Holga and have been rewarded with some great images.
9. Holga + Experimenting + Sun + Youth = Great, spontaneous, image.
10. Family. In the past I was hesitant on photographing families. I’ve photographed numerous this past year and I’m starting to get excited about them.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Your favourite podcast(s)
what bands / artists are you listening to?
Tallest Man on Earth, Chopin, Damien Rice, Max Richter, Future Islands, Ben Howard, Olafur Arnalds, Sigur Ros
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
Your favourite book // A book you are currently reading
Currently Reading: Into Thin Air, Favorites: Shantaram, Into the Wild, The Martian
A website you regularly follow?
Last place you travelled?
Lake Placid, NY
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
I honestly don’t have a favorite.
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
“I have decided to find myself a home in the mountains, somewhere high up where one learns to live peacefully in the cold and the silence. It’s said that in such a place certain revelations may be discovered. That what the spirit reaches for my be eventually felt, if not exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I’m not talking about a vacation. Of course at the same time I mean to stay exactly where I am.
Are you following me?”
– I Have Decided by Mary Oliver from her book of poetry, A Thousand Mornings.
Favourite (photography related) TED talk:
I’ve never seen one.
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
Never been to one.
Your favourite photography book
I only own one. A book of Polaroids through the years. I guess its my favorite by default ;)
Links to your personal work / projects
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME MICHAEL!
You can see more of Michael’s work here // Web
UP NEXT …
Stay tuned for an interview next week with NYC and LA Fashion Photographer, Nando Esparza.
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