TEN QUESTIONS: With Photographer Dan Tobin Smith
When it comes to still life photography, few embrace the art like Dan Tobin Smith. Spanning fashion, music, advertising and publishing, his raison d’être, large scale installation shots erase any line dividing commercial and high art photography, and have been called upon by the likes of Nike, Alexander McQueen and Louis Vuitton. It’s his continual partnership with Craig Green however, first in 2014 for GQ Style and more recently for Craig’s seasonal campaigns, that really demonstrate how Smith is pushing the boundaries of still life, embracing new scientific methods to produce the kind of extraordinary imagery that will be remembered for years to come. An anthropomorphised raft, composed of huddled human figures to form symmetrical works for AW17, and more recently, one of Craig’s kite-like sculptural designs, set ablaze for a hypnotic SS18 campaign. The union is a gift that keeps on giving, combining Craig’s ambitious artistic vision with Smith’s innovative methods. We asked him ten questions to find out more…
FINN BLYTHE: How would you describe yourself?
DAN TOBIN SMITH: I’m very persistent. I try hard. I’ve learnt over the years that you try hard at something and you get fed up and you’re tempted to just leave it, but persistence does pay off. I might imagine the picture or sequence in my head and getting to that point is really hard, sometimes it’s easy, but mostly it’s not. If it means we have to shoot till two in the morning or whatever, I’ll do it.
FB: What was your first break?
DTS: I used to do a lot of interior work in my early twenties. I started doing still life, just of stuff I wanted to make, and I think I had a feeling that there was work that wasn’t being made. Katie Barker picked me up, and it kind of moved from there I guess.
FB: How does science inform your method of working?
DTS: I’m really into popular science, I read New Scientist every week and I’m quite into cosmology. Then there’s the science of what we do, whether it’s using new equipment to film explosives or to get the timings right – there’s a lot of practical science. A lot of the stuff is quite experimental, so we develop new techniques of special effects, or whatever it might be, to create an image. It’s all about the image but I really enjoy the process. At the end you’re trying to control something very energetic, very unpredictable but you’re trying to make something elegant out of it.
FB: How do you decide on which project is right for you?
DTS: I think it’s either creatively interesting or financially good. But I tend to get more satisfaction from the jobs that are creatively interesting. I’m quite an optimistic person, which sometimes gets me in to trouble, but sometimes you see something and you just think it’s brilliant as soon as you get the idea.
FB: Why do you like working with Craig Green?
DTS: He’s a brilliant designer, his colour is amazing and he’s a very creative person. To be honest, he comes with good ideas, it’s always one of those projects where I’m already optimistic, but when he comes it always feels like a treat, you just know it’s going to be really good. Often it’s really complicated, it’s not going to be easy and they have all been quite challenging, but it tends to work really nicely. I’m a fairly technical person and have quite a strong technical background so I think that he probably enjoys that, that I’ll try everything just to get it right, we don’t care about the money or whatever, we just do whatever we have to do. Plus he’s a lovely guy and his team are a fantastic, hardworking bunch.
FB: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced while shooting his campaigns?
DTS: There’s always many challenges. The one we shot in water, the only way to do it was in a pool which isn’t very easy, and then there’s the height so there was loads of issues with the rigging. With both of his campaigns and the stuff we did for GQ, his ideas tend to be quite big, they’re quite epic and it’s about all those elements coming together; the angle or the height or where we need to be. But that’s what’s great about him as well – we both understand what things need to go into a final image to still make it feel like an image and not to make it feel overworked.
FB: Can you remember the first photograph you were happy with?
DTS: My memory is awful, but I’ve been taking pictures fairly seriously since I was thirteen or fourteen, so almost thirty years ago which is scary… In the context of still life there were some pictures I did of skeleton leaves for Mirror, you know when a leaf dies naturally you end up with just the veins, they’re quite strange and they’re lit in this really odd way. Because I didn’t assist any still life photographers I used to go about things in a very unusual way, and I took these quite weird images but I still look at them and I still like them.
FB: What do you think about when you’re working?
DTS: Normally I think about lunch in the morning. We always have good lunches. (laughs) I just think about what we’re doing I suppose, you don’t really have time to do anything else, it tends to be quite intense.
FB: What or who are you most proud of?
DTS: I’ve got a five year old son so I’m bound to say him. He’s a strange little thing, he’s very good at concentrating on things for hours like Lego, which is similar to the way I sit in the studio hour after hour. I like his persistence and also his stubbornness – even if it can be quite irritating.
FB: What are you working on at the moment?
DTS: There’s a film coming out on Alexander McQueen and we’ve just done the poster for that which was really beautiful. We also just finished doing a project for Hérmes in Morocco, near the Atlas mountains, which was lovely.