An Inspiring Day with Matthew Jordan Smith

31 10 2010

As anticipated, travelling the other week to Dallas, TX for Matthew Jordan Smith’s workshop was definitely worth the effort.  Aside from meeting a great group of fellow photographers like Dixie Dixon and Frederick Van Johnson, the daylong seminar was filled with nuggets of wisdom and guidance.

A great deal more information shared by Matthew during the daylong session, probably too much to keep you interested in reading a post of any greater length. So I’ll share a few highlights here. If the information resonates, be sure to catch his presentation at WPPI in Las Vegas (February 21-23, 2011).

 Throughout the day Matthew freely shared the stories behind some of his most memorable images as well as how synchronicity continues to play a role in his career.  The bottom line for Matthew, though, is that, “After 23 yrs of shooting, it’s not about the cameras and gear, it’s about the relationships.”

 For Matthew, three things are essential for enhancing one’s life:

  • The people you meet,
  • The places you go, and
  • The books you read.

 Matthew’s recommended books:

Other books mentioned during side conversations with other attendees included The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, and The Traveler’s Gift, Andy Andrews.

Your You’niqueness

Another nugget, which I’ve heard from a couple different teachers lately, is that the “secret sauce” to defining my own distinct creative vision is, who else, but ME! There’s only one of me, and only one of you, so as creatives we remain unique by emphasizing one’s own “You’niqueness.” Based on that, clients will generally self select the aesthetic that is most appealing to them. The trick is to be OK with the fact that some folks will like you, and some will not. Trying to be all things to everyone only muddies the clarity of vision one strives for as an artist.

In this respect, Matthew once again helped us out with some practical advice as to how to become better versed in finding and nurturing our creative vision. He follows a daily regimen of clearing his mind of all the “mental clutter” and spends five to ten minutes in the morning writing out whatever comes to mind to help clear space for strong concepts to reveal themselves. 

Practitioners of Zen Buddhism call this concept, Shoshin, meaning Beginner’s Mind. “It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.” 

A strong creative vision for a project goes hand in hand with approaching it from a heartfelt sense of what makes you feel good. Matthew emphasized the importance of mining your life experience to discover what you love; what makes you feel the most alive; what made you pick up a camera for the first time; what do you show your best friend; what did you love as a child; what old movies make you feel good, and so on. 

Another technique Matthew finds useful is keeping well stocked source of reference material.  From a variety of lists handy to many binders of magazine images which caught his attention all of it provides a great jumping of point to flesh out conceptual approaches to a shoot.  One of the lists which he finds most useful is a list of opposites which helps define a strong layout to a story spread. 

Matthew pointed out that, “similar looking images opposite each other in your book fight each other.” Magazine photo editors use this principle rigorously to create engaging editorial layouts and is a trick we can use is presenting our best work. Here the start of my list, feel free to add more in comments. 


  • B&W – Color
  • Saturated – Neutral
  • Formal – Casual
  • Details – Wide Environmental
  • Full length – Close Up
  • Looking at camera – Looking away
  • Smiling – Serious
  • Happy – Sad
  • Energetic – Quiet
  • Big – Small
  • Front light – Back light
  • Shoot on white – Shoot on black
  • Eyes open – Eyes closed
  • Etc.

Before we jumped into our rotations of using a variety of ProPhoto gear to photograph our model, Matthew summarized his philosophy to being successful.  BTW, the ProPhoto D1 1000 Air is super cool – me likey!

Seven Steps for Success

  • Believe fully in your dreams and your work
  • Surround yourself with positive people
  • Find your T.E.A.M – your creative family
  • Devote time for you – stay in love with photography
  • Get the ball rolling – as soon as you have an idea get on it right away
  • Visualize 10 minutes every day what you want your career to be, lifestyle you want, work you want
  • Get out and shoot; get away from your computer and shoot.

As I mentioned, we did have an opportunity to shoot and stretch our creative muscles a bit. Many thanks again to our model, Jenn, and make-up artist, JD. The session helped set up our assignment from Matthew Jordan Smith to submit two images to him based on the theme of AMERICAN BEAUTY. 

I think this was probably the most valuable element to the whole day – being pushed/encouraged to create and get after it.  So, I am happily in the midst of pre-production for my AMERICAN BEAUTY shoot.  Soon as I have some outtakes I’ll blog about them.  In the meantime, let me know what you think of these…

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