Reinvented

Matthew Jordan Smith changes his location, his perspective, his life

By Jeff Kent
Images By Matthew Jordan Smith
First published in November 2006

There’s more to Matthew Jordan Smith than being a high-profile hotshot with a penchant for publicity. He’s a photographer who pushes his boundaries as he strives to become a better craftsman and a more valuable contributor to the world around him.

Anyone familiar with professional photography knows the name Matthew Jordan Smith. This commercial and editorial portrait photographer has appeared on TV more often than a Seinfeld rerun. He’s been on The View, America’s Next Top Model, The Tyra Banks Show, Style Her Famous, and in interviews on the E! Entertainment Network. He’s photographed some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, and his work has graced the pages of such widely read magazines as InStyle, Essence, TV Guide, Savoy, Fit, Ebony and American Photo.

But there’s more to Smith than being a high-profile hotshot with a penchant for publicity. He’s a photographer who’s always in search of personal and artistic growth, who pushes his boundaries as he strives to become a better craftsman and a more valuable contributor to the world around him.

The quest often takes him out of his comfort zone to explore in new places. Last November, Smith, a native New Yorker who carved a deep niche in the photo scene there, moved his operation to Los Angeles, a monumental change that called for some reinventing. The move also brought access to increasingly visible work, and more variety in his photography. For one thing, Smith is doing much more location shooting, which he’s enjoying. “My career has had its own trajectory, and I definitely feel like I’m being thrown into other areas, simply because of what I’m being exposed to on the West Coast,” he says. “The more I’m around life here in California, the more

I see new things in new ways. I’m learning every day.”

The Hollywood publicity machine has welcomed Smith with open arms. Since arriving in L.A., he’s participated in several televised events and appeared on a handful of TV shows. A good portion of this exposure has come from an old friend with a similar career flight.

Smith got a lucky break when he was first starting out, doing a photo shoot in his Brooklyn apartment with an up-and-coming model named Tyra Banks. The two hit it off straight away, and ended up shooting until 2 in the morning, as Banks’ mom lay sleeping on Smith’s living room couch. They’ve been friends ever since.

Smith has photographed Banks many times in the intervening years. It was Banks who recommended him for photo shoots on her hit reality TV show, America’s Next Top Model. Smith appeared on cycle 3 of the show, and just recently on cycle 7, which aired last month. When Smith moved to L.A., Banks’ production people began booking him on her daytime talk show. He’s appeared on four of them so far. The publicity helped Smith land an appearance on another glam-photo project, Style Her Famous, on which an average woman gets a makeover from a crew of celebrity stylists and is photographed for a magazine spread.

“Since moving to L.A., it seems like 90 percent of my shoots involve a camera crew filming for some show,” Smith says with a laugh. “You can’t buy that kind of press. It keeps your name out there, and at the same time, you’re doing your art, your craft. It’s certainly been interesting.”

While the glitz and glamour have been exciting, Smith wants people to know there’s more to his work. He’s growing ever more aware that he can have an affect on worthy causes. Through a combination of God-given talent and hard-earned influence, he has launched into a series of personal projects with a charitable component—and another dimension to his life as a photographic artist.

Smith produced his first book, “Sepia Dreams: A Celebration of African-American Achievement Through Words and Images,” in 2001, a profile of 50 African-American luminaries. In focusing on the qualities that helped them succeed, Smith hoped to encourage others to pursue their passions. “It was my way of giving back,” he explains. “I was inspired to be a photographer by reading a book as a kid. When I got my career on the road and started gaining some notability, I wanted to produce a book about following your dreams.”

The book’s positive press led to several corporate relationships, including one with Microsoft. That association has enabled him to undertake other projects, including a book called “Lost and Found,” published last spring by American Photo magazine. The book is an inside look at the families of abducted children. All proceeds from the book, which is sold exclusively in Wal-Mart, go to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“It was extremely rewarding to work, meeting the people involved and seeing the process they go through every day,” says Smith. “I formed a bond with the affected families and got an up-close look at the turmoil they are going through. That’s a powerful connection that you don’t forget. If the book helps bring home even one child, or keeps another one safe, then it will have done its job.”

Smith is working with the international charitable organization, Kids With a Cause, Europe, sponsored by Kodak. For the group’s 2007 focus on India, Smith is drumming up publicity by exhibiting images of children that he photographed on a trip there in 2004. The images go on display this month as part of an exhibition that begins near the Kids With a Cause headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, travels through the country, then makes its way to Italy.

Smith hopes his images will awaken viewers to the plight of underprivileged children around the world. “Throughout my time in India, I was able to form a special bond with my subjects that was completely nonverbal,” says Smith. “I couldn’t speak the language of the children I was photographing, and they couldn’t speak mine, but the camera created a connection between us.”

Driven partly by altruism, partly by personal compulsion, Smith’s noncommercial projects enrich his artistic spirit as much as they serve a charitable purpose. He’s aware of this duality and open about his need for such a balance in his life. “You’ve got to keep yourself inspired and motivated and in love with photography,” Smith says. “The personal work gratifies me at a different level than my commercial work ever could. If I can do anything with photography that can touch or enrich someone’s life, then I want to do that. For me, that is part of what being a photographer is all about.”

To see more of Matthew Jordan Smith’s personal and commercial projects, visit www.matthewjordansmith.com.

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