Matthew Jordan Smith: Giving Back and Moving Forward

Establishing a career in fashion is a very challenging endeavor, especially when so many aspirants want their piece of the pie in an industry that is seen as glamorous, exciting, and extremely profitable. Competition, if you want to call it that, is fierce and unforgiving.

Still, despite the irregularities and changing vicissitudes of this peripatetic industry, fashion has produced some of the greatest curations of moving art of the 20th and 21st centuries. And though many folks struggle to get a foothold in fashion, for those we succeed, the glory far outweighs the sacrifices.

Matthew Jordan-Smith is one of those fashion industry professionals who has succeeded. For those who are familiar with Jordan-Smith’s work from “America’s Next Top Model” and his books on photography, there is no doubt that the man has craft and skill. But, Matthew Jordan-Smith is so much more than the artist behind the camera. His recent interview with Fashion Reverie illuminates his depth of character and his photographic brilliance.

Fashion Reverie: How did you become interested in photography?

Matthew Jordan Smith: My father should take all the credit for that. My father gave me a camera when I was twelve. He not only taught me how to take pictures, but how to process my own pictures. That is when I was bit by the photography bug, and I have been going ever since. 

In the beginning, photography was a hobby, then I began reading books by Gordon Parks, James Vander Zee and I discovered that African American photographers were making a living out of photography. That changed everything for me. Later I went to art school and majored in photography. I moved to New York City, working as a photographer’s assistant, and I have been working at my craft ever since.

FR: How did fashion photography enter your career path?

Matthew Jordan Smith: Fashion came into my sphere as a student at art school. I had this one photographer that was always talking about Vogue, Zoom and other fashion publications. Because of this professor I fell in love with fashion because it was fantasy and you are creating every aspect of the image, as opposed to shooting sports where you are documenting exactly what is happening.

FR: What was the one big job that really opened the doors and helped advance your career?

Matthew Jordan Smith: There were lots of big breaks for sure; however, the first big opportunity came from Susan Taylor, the former Essence magazine editor-in-chief. She gave me an eight-page spread on business women. The next assignment at Essence magazine was shooting Anita Hill—that was in the early 90sand the assignments keep coming from there.

FR: Many people may know your appearances on “America’s Next Top Model.” That said; when did you begin to work with Tyra Banks?

Matthew Jordan Smith: I started doing test shots with Tyra Banks when she first moved to New York City as a young model. This was also early in my career. I was still working as a photographer’s assistant back then and I would work with Tyra at the end of my day and at the end of her day and we would go back to my Brooklyn apartment and do test shots.

FR: You have worked in a lot of different genres, fashion, commercial photography, celebrity photography, etc. Which genre do you like best, and why?

Matthew Jordan Smith: My favorite genre is the world of fashion and beauty because it is really where you are creating. You are a visionary and taking that inspiration and turning that into an image.

One of my favorite fashion magazines is Vogue Italia. I love the work of Stephen Meisel because his photography speaks to what is going on in society and he infuses those contemporary moments with fashion and beauty. Fashion takes on a stronger role when you infuse fashion with social issues and cultural trends.

I love fashion as social and cultural commentary. It would be almost a sin to experience all the things that are going on in the world and not show that through your art. And what can make that special is mixing in the fantasy of fashion.

FR: What is most favorite fashion editorial that you have photographed?

Matthew Jordan Smith: You always think you last editorial was the best. However, I did just shoot in editorial in Japan that I absolutely adore. It is something brand new with a perspective I had never attempted before. It is bold, beautiful and it was my favorite thing right now. It has not been published now. It is based on a designer in Japan. Their work is very electric, and I shot it that way.

Other than the current editorial, my favorite fashion editorial was my first editorial I shot for Essence magazine in the Caribbean. We shot in St. Lucia, we had two different stories coming on at the same time. And I oversaw the production and crew. That memory will last me a lifetime.

FR: Who is your favorite celebrity that you’ve photographed?

Matthew Jordan Smith: My favorite would be Aretha Franklin. I have photographed her over a 13-year period, and we had a great relationship. And looking back over all the images, the images say so much and speak volumes to me about who Aretha Franklin was and the many things that we didn’t know about her.

When she passed away, we had been trying to do another shoot for eight months. It would have been for an album she was attempting to put together. However, because of her illness, we were not able to shoot the cover of her next album. Still, in the last eight months of her life we talked to each other a lot, probably more than we had talked in all the thirteen years I had worked with her. I cherish those conversations now more than ever.

FR: Could you talk about your book, “Future American President”?

Matthew Jordan Smith: The birth of that book, believe it or not, was the birth of my photography. When I was just starting out as a photographer I was given books about Gordon Parks and James Vander Zee. Those books showed me what was possible. Before I got those books, I didn’t realize that photography could be a career and you could go around the world doing your craft. I thought of fashion as a hobby. If you don’t see people who look like you accomplishing what you are passionate about, you may bit think it is not possible for you.

That idea was the petrie dish, so to speak of Future American President. I got the idea to go around the country to every state in America and photograph young children that I didn’t know and try to inspire them that anything is possible. I would ask families about their children, have conversations, and then I would photograph them.

FR: Were people willing participants?

Matthew Jordan Smith: The idea that people might turn me down, kept me from doing this for a long time. I knew that folks would feel funny about someone, a stranger, walking up to them asking if they could take pictures of their children.

With that in mind, I took my two previous books, Sepia Dreams and Lost Found, on the road with me so folks would have a reference point about my work and see that I was legitimate. That changed everything around and very few people said no.

FR: Did anyone know you from “America’s Next Top Model”?

Matthew Jordan Smith: When I started this project, I had just met Zendaya’s father. So, asked her if I could photograph her and would she write the introduction to this book. She agreed.

Now, many of my subjects, which were young children, didn’t know me or even Tyra Banks, but they know Zendaya because she was on a Disney TV show at that time. With my books and Zendaya writing the introduction, that was my in.

FR: You are now an ambassador for Nikon. Could you speak about that?

Matthew Jordan Smith: I am honored to be the first African American ambassador for Nikon. I have been sponsored by quite a few companies in my career. The first one was Microsoft, who sponsored me for eight years. And from that other companies followed suit. Nikon approached me and it has turned into a great opportunity, facilitating some wonderful things.

FR: Did this ambassadorship with Nikon prompt your residency in Japan?

Matthew Jordan Smith: No. I first went to Japan in 1999 and continued working and visiting Japan about 20 times before taking up a residency there. The more I went back, the more I loved it.

Tokyo is like New York City on steroids. And so, I decided to make Tokyo my base.

All photos courtesy of Matthew Jordan-Smith

FR: Why do you call Tokyo, New York City on steroids?

Matthew Jordan Smith: Tokyo is way more crowded than NYC. It is all things you love about NYC minus the things you don’t like about NYC. Tokyo is extremely clean, and everyone is extremely polite. There is a sense of pride about every aspect of life that takes away the stresses of life. All the things that could be stressful about living in a big, urban city, you are not stressed out about in Japan.  It is not perfect, but I love the quality of life I have there.

That said; I come back to The States a lot. In fact, I have been back four times already in 2019.

FR: What’s next for you?

Matthew Jordan Smith: I am working two projects right now that are personal projects. The personal projects go beyond commissioned work. Personal projects like an exhibit or books have a much longer life than a campaign or editorial.

I am now pitching book on Aretha Franklin. I photographed her for 13 years and I have all these amazing photos that no one has seen. I hope to get a book deal with about these Aretha Franklin photos.

—William S. Gooch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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