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click to enlarge Charles R. Smith Jr., author of "My People." - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Charles R. Smith Jr., author of "My People."

Buzzing with anticipation, the photography students at Croton-Harmon High School besiege teacher Nicole Ezagui. One needs help loading her Nikon; another moans, “Ms. Ez, my camera is being a butthole.” Minutes later, their classroom guest strolls in, unruffled by the driving directions mix-up that’s made him late. The Coretta Scott King Award winner for My People (Atheneum, 2009) wears a purple polo, chinos, and spotless white sneakers, with two gear bags slung over his shoulder. Athletically built, with a  shaved head, trimmed goatee, and a Hawaiian bracelet tattoo above his right wrist, he radiates confidence as he stows his equipment and turns to the class. “My name is Charles, full name Charles R. Smith Junior. I’m a professional photographer, poet, and children’s book author.” For the next five hours, he will hold them in thrall.

After introducing three of his cameras—a 35mm digital, the medium format Mamiya RZ he used to shoot My People, and an impressively huge 1940s Graflex Super D 4x5—Smith takes the class outdoors for a hands-on assignment, shooting portraits of student athletes. He goes over some composition basics—”Change your perspective. Get on your belly, get up in the bleachers. Don’t just take pictures, make pictures”—and sends the students onto the field. He roves around offering tips, then reconvenes the group for advice about working with models.

“If I’m taking a portrait of Newt Gingrich—he’s an in-your-face politician. I want to get in his face, I want our interaction to be tense,” he says, noting that while “a painter can add a smile, photographers have to make it happen. I photographed O. J. Simpson after the trial and I’m still alive, so I must be doing something right.” He chooses a boy in a red hoodie to pose by a lacrosse goal, doing a quick demonstration shoot with Polaroids. “This is so cool,” one of his young charges whispers to a friend.
Smith seems to agree. Though he does 40 to 50 school visits a year, this photography class is a change of pace from his usual schoolwide PowerPoint career presentations and smaller-group writing workshops. Over a chicken parmesan sandwich in the faculty lunchroom, he discusses his 20 book projects as writer and/or photographer, his childhood in greater Los Angeles, and how he got here from there.

An early reader, Smith started writing in grade school. He didn’t gravitate toward photography until eleventh grade, when he took an elective to write for the yearbook. “There were only three of us, so we had to do everything,” he says. “I took a lot of sports pictures because I played a lot of sports.”

Photography ignited his imagination. He attended the Brooks Institute of Photography to learn technique, because “I had all these images in my head, but I didn’t know how to do them.” After college, Smith moved to New York, where he worked as an assistant to celebrated portrait photographer Gregory Heisler. As he tells the students, “I carried equipment—a lot of equipment. We’d shoot Halle Berry one day, Julia Roberts the next, John Travolta the next.”

While Heisler shot covers for Time, GQ, and ESPN, his young assistant reloaded cameras, labeled film, and “learned how to deal with high-profile people—what to do if Travolta is having a tantrum, or how to tell an older man you need to put makeup on his shiny head. You learn about taking control. It’s almost like you’re directing a film.” His photo assignments took him to Paris, Tokyo, Italy, and Mexico, where he spent a month photographing luchadore wrestlers. On an NBA All-Star shoot for TV Guide, he got to hang out with Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Dr. J, Larry Bird, and Wilt Chamberlain.

Smith grew up shooting hoops, and his love of the game provided an entry to freelance magazine work and children’s books. Inspired by a Museum of Modern Art retrospective of Roy DeCarava’s Harlem photos, taken over four decades, Smith found himself thinking, “What could I photograph for 30, 40 years and not be bored? The answer was basketball. I took my camera out every single day, and photographed people playing on street courts.”

He included his favorite shots in the seven portfolios he kept in constant circulation, hand-carrying them to magazines’ drop-off days and to publishers. He was angling for a job photographing book covers when an editor said his street basketball photos would make a good children’s book. Smith offered to write it. The resulting book, Rimshots: Basketball Pix, Rolls, and Rhythms (Dutton, 1999), “put together three things I love: sports, writing, and photography,” Smith asserts. “If art is your medium of expression, what you love becomes your subject matter.”

  • Nina Shengold interviews poet, photographer, and children's book author Charles R. Smith Jr.


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