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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.”

He developed the text from notebooks he’d kept while shooting the photos—nicknames, taunts, snatches of dialogue—and his own memories. The first poem, “I Remember,” uses the title phrase 23 times; the typography punches the words in Lakers purple and yellow. Rimshots’ photos are printed in sepia tone—“something you don’t see in kids’ books at all,” Smith notes.

Twenty years and 20 books later, he chose sepia again for My People.
Langston Hughes’ 1923 poem is a mere 33 words:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
In an afterword, Smith asks, “How do you translate words into pictures?” and describes how he looked to

Hughes’s “study in simplicity” for answers. “To me, the words celebrate black people of differing shades and age, so I wanted to show skin color as bright as the sun and as dark as the night; I wanted to show the newness of a newborn smile and the wisdom of wrinkled skin.”

Three generations participated in My People—Smith photographed his daughter and two sons (“I’ve always got three free models”), and the dedication includes a snapshot of “Charles R. Smith, the original” in his sailor uniform. Other models included friends, neighbors, and workout buddies from Gold’s Gym in Poughkeepsie. Smith’s wife Gillian, a former retail manager who now works full-time with her husband, was born there, and when she was expecting their second child, the Smiths left their Brooklyn apartment and bathtub darkroom behind. “We love the Hudson Valley,” says Smith, who seems to leave it more often than he’d like. Last week he flew home from Chicago, coached his son’s Little League game, then drove three and a half hours to another school visit in Morrisville, New York.

He aims to give writing students “confidence and courage.” “We all have so much in our heads all the time, we don’t know what to write down,” he says. “I try to make a direct connection—whatever pops into your head, write it. Once it’s on paper, you have something to work with. Kids are afraid to create. Even kids who like to write are afraid of doing it wrong.”

A few years ago, Smith took his own advice. After completing Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali (Candlewick, 2007), his longest text to date, he “wanted to keep it going, see if I could write a novel.” He unearthed a story fragment about four teenage boys in his LA neighborhood and sent it to his agent, who urged him to finish it. Smith sat down and wrote the first draft of Chameleon (Candlewick, 2008), proudly telling himself, “I did it, that’s done.”

As imposing as writing a young adult novel sounded at first, he found prose easier than poetry. “Verse is like writing in another language,” he explains. “There’s rhyme, certain rhythms, a certain pace. It can’t be too long for a picture book—there are very specific parameters. With fiction, you can write whatever you want.”
Like Chameleon’s 14-year-old hero, Shawn, Smith went to school in gritty, gang-riddled Compton while living in Carson. But while Smith has a younger sister and stayed with his grandmother after school, only-child Shawn must caretake an alcoholic aunt and make a fate-altering choice. In spite of these fictional glosses, Shawn feels very much like a portrait of the artist as a young man. Though it’s Smith’s only book without illustrations, Chameleon’s images reveal a photographer’s sense of composition. Here are Shawn and his friends after a hot summer’s pickup game:

“The five of us took over a couple of benches and stretched our exhausted bodies. Lorenzo sprawled on his back as usual while Trent sat on top of the same bench next to him. Andre and Randy took over another bench, spreading their wings like wings and extending their legs like landing gear. I stretched my limbs across the cushy green grass in front of both benches and exhaled; that last game wiped me out.”
Smith’s current projects include a biography of Jimi Hendrix and I Am the World, a follow-up to I Am America (Cartwheel, 2003), a book he was inspired to do after a girl at one of his presentations put her head in her arms and groaned, “Sports again?”

He also wants to try a middle-grade series. “It’s a fun age to write for, but tough. The story has to be exciting, but the language has to be simple.” Smith recently told thebrownbookshelf.com, “I would particularly love to do a series that has the same appeal as Percy Jackson or Harry Potter, but featuring black characters, without the focus on them being black. Black people could fly too, ya know.”

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