Poet and historian Carl Sandburg once said, “I'm an idealist. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way.” I have shared that optimism all my life and have always believed it’s all about the journey and not the destination. No one travels the same path during their lives and careers as anyone else. Hell, when I was in high school, I wanted to be a gym teacher…and then a potter…and went through several iterations of majors in college before settling on Liberal Arts.
Looking back at my career path, I can even see where I doubled back and walked the same path…although with different shoes. I left Newsweek magazine as a senior photo editor for international news in 1988 to head up a news photo agency only to return three years later as Newsweek’s director of photography. Like many things, stepping away from something and getting some distance from it might make you appreciate it more when you come back.
There is also no right path…or wrong path...just your path. And you make corrections to it along the way to make that journey as pleasant and as rewarding as possible. One of my brethren in the industry who has also doubled back on his career path is the new Director of Photography at Sports Illustrated, Brad Smith.
In the 1990’s Brad was the Director of Photography at SI for Kids as well as SI Women (which has since folded). Both titles were under the umbrella of Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated Group. In March of this year, after an extended stint as a photo editor at the New York Times, he returned to Sports Illustrated as their DP.
Less than a month into his new role, on deadline day, the Boston Marathon bombing occurred. No stranger to deadlines…in less time than he would have had to produce images for the New York Times, he closed one of the magazines most memorable covers and issues of the year. Eight months into his new role, Smith still describes it as, “I still feel like I won a contest!”
This week, Photo Journal has a conversation with Brad Smith as he talks about his path…that has taken him from a French photo agency to the White House, from Circus magazine to the New York Times…and gives us an inside look on how Sports Illustrated has gone from a weekly magazine to a 24-hour news service that covers the world of sports.
Jim Colton: You’ve had quite a varied history in our business from the White House to the New York Times. Please tell our readers a little about yourself; how you first got interested in photography and the various stops you’ve had along the way to your current position as Director of Photography at Sports Illustrated.
Brad Smith: I’ve always loved photography. I used to borrow my dad’s camera and loved taking photos…I was forever drawn to it. When I was in high school, someone in my class asked me what I wanted to do for a career and I said I wanted to choose the photos that were in a calendar. I honestly didn’t even know it was a job but it sounded like a good way to make a living…and it just fit.
After going to the University of Florida, I moved to NY with no job and $400. Not the smartest start, but I knew it’s where I wanted to be so I just stayed with it until I found a job at Circus magazine. I was basically in charge of putting magazines in envelopes and mailing them to contributors, but who cares? I was the last person on the masthead, under Staff, but I was there!
From there I went to work for John Wiley and Sons, a text book company and then a French photo news agency called Sygma. That’s where I really learned editing…working with Kathy Ryan and Eliane Laffont. The way they approached photos, what their value was, how to apply them for editorial sales…those types of things stayed with me forever.
After Sygma, I eventually found my way to Sports Illustrated on a project, which led to the magazine itself. I was the Director of Photography for SI for Kids and SI Women, which let me broaden my rolodex of shooters as well as types of shooters. The White House job I would have done for free (and it wasn’t far off from that, being a government job). Spending time with that staff, and working for the President (Clinton), you can’t make this stuff up!
The work was great, and I learned about the protocol of releasing photos to the press, balancing what’s beneficial to an administration with staying current with the visual record of the presidency for the public. It was tremendously compelling and you were always aware that you were literally watching and recording history. And he was a really good boss!
I spent 12 years at the New York Times…working most of that with Director of Photography Michele McNally. One of my favorite parts of that job was sitting with her during the Olympics going over the days photos. Then recently, out of nowhere, the Director of Photography job at Sports Illustrated presented itself and it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. 8 months into it, I still feel like I won a contest.
JC: I played softball against you in the New York Press League in Central Park, so I know you’re a bit of an athlete. Other than sports, do you have any other hobbies or interests that might surprise our readers?
BS: A “bit of an athlete” is being generous, thanks. My card is pretty full with sports but I really enjoy following politics, which is a direct result of the White House job. I try to stay up to date on that. I also started out in college majoring in herpetology, being a Florida boy and all. (That’s the study of reptiles and amphibians for anyone who doesn’t want to look it up.) So I’m the guy in the group who’s not afraid of snakes! And after recently meeting the great NASCAR legend, Junior Johnson, I now know more than I should about the making and consumption of moonshine!
JC: You’ve edited news, sports and even political images at the White House. Do you have a favorite genre or does your love for photography cross all boundaries? Are there photographic basics that one looks for that fit all of those categories?
BS: I remember Kathy Ryan saying once when we worked together at Sygma how much she loved sports photography…how beautiful it was. And it opened up my eyes to following my love of sports with photography. But it also reminded me that there are so many types of photography…all with some value…even if it’s not your favorite or in your job description, you can appreciate most of it on some level. I think photo editors who love and embrace numerous types of photography make the best editors. A great political photo, showing the thought and power involved in making decisions that affect so many people is as important to me as a winning touchdown photo, which affects me on a daily level.
My favorite photographer is William Klein…I could look at his photos all day. Because there is an emotional investment you make with every one of his photos. Any photo which you feel --really feel -- that’s the best photo…one that resonates somehow. That’s the one you should choose. No matter the platform…that part never changes. As much as I love sports photography, my favorite thing to actually shoot on my own (badly most of the time) would be nature. Hiking, taking photos, that’s a perfect day for me.
JC: This is your second stint at Sports Illustrated. How does it feel “coming home” again and what’s different (besides your title) at the magazine?
BS: It’s actually number three, since I split my previous time there with a little stopover at the White House. For some reason they keep letting me back in! The major difference, besides the gigantic office (!) is the number of platforms for our photos. When I started in 1989, I had the use of a cell phone the size of a shoe, we processed film on locations at a local lab, and I didn’t own a passport. Now, once we secure the images in house, they are being fitted for the magazine and the various tablets and smart phones. Our website has so many options for photos it makes my head spin. Not to mention our resale team, led by Karen Carpenter, and the fact that we have the greatest collection of historical and current sports photography in the country.
We went from a weekly magazine to a 24-hour news service that covers the world of sports. And in that new role, we have a constant flow of visual information that needs to be fed and then replenished. It never stops.
JC: You’ve experienced the analog world at print publications in both newspapers and magazines. What are some of the greatest challenges you face now where our digital universe seems to require so many holes to be filled?
BS: It’s a matter of two things for me. Staying organized and never being overwhelmed…and caring. The first thing is obvious, but the second, that’s trickier. You have to care about all of the uses and all of the potential audiences. I grew up with magazines, not iPads, but the world changed…it grew. And if I put all of my energy into only the magazine, then I’d be out of a job.
All of the platforms are important, because they reach different people. You have to be able to see a bigger picture. And yes, while it’s great to say that’s a cover for the magazine, I also have to be able to say that that can run on the iPad for this reason or that would make a nice photo package on the web. My job is to see all of those potential uses, provide the images and care about them equally.
JC: The “Leading Off” section (The first three spreads of the magazine) was my baby for 15 years when I was at SI. I read that you are trying to get more photo essays and self-contained stories into that section. How’s that going and do you see any other ways to utilize that section, either in print or on the iPad version/web site?
BS: Leading Off is in many ways its own brand. SI led the way with that and is forever indebted to the work you did with it. And you now see it used effectively in a number of other publications. My goal is take what is some of the most prized real estate in publishing and showcase all types of great photography. And while I love the large spread photos from sports events that are the main tenant of that space, at times we are able to provide multiple images that tell a story. And we have such talented page designers that it’s a match made in heaven.
It’s going well so far, mostly because we have proponents of photography here like our Managing Editor Chris Stone and our Executive Editor Jon Wertheim. All the great ideas in the world are pointless if you don’t have the support and cooperation of the people above you. It’s also opened up the eyes of photographers around the world who have submitted photos and ideas. I see it growing even greater and using these types of photo essays even more in 2014 and beyond.
JC: What kind of picture (sports or otherwise) stops you in your tracks? What would motivate you to try to convince the SI line-side editors to get those kinds of pictures published?
BS: The photos that really make me stop are the ones that they need no caption. There is an emotional attachment that is clear. There is a value to it not only from a graphic angle but from your heart. The thousand words thing? Totally true. Those photos stay with you long after the magazine is being recycled.
When we were confronted with the bombing during the Boston Marathon, we had right at 4 hours to write a piece, illustrate it, lay it out, etc. We looked through the wire photos immediately (we didn’t have our own photographer there) pulling and showing in waves as they came across and then just kept updating everyone as new images were received. The cover photo we chose (shot by John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe) was the perfect image for us. It captured what was a frightening day for everyone in Boston and you could feel all of these competing emotions in one image...fear, panic, heroic.
We also increased our Leading Off section from 6 pages to 8 in order to accommodate more images and tell the story better….all with photos. That cover photo was perfect because it needed no words to explain what was going on. You can see it, you can feel it.
Convincing the line-side editors to use photos that aren’t mentioned in the front of a story or for a play that isn’t prominent is a constant give and take. Editors tend to be more literal, saying things like; “What about the play where he did X, Y, and Z…because that’s mentioned here?” That’s more in line with how they think. At the same time, it doesn’t always work to just choose graphically interesting images that aren’t part of the story. There has to be a balance.
JC: What advice could you give the sports enthusiast to make better sports imagery? And how could someone get their images in from of you at SI if they feel they have something special?
BS: The best advice would be to say hello to the other shooters in attendance at an event. Ask how their families are…say something nice about something they did…and then go sit somewhere else! Find a spot no one else has. See it in a way they don’t. If everyone is standing shooting football, then kneel down. Try something new, because often…different is better!
There is a moment in every game…every single sporting contest. A moment. You have to see it…then shoot it! And it’s not always about following the ball or the victors. It’s often about those smaller moments, the ones not in the headlines….crying, screaming, pouting, thinking. These are moments in sports that happen all the time. And they are exaggerated in competitive environments.
From Little League to the World Series, the same thing is happening in each on the most basic level. Look for them. And remember, you’re responsible for the whole frame. Look at all of it…not just the guy in the middle with the ball. A great sports photo lets us feel like we were there.
The best way to reach us at SI is to email us. But make sure you look at what we do and see if your work matches up. We are always open to new images…it’s our job. And it never gets old finding a great photo from someone…Never!
JC: You’ve just returned from the 26th Eddie Adams Workshop as faculty. You also participate in the Summit Workshops by Rich Clarkson. Why are these workshops important to you and did you see quality work and signs of hope for the future of photojournalism? What do you think of the state of our industry today?
BS: I love those workshops, as well as the others I do. And they are completely different in attendees, yet all are exhilarating for me. They are important for me because I always meet someone new and learn something new. I see a photo that gives me an idea or that makes me see things differently. So, professionally, it’s always a win for me. Better than that though, you have this sense that you’ve somehow helped someone trying to break into the business or given them some encouragement or guidance.
So many photographers live in a bubble, wherever they are. Sure, their families love their photos, but they don’t really know what they have until they venture out. Meeting editors and other photographers can shed some insight and I think that’s hugely important.
I see work that lets me know that photography is as strong as ever. I see photographers who care…who are passionate about their work and their subjects….who believe in the global photographic village. They are recoding things to be shared, and in sharing them, a better world emerges.
JC: Lastly, what words of wisdom or sage advice can you impart on the next generation of shooters, regardless of whether it is sports related?
BS: It’s not about the money! Believe in what you do….care! You are never more important than the subject you are shooting. Treat people…all people…with respect and dignity. Tell their story, not yours!
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