By Jaime Lubin
Matthew Jordan Smith is the very essence of possibility. The award-winning photographer, now the first artist of color to travel the world as a Nikon ambassador, has broken barriers and shaped cultural touchstones throughout his 32-year career. Name any major African-American celebrity – such as Oprah, Samuel L. Jackson, and Smokey Robinson – and you’re sure to find their portraits somewhere in Smith’s portfolio. But this visionary’s distinctions aren’t limited to his talents with the camera, astounding though they may be. Smith is a master storyteller, a dedicated historian, a motivator and mentor whose greatest superpowers lie in his endless capacity to hope.
“I love photography and it’s my life,” Matthew enthuses to me in a Skype call, his mellifluous voice pulsing through the screen like soothing ocean waves. “I’d like to see more people of color in it, shooting, and know that it’s a viable career option… If you are a photographer and you want to stand out, understand that every picture you take has a message. If there are no people of color who are photographers, that’s a voice that’s being squashed or silenced. You’ve got to share how you feel, visually.”
That sentiment has formed the crux of Smith’s work since day one. Born in Brooklyn, raised in South Carolina, he grew up a shy introvert who adopted photography as a communication tool. Seeing life through camera lenses helped him express himself, and representation became key to his personal and professional definition.
“I think about how I got to photography,” he says. “It was seeing somebody else who looked like me. Gordon Parks. If there were no Gordon Parks, there would be no Matthew Jordan Smith… We have to keep going through the generations, inspiring others. But first you have to be inspired!”
Parks, one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated photojournalists, was also a textbook Renaissance man – a novelist, composer, jazz musician, film director (the mind behind 1971’s Shaft) and co-founder of Essence magazine. At a young age Smith found collections of Parks’s work and set himself on a similar path. It was fitting, then, that his first big break as a photographer would come from shooting Anita Hill for Essence in 1991 at the height of the Clarence Thomas trials.
Essence covers, the first two featuring Halle Berry and Vanessa Williams, plus now-iconic images of Tyra Banks on the cusp of fame, soon followed. Smith became an in-demand Essence photographer and a favorite of legends including Aretha Franklin. His friendship with Banks led to multiple appearances on her phenomenal TV series America’s Next Top Model. Fans often count Matthew’s photo shoots among the most memorable in the reality show’s run, from a Warhol-esque roller skating challenge to portraits of famous couples (both partners portrayed by a single model). To this day, he gets recognized when the decade-old episodes air in reruns.
But if the notability made Smith giddy, it was only because he saw in it an opportunity to light the way for others. “I’ve been very shy about putting myself out in public, but it’s duty more than ego to [showcase] your work so people can see. It’s hard to find us if you don’t know where we are. That was always the argument – ‘Are there black photographers? We can’t find them.’ It’s the barrier to entry that we’re not even thought about; we don’t even cross people’s minds. I have a friend who was the only black photographer to shoot for Black Panther, which sounds so strange… I definitely want to see that change.”
Smith managed to overcome that hurdle for himself in a very unusual way – he relocated to Tokyo, Japan in 2017. “Being African-American, I think I have more opportunities living here than I have in my own country,” he observes. “Japan never had racism against black people. And never having that history, there is no stigma, so if you’re talented, you’re recognized for your talent, period, without somebody looking at your color. In America, no matter what, somebody’s looking at your color and it’s part of the decision [to hire you or not].”
Through the years, Matthew has focused his personal projects on combating this stigma with optimistic views on generational evolution. His book Sepia Dreams was a collection of interviews with fifty African-American artists exploring their journeys to success; it’s subtitled A Celebration of Black Achievement. More recently, his Future American President compiled portraits of dozens of children from all over the country, each sharing a reason why they might someday choose to run for office. The book’s subjects represent every ethnic group and population, no community left out. (It even features an early picture of pop idol Zendaya before she hit it big on Disney’s Shake It Up.)
When Smith was just releasing Future American President in 2014, he’d confided to me that he hoped it would spark a movement. Now over the video call from Tokyo, he can barely contain his excitement at reporting that another photographer, inspired by his idea, is completing a spiritual successor project, Future Presidents of Benin.
“It’s crazy!” he laughs. “You put your work out there and think, ‘What is it going to do?’ But that’s not our responsibility as artists. Our responsibility is to create, and then the Creator takes it and does whatever. We are definitely in need of future American presidents now.”
At this remark, our talk turns to politics. Matthew can’t help noting that the current situation in the United States reminds him of Germany just before World War II. “It’s a horrible situation that I hope changes. Things must happen to divert us from the destructive, disturbing, violent path we’re on… If you’re a person of color, you feel the difference. There are people out there right now trying to take your voice away from you and we can’t let them do that. Number one, don’t let anybody take your vote from you. Number two, if you’re an artist, show the world how you feel.”
Practicing what he preaches, Smith points to his coverage of the AFROPUNK festival. He admits that in his earlier career, he might have privatized these images – vibrant, energetic, authentically representing the heart of the black community. But in the face of today’s charged climate, he felt spurred not only to share them, but to use them as a jumping-off point for a brand new shoot in Tokyo. “You know, African-Americans have always had this influence around the world. You see it everywhere. I want to start that with AFROPUNK, how it’s visually pulling out all this energy, and put it into Tokyo fashion. It’s just an incredible array of art, visions, people expressing themselves. That’s my experience, and I’m putting my experience into my work, no matter where I am in the world… When you’re shooting something you love, people feel the connection.”
At the word “connection,” I notice Smith seems wistful. We’ve been discussing a lot of his greatest milestones, but one subject remains pretty raw – Aretha Franklin’s passing. I knew that Matthew had been photographing her for the last fourteen years, but I didn’t realize he’d spoken to Franklin only a day before her death.
“I had an amazing connection with her,” he recounts. “We became very good friends. In November 2017 we had planned to shoot her next [album] cover, and the day before Thanksgiving she was rushed to the hospital so the shoot was postponed. After she came out of the hospital, she sent me an email saying, ‘I’ve got a long recovery but I’d like you to be in touch so we can talk about the shoot.’ So I started contacting her every month and oddly enough, we talked more [in the months before she passed] than we’d ever talked before. Sadly, we never got to do that shoot, but I love the last one we did do, because that memory is more precious to me than ever. That last shoot we did, she was actually up and dancing. She had lost weight and she moved better than she’d ever moved in the past. It was wonderful to see her dancing and singing along to her own music.”
While Smith did travel to Detroit for Franklin’s memorial service, he says that day on set is how he will continue to remember his longtime friend. “She was a special woman in so many ways and her music will live on forever. I’m glad that I got to be part of her history in that way.”
And as Smith makes his own indelible marks on history, it’s clear that he’s living up to his own magic of creativity. He lives every day searching for new challenges, new frontiers to conquer. In addition to his brand ambassador work with Nikon and his vast array of projects, he’s now hosting a podcast called Master Your Lens to expand the global conversation around art and photography.
For present and future generations, we’d do well to herald his clarion call, like Cinderellas to an ethereal but omnipotent advisor: “Get out there and live your dream. Change the world. Push the boundaries. Understand that you are in charge of your life; you rule your destiny. When you see yourself as a creative soul, it opens up doors like you have no idea. Don’t believe in the word ‘impossible.’ You always have possibilities as an artist.”
Jaime Lubin is the Executive Editor of Honeysuckle Magazine. Her profiles on art and culture have appeared regularly in The Huffington Post and Observer, as well as Billboard and Irish America magazines among other publications. Also an actress, producer, and singer, Jaime is working on a solo show about Tarot. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (both @jaimelubin).