Meet Frank Smith, and you understand why amateurs have always been the driving force behind photography’s progress, whether as art, science or business. Smith brings an energy and a passion to his photography that professionals, however much they love what they do, tend to lose to the day in and day out of a career. “I’ve made a conscious effort not to do photography as a career,” says Smith, who’s certainly good enough to do so. “I wanted to be very careful to always photograph what I like and not be tainted by whether or not my images will sell.”
That’s not to say his images don’t sell. Smith’s handsome prints, which range in subject matter from landscapes to portraits, are used for fundraising by organizations as varied as the March of Dimes and the Allentown Art Museum, the latter a short drive from his home in the former steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Smith has traveled overseas to do documentary photography for nonprofits working to end the Asian sex trade, fund African libraries and help Haitian children recover from injuries sustained in that desperate island’s recent earthquake. Yet to avoid even the slightest temptation of profiting from his work, Smith has set up a trust that donates any money it earns to charity, with the biggest recipients being The Salvation Army, Big Brothers Big Sisters and B-Smart, a local art program for children at risk.
From Film To Digital
The photographer’s passion was nurtured by a much-loved grandfather. When Smith was just three or four years old, his grandfather gave him a toy camera made to look like a 35mm SLR. “I would follow him around and shoot whatever he did,” Smith recalls. “The only difference, which I didn’t understand at the time, was that my camera had no film in it!”
The camera had a viewfinder, though, and it was the art of photography more than its nuts and bolts that grandson absorbed from grandfather. “I learned mostly about composition, by imitating his framing,” says Smith.
As a school-age photographer, Smith went on to use real film, shooting his family’s holidays and vacations. In high school, he took a part-time job selling cameras. “I got to play with all the different models that were available,” he remembers. “Based on that experience, I decided to buy a Minolta SRT101.” That classic 35mm SLR, with its match-needle metering and mechanical shutter, was Smith’s workhorse for two decades.
During high school and after, Smith took other photo-related jobs, even doing some shooting for portrait studios. In his late 20s, though, his attention turned mostly to his growing career in commercial and industrial real estate, from which he has earned a living for 35 years. As his family grew, he started shooting more, mainly snapshots.
Yet his pictures remained steadfastly analog through the 1990s, even as digital imaging took the photo world by storm. Then, in 2003, a group of fellow outdoor enthusiasts Smith was traveling with ganged up on him and made him get a digital point-and-shoot. “I told everybody I was buying this camera just to get a feel for it and that I’d never abandon film,” he says. “Long story short, I never went back.”
The late bloomer made up for lost time. Smith graduated to a digital SLR, investing in an Olympus EVOLT E-300 even before the company happened to move its American headquarters from Long Island to Center Valley, the town right next to Bethlehem. He graduated to an E-510 and then to the top-of-the-line Olympus E-3. And when Olympus came out with its PEN Micro Four Thirds line, he got an E-P2, then an E-P3. The appeal of these mirrorless models was reinforced by the fact that they had the same-size sensors—and, therefore, image quality on par with—the Olympus E-5 that had become Smith’s preferred DSLR.
“The Micro Four Thirds system is both physically smaller and lighter, including the glass,” he explains. “That makes it easier to travel with, and affords me opportunities to get into places I wouldn’t be able to if I were using full-sized equipment. The smaller size is less invasive and less intimidating to subjects. In Haiti and India, when I asked if I could shoot in areas normally off-limits to visitors, my translator looked at my equipment and said that as long as it was all I was carrying, I was okay. Frankly, people don’t realize Micro Four Thirds cameras’ true capability.”
Smith’s TEDx talk on Vocation vs. Avocation speaks to his passion for the art of photography (go to www.outdoorphotographer.com/blog where you can see it under OPTV or search for the video on YouTube). His love of photography extends to a drive to help others improve. Smith teaches several workshops every year.
Indeed, Smith’s photography, now done mainly with the Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M5, relies increasingly on this kind of discretion. In 2012, while traveling in Mumbai, where he was working with a friend who’s trying to convince sex-trade workers to make clothing instead, he found himself shooting in slums and brothels. “I stepped completely out of my comfort zone,” he says.
Smith shot both stills and video with the E-M5—Micro Four Thirds models having an edge over DSLRs as hybrid cameras—and the take was used to promote the cause and support an annual fundraiser for the group, which is called Worthwhile Wear.
Likewise, Smith traveled this past January to Haiti on behalf of a group called iTOT, which is providing assistance to handicapped children. His photographs are being used to share the organization’s good works and to solicit further funding. And, as a photographer working for ALARM, an Africa-based nonprofit in which his wife Karen is active, he was able to document the independence of South Sudan, the continent’s newest country. “I was granted full access to the parade viewing stand, within shooting distance of all the important political and military personnel,” he says. “It was an incredible experience to witness the birth of a nation.” Smith exhibited some of that work last year in Bethlehem City Hall’s Rotunda Gallery, one of many recent shows.
All of that’s heady stuff for an amateur, and not ordinarily the kind of material to which a mere passion for photography gives you access. Yet Smith’s photo travels are also self-assigned.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve connected with a group of about a dozen photographers from several other countries, and every year we plan a trip to a different destination,” he says.
Recently, group members visited Iceland, and before that, Bhutan, work that Smith exhibited at the Olympus-sponsored InVision Photo Festival, staged by Bethlehem-based ArtsQuest, an organization that has almost singlehandedly turned the town into an arts haven. (Smith chairs the festival’s planning committee.) But the group’s favorite shooting ground is India, inspired by the involvement of Smith’s friend John Isaac, a South Indian émigré who, in a long career at the United Nations, ended up as chief photographer.
“I’ve found India to be the most challenging and yet the most rewarding location to photograph,” says Smith. “There are so many contrasts. The colors range from drab to brilliant. The people are outgoing and open to being photographed in some areas, and reserved and apprehensive in others. It makes it all the more gratifying when you break through to them.”
How does Smith manage to carve time out from his demanding career to do this work? “I try to get away three or four times a year for a photo excursion,” he says. “With technology today, you can be as connected as you want or need to be. Also, I plan short trips over long weekends. Altogether, it doesn’t take me away from the office for too many days.”
Sounds easy, but it’s a balancing act that not many amateurs pull off with such finesse.
When you’re with Smith on his home turf, especially if it’s “First Friday” evening—Bethlehem’s monthly open house for the arts, its venues within a stone’s throw of the steel mills’ dormant smokestacks—you can see part of what makes him such a good photographer, and it has nothing to do with technique. He’s a commanding and reassuring presence, whisking friends from one opening to another, making sure everyone is accounted for and taken care of, and suggesting what to do next. He’s fully immersed, and that may be the secret to his growth as a photographer despite the fact that he doesn’t inhabit a professional environment.
“I’m a strong proponent of continuous learning and development,” Smith explains. “I learn by traveling with other photographers, taking and teaching photo classes, and attending exhibitions.”
And also by self-criticism, as tough as that can be for many photographers. “I make it a point to look back at what I’ve done before,” he says. “I always see the ways it could have been better.”
See more of Frank Smith’s photography at www.franksmithphotos.com.