Stars in her eyes

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - Michael Abatemarco Pho­to­graphs by Aline Smith­son

Pho­tog­ra­pher Aline Smith­son con­tin­ues to shoot on film well into the dig­i­tal age, cap­tur­ing ex­pres­sive por­traits of adults and chil­dren in hand-painted black-and-white and sat­u­rated color pho­to­graphs, some in­spired by Ko­dachrome por­traits of celebri­ties from the golden age of Hol­ly­wood. A show of her work, Self & Oth­ers, is on view at Verve Gallery of Pho­tog­ra­phy, and runs through Jan. 23, 2016. It in­cludes se­lec­tions from sev­eral of Smith­son’s pho­to­graphic se­ries such as Hol­ly­wood at Home, in which she en­vi­sions reg­u­lar peo­ple as movie stars, and Spring Fever, a col­lec­tion of por­traits of seven-year-old girls. On the cover is Fur, a hand-painted pho­to­graph from her se­ries Daugh­ter.

Ev­ery­body’s a dreamer and ev­ery­body’s a star, And ev­ery­body’s in movies, it doesn’t mat­ter who you are.

— from “Cel­lu­loid He­roes” by The Kinks

With the wide­spread avail­abil­ity of dig­i­tal cam­eras in the 1990s, pho­tog­ra­pher Aline Smith­son, then a black-and-white pho­tog­ra­pher, re­assessed her darkroom prac­tice. Darkroom pho­tog­ra­phy on the whole was in de­cline and the com­mu­nity darkroom Smith­son made use of in Los An­ge­les closed with only a week’s no­tice. She be­gan ex­plor­ing color pho­tog­ra­phy, drawn to the sat­u­rated Tech­ni­color pal­ette of Ko­dachrome film. Works from sev­eral se­ries of Smith­son’s color images are on ex­hibit in Self & Oth­ers at Verve Gallery of Pho­tog­ra­phy. Th­ese in­clude se­lec­tions from Hol­ly­wood

at Home, an homage to the staged glam­our shots of film stars from the golden age of movies. Al­though Smith­son’s pho­tos are rem­i­nis­cent of celebrity shots you’ve seen be­fore, call­ing to mind spe­cific Hol­ly­wood stars, such as James Dean and Shirley Tem­ple, they are orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions. “I didn’t base them on spe­cific pho­to­graphs, but I was try­ing to cap­ture that look and feel of Ko­dachrome stills from that era,” she told Pasatiempo.” The Hol­ly­wood at Home por­traits, glimpses into the iden­tity-shap­ing years of youth and young adult­hood, lend a pres­tige to her sub­jects: or­di­nary peo­ple in do­mes­tic set­tings given the larger-than-life pres­ence of movie stars. “That was the in­ten­tion,” she said.

Self & Oth­ers is on view at the gallery along with Mag­gie Tay­lor’s Well Then and new works by Micky Hoogendijk. A mono­graph of Smith­son’s work, Self & Oth­ers: Por­trait as Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, is pub­lished by Ma­genta Foundation.

All of the images in the book and the ex­hibit were shot on film, many of them made us­ing a 50-year-old twin lens Rollei­flex cam­era. “I liked the medi­um­for­mat lens and that square for­mat that al­lows me to frame a pho­to­graph like a paint­ing,” said Smith­son, who came to pho­tog­ra­phy af­ter study­ing to be a painter at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara. Smith­son stages her pho­to­graphs with back­drops, props, and vin­tage cloth­ing, us­ing skills learned as a fash­ion editor for Vogue pub­li­ca­tions, a ca­reer she pur­sued be­fore turn­ing to pho­tog­ra­phy. Her prac­tice al­lows her to com­bine in­ter­ests in cin­ema, fash­ion, and even paint­ing, in­cor­po­rat­ing ref­er­ences to mas­ter­works from art his­tory and cre­at­ing hand-col­ored prints rem­i­nis­cent of 19th-cen­tury hand-tinted da­guerreo­types and the nar­ra­tive al­bu­men prints of Ja­panese pho­tog­ra­pher Kusak­abe Kim­bei (18411934). Th­ese she shot in black and white, la­bo­ri­ously hand-col­or­ing the prints for a se­ries called Recre­at­ing

His­tory, cap­tur­ing a sense of the fin de siè­cle craze for Ori­en­tal­ism in images such as Char­lotte With a Fan

and Sis­ters, the lat­ter depict­ing two young neigh­bors dressed in ki­monos, stand­ing be­fore a back­drop of printed fab­rics and framed Ja­panese prints.

Ar­range­ment in Green and Black: Por­trait of the Pho­tog­ra­pher’s Mother, a di­rect nod to James McNeill Whistler’s Ar­range­ment in Grey and Black No. 1, more com­monly known as Whistler’s Mother, com­prises 20 images shot in black and white and then hand­painted. Smith­son made them us­ing her (very pa­tient) mother as sub­ject. Each pho­to­graph in the se­ries is based on Whistler’s orig­i­nal, mim­ick­ing the ma­tron’s seated pose, but Smith­son’s pho­to­graphs de­pict the fig­ure in dif­fer­ent dress. In one, she’s adorned as a witch wear­ing a pointy hat. In an­other, she poses as a con­vict in striped pri­son garb, a ball and chain af­fixed to her leg. Smith­son also dressed her mother in sa­fari cloth­ing, in a wed­ding dress, un­der clown makeup, in a grass skirt, as Elvis, and in a strait­jacket. The one el­e­ment that never changes is her mother’s shoes — a vis­ual run­ning joke. It’s a playful, hu­mor­ous se­ries, and it was among the last ac­tiv­i­ties mother and daugh­ter en­gaged in to­gether be­fore her mother’s death. “We had a lot of fun mak­ing them,” Smith­son said, “but my mother never got to see the hand-painted images. I think she saw some of the black-and-white ones, but she died be­fore the se­ries was com­plete.”

Spring Fever, a vi­brant, smile-in­duc­ing se­ries of por­traits of seven-year-old girls, is a cel­e­bra­tion of life and beauty. The young girls seem fully at ease in front of the cam­era, their eyes and faces calm and ex­pres­sive. Smith­son dressed each girl in an­tique flo­ral hats and jew­elry and shot them against back­drops of flo­ral-pat­terned fab­rics. “There’s some­thing about the age of seven. It’s a tran­si­tional time for girls, who are just be­gin­ning to de­velop an iden­tity sep­a­rate from their par­ents and to be in­flu­enced by the world.” The por­traits are of the chil­dren of friends. “A few brought over eight-year-old girls, but in the course of one year, there’s a world of dif­fer­ence. Some­thing is lost. You know the Seven Up! films? I’d like to do an­other se­ries and pho­to­graph them again at four­teen.” In Michael Apted’s Up se­ries, the di­rec­tor re­vis­ited a num­ber of Bri­tish chil­dren ev­ery seven years, chart­ing their lives over the course of five decades.

There’s a de­cep­tive sim­plic­ity to many of Smith­son’s com­po­si­tions. Re­vis­it­ing Beauty, a re­cent body of work, com­bines land­scape im­agery and por­trai­ture in rich, sat­u­rated tones. The washed-out de­tails of the land­scape back­drops, col­ored in nearly monochromatic hues, are rem­i­nis­cent of tra­di­tional Chi­nese land­scape paint­ing. “I shoot the land­scapes my­self, so it’s my own orig­i­nal pho­tog­ra­phy,” Smith­son said. Us­ing the land­scapes as back­drops makes each im­age in Re­vis­it­ing Beauty a pho­to­graph within a pho­to­graph, an idea also ex­plored, more ex­plic­itly, in Por­traits of Por­traits, glam­our shots of movie stars ar­ranged as part of still-life com­po­si­tions. But it’s Smith­son’s fas­ci­na­tion with the Tech­ni­color age that’s re­flected in her vi­sion. Many of her sub­jects are friends, neigh­bors, and fam­ily mem­bers. It’s a world she knows, and Self & Oth­ers, as its ti­tle sug­gests, is also a glimpse into her life. The mono­graph closes with a fi­nal im­age: a grid of nine self-por­traits, point-of-view shots of the pho­tog­ra­pher’s feet in var­i­ous set­tings — crossed in front of a tele­vi­sion, stand­ing in run­ning wa­ter, at the edge of a gar­den, and clothed in white slip­pers em­bla­zoned with the words “Bates Mo­tel.”

In 1972’s “Cel­lu­loid He­roes,” Kinks front­man Ray Davies sang, “Cel­lu­loid he­roes never feel any pain.” Ex­press­ing a sen­ti­ment to which Smith­son may per­haps re­late, he added, “And cel­lu­loid he­roes never re­ally die.”

Char­lotte With a Fan, from the Recre­at­ing His­tory se­ries, 2005, hand-painted ge­latin sil­ver print; top, Cleo With Mir­ror, 2015, archival pig­ment ink print

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