I had the pleasure of great conversation with photographer Adam Smith this past Memorial Day weekend. Smith has captured more images through his lens than most folks double his age have gawked at. The 38-year-old Macon, Ga., native has photographed images featured as album art for Delta Blues legend Junior Kimbrough and country music statesmen Marty Stuart and Porter Wagoner. If for some reason that doesn’t strike your fancy, he’s done the same for the Drive-By Truckers and Lucero, the latter being several images on the new Lucero double-disc/quadruple-vinyl Live In Atlantarecord due out August 12, as well as shot what reads as a laundry list of my music collection’s most played.
Upon visiting Adam’s website, the first thing that comes to mind is “DAMN” as you scroll through his body of work. A “Last Of Their Kind” section that basically captures the spiritual essence of Junior Kimbrough, T Model Ford, RL Burnside, and the rest of the Fat Possum Records legends to the extent that you can feel the Mississippi heat and smell the old booze drying up on the dirt floor of the juke joint. There's a shot of Marty Stuart and late pedal steel guitar saint Ralph Mooney that’ll make the hair on your neck stand tall.
Move into the “Concerts” section and you’re on stage with Lucero, DBT, Glossary, Jason Isbell, Centro-matic, American Aquarium, Futurebirds, and hell, even the great Greg Allman, to name a few. His penchant for the art has earned him a chance to work with the great Annie Leibovitz, not once but twice, as well as an image on the back of a 2012 book about Blues legend Robert Johnson entitled Love In Vain, penned by Alan Greenberg with a forward by Martin Scorsese. Needless to say, for the last 15 years, Smith has been staking his claim as a premier documentary photographer. I had the chance to speak with him on how it all began, how he knew music was to be his photographical muse, and what the future holds for Adam Smith Photography.
SSKTDA: How did photography enter your life?
Adam Smith: I was a little into photography when I went to University of Mississippi. You know, just kind of picking up my Dad’s camera and kind of messing around with it. I went there just kind of floundering around, wondering where I should go, as far as majors go. By the skin of my teeth I got into this class that was almost closed out with Tom Rankin, who is now Director of the MFA Program in Documentary Arts at Duke University. At that time, he was the head of the Southern Studies Department and teaching photography.
I got into his class and really had no direction, no experience shooting film or printing in the darkroom, and was just kind of messing around. I was always into music and I was lucky enough to be in school down there while R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T Model Ford, Paul Wine Jones, and all the guys from that Fat Possum realm were doing their thing.
I guess what cemented the whole thing was visiting with a friend of Junior Kimbrough’s in Holly Springs, Miss., and I really had a kind of “come-to-Jesus moment,” just walking in there with the energy, and the sounds, and the people. Going out there that first time it really wasn’t a black/white thing. That night I had my camera and was able to just start shooting, but being mindful of my surroundings and really not trying to take advantage of it.
I was always made to feel welcome and actually brought friends back afterwards. I was never really on a first-name basis with Junior but I witnessed him charge people sometimes hundreds of dollars to shoot the place. That never happened with me. I was always taken in with open arms. It was almost like Junior could maybe see it in my eyes or something. I was definitely real lucky to say the least! I was moved to tears, I was so blown away. I was just wanting to capture the feeling, and energy, and realized this is what I was born to do!
I was also blessed with being able to have Tom Rankin in my life at that time. When I started getting into this Blues Room he really took me under his wing. He was one of those teachers I will give credit to until the day I die. He would actually make classes just for me so I was able to stay in the darkroom and just keep it going, you know, classes that weren’t even on the syllabus. He turned me in the right direction and was always there for me. What really cemented the deal was Amos Harvey, who was working over at Fat Possum in Water Valley, Miss., at the time. They were looking for some album artwork for the Meet Me In The City Junior album. I could do a whole interview on Amos, man! They got my picture and I don’t think I even got paid for it, but I didn’t give a shit. I was like, Oh my God, let’s do this. That little taste of having my picture on a Fat Possum album cover solidified everything for me. It’s a pretty iconic image and I’m real proud of it -- that and the R.L. Burnside stuff.
How did this streamline into the Americana, alt-country scene?
I lived in Oxford after I graduated with a business degree for a while, and then I moved back to Atlanta and lived there for six or seven years. I kind of just hit a wall in Oxford and decided to move back to Atlanta. I guess I had made a small name for myself by that point and I knew I wanted to keep my work in music because that’s what moved me. I wanted to get involved in the Atlanta and Athens music scenes. I’ve always been a little snooty towards music so I would literally pick out bands I liked and just go after them.
I got introduced to the Drive-By Truckers at the Earl when Jason (Isbell) was just coming on with them and their road manager Dick Cooper liked my work a lot. I was introduced to Patterson and they had seen my work before. Through that I just kind of pushed my way into the scene and did a lot of work with them early on, not so much anymore as the machine has gotten so damn big.
The Lucero thing is a funny story. They were coming to town around when their first album was coming out and I called and left a message for John C. I didn’t know those guys from Adam. They were playing at the Earl and were in Atlanta for the first time, broke as shit, and I guess they somehow got my address from Amos Harvey, who was North Mississippi Allstars tour manager at the time. [They] literally knocked on my door and said, “We hear you want to shoot us. By the way, can we sleep on your couch?” We became best friends after that and I’ve shot them all the way up til now.
That’s a band that always looks out for people that they know. I just got finished putting seven or eight images on their new live album layout that is coming out 8/12/14 from their Atlanta run, a year back or so.
Marty Stuart is near and dear to my heart, I did his album Ghost Train -- all the artwork for that album cover. That’s the image with him on the train car with all the people around him, and also that image you mentioned with him and Ralph Mooney. I believe it may have actually won a Grammy. He’s actually coming to Macon and I’ll get to see him. I’m real excited about that. He’s amazing to work with and is actually a photographer as well. If you work with Marty, he just makes you feel so comfortable and is one of the coolest, most down to earth people you’ll ever meet. Not to mention one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
One click away from Johnny Cash too, that’s pretty damn cool!
Honestly Scott, I’ve been one click away from a lot of things in my career so far.
Well, I’m sure your time is coming, Adam. Your art speaks for itself. How did that transition into you getting onstage for the live show images you’ve compiled through the years happen?
I guess, in trying to give back to the artists that I was fortunate enough to form relationships with. Starting out in the blues thing, I learned early on that I didn’t want to take anything from them -- I wanted people to know about what I was experiencing. I would always bring prints back to them, and when Junior (Kimbrough) died, Fat Possum claimed they didn’t have any money so Amos Harvey and I raised $800 to get him a headstone that is still there today.
Then Junior’s burnt down several years after that and Harvey and I did a huge benefit where we raised about $15,000 for new instruments that were lost in the fire and things like that. At the time, it was the most successful music benefit that had ever been done, according to the Oxford, Miss., newspaper. You can never really rebuild something like that but it was a good thing that brought some relief to people.
I’m a big believer in what goes around comes around, and I felt like I was given so much from that whole culture, it was the least I good do to give back since my rewards can’t really be talked about in words.
Long story, short, I’ve kind of used that same mentality with Lucero and the Drive-By Truckers, I always would look for bands and music that I really love. The kind of person I am makes it difficult to shoot moving images if I’m not really into what I’m shooting. My heart and soul needs to really be in it. There was a guy named Scott Munn who was the Drive-By Truckers tour manager at the time and he kept using me for shoots. At the time, the Truckers were just so outlawish and shit. Something that always sticks in my head is, I remember saying to Scott, “Hey, what are my boundaries on stage with them?” and Scott’s reply was, “I don’t think these guys have any fucking boundaries.”
It was a show at Centennial Park [Atanta] and it was my first time shooting them on stage in a live setting --years and years ago. I just worked my ass off and wanted to be there to shoot. It kind of goes back to my belief in what goes around comes around. The money going out is a hell of a lot more than the money coming in, but it’s something I can’t see myself not being a part of and I do love it.
Especially now, with the cameras on phones and the whole digital age, the whole scene is getting so convoluted. You give somebody a quote and they just want to go find someone that’s a little more hungry and can do it for a third of what you can do it for. It’s like beating your head against the wall sometimes.
Scott Munn was also instrumental in getting me into the classic country artists to shoot. He went on to manage Marty Stuart and he introduced me to Porter Wagoner, and that’s how I ended up with that opportunity. From what I understand, those were some of the last Porter Wagoner images ever taken, too. They turned out real well.
In this business, you have to take everything you can while you’re hot cause you may not be the talk of the town next week. That’s why all these guys work so fucking hard touring and stuff like that. The Truckers have created almost a media darling of themselves and Lucero is definitely heating up a lot more these days too. Both bands have worked their asses off to get there but the machine tends to get bigger and bigger. They’ve both done a really great job and I couldn’t be happier for them.
I agree with you. I get to see these bands in the Northeast and it’s a whole different animal than when I’ve seen them in the Southeast. I can remember seeing Lucero shows up here when there were maybe ten people in the bar and now they're packing venues, which is very interesting to see. I’m real happy for them too, because they deserve it. But you certainly feel some pride of being involved as a fan early on...
We spoke about the Junior Kimbrough album cover but I also noticed a Robert Johnson book cover on your website. How did that come about?
I did that Crossroads image a long time ago and I forget how they even found me. It was the University of Minnesota press that contacted me on that and, originally, they wanted to use that Crossroads image on the cover of the book. It’s a book by Allen Greenberg. He wrote it like a playwright so it actually reads like a play. It’s calledLove In Vain and the forward was written by Martin Scorsese. On the back cover, there are quotes from Bob Dylan and Keith Richards. Don’t quote me on this but I had heard that Scorsese may have bought the rights to possibly do a movie on it, but whether or not that is going to happen, I don’t know.
Originally they wanted to use that image for the cover and asked me how much I wanted and then low-balled the hell out of me. I was real wary to do it for such little money. I wanted to do the cover so damn bad, but the people from his estate demanded that they had to use one of the two known images of Robert as the actual cover. So they moved my image to the back cover, which I’m glad to have made it on, and I’m really proud of that and the whole experience. When you can say that your work was on a book about Robert Johnson, with Scorsese doing the forward, and there’s comments by Dylan and Keith Richards, and knowing that they’ve seen my fucking work, that ain’t a bad deal. At the same time, you have to continue to work or people can forget about you real quick. You have to always be turning something out.
Have you ever been commissioned by an artist or band to do an album cover?
Lucero was the most recent one. In the past, I’ve worked a lot with the Truckers and their albums. I did all the images for Live At The 40 Watt and some of my images were used on the layout for the documentary about them,The Secret To A Happy Ending, as well as in the film itself. I get a lot of stuff on the back end. For instance, there’s a guy who is supposed to be doing a documentary in the Delta on pedal steel guitar players, actually from Princeton [University], who asked to use some of the Mooney images from the Marty Stuart shoot. All of those damn guys always say, “Oh we don’t have any money to give you,” which is fucking frustrating because you want it to be in there but it’s like, I’ve got to eat over here too, dude.
Do you have a full time job as well, or is this your primary gig?
No I have a full time job right now. I work at Willingham Sash and Door Company that my father, who passed away about eight years ago, used to own and my brother bought since. It was opened in 1882 and it runs architectural wood working, specialized moldings, windows and sashes made by hand. It’s all really almost like art work style stuff; very cool place. It’s tough, too, because growing up and visiting the mill, there would be about 20 people employed and now it’s down to about four, excluding me. It’s a job, though, and it keeps a little money coming in. Then I take on everything I possibly can in the photo world to keep those juices flowing.
That’s a good question you asked, because what I have learned with the wood working stuff I’ve been able to mix with my photography. I found a guy that can print my work digitally on a piece of translucent paper down here in Macon and I’ve been making these real cool light boxes. I hand-build each box around the print with materials made at our mill and sandwich the print between two pieces of glass, then back light the image. It’s a real cool piece for the wall in your house and it’s a little more interactive than just a regular print. They're coming out really cool and people seem to really like them.
I do some work for the Big House Foundation down here and the Allman Brothers Museum. I give a piece to their benefit every year and they’ve been really well accepted, so I’m trying to get my name out and get people knowing that I’m doing it. I’ve been putting them in the silent auction and I think one bid all the way up to about $750. I’ve been able to sort of revisit my work in that regard, instead of always looking for something new to shoot. I’ve been able to go back and look at it in a different light, no pun intended. Just to be able to pick out images and be doing something that I’ve not seen, not saying that the idea has never been done before, but certainly not in the way I’m making and displaying them. It keeps me creatively thinking when times are slow and people aren’t knocking down [my] door to get [me] to go out and shoot stuff. It’s a therapeutic way for me to still keep in touch with my own work.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use? I wanted to throw that in there for the photography-minded folks that are reading this.
I try to shoot real stripped-down. I fought tooth and nail when I was in graduate school in Atlanta, at Georgia State, against digital when it was kind of first coming out. I thought it was complete bullshit. I thought, This isn’t art -- back then I was shooting film, developing the film by hand, picking out the negatives, and getting it printed and then scanning it and getting it over to say, the Drive-By Truckers. With digital it’s literally stripped away that process and it’s a little bit depressing as it’s not quite as artistic and creative, but you have to [do it] nowadays. I knew if I wanted to do this, everyone wants their images and they want them yesterday, so digital became kind of a necessary evil.
To answer your question, I use a 5D Mark 2, with a Canon Red Ring Series. I got into that when I assisted twice with Annie Leibovitz. She came to the Delta when I was still there and hired me to produce two weeks down there with her and take her around the Delta for her book American Music, which turned out real well. She hired me again in Atlanta when they were doing a Vanity Fair shoot for Gabourey Sidibe (the actress form the movie Precious). I’m not one of those guys at the show with one of those huge lenses. I’m pretty stripped-down. I carry one camera. Of course, if I’m doing a one-on-one shoot, I’ll have strobe lighting, but if I’m at a show, I try to take advantage of whatever natural lighting I can. I’m not by any means a professional lighting guy, and I think that shows through on some of my images. I think that’s what I’m known for. I prefer to shoot the nitty-gritty, real image of what’s there and capture what I see instead of a commercially super clean image. That’s just the niche I fell into and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s just not me any other way.
What’s your favorite scenario to shoot? We’ve mentioned still photos, live photos, onstage photos, but if you had to choose a favorite, which would it be?
There’s no doubt about it. I’ve been doing this professionally now for about 15 years and recently I got hired to work on this project called Mississippi Rising, back down in the Delta. They hired me to show them around down there for four or five days and I don’t think they knew what they were getting into. It all kind of fell by the wayside. But to go back down there to that place, that is what I love to do. To just go down there and not have anything else on your mind, just trying to pick out things that you know about and even stuff you don’t know about, that you stumble on -- that’s the kind of stuff I thrive on. My documentary stuff is what I really gravitate toward. The live stuff is definitely fun and easy to feel good about, but the documentary stuff I go out and find on my own is really it for me.
This guy from Men’s Health magazine, Jeff Griffith, just hired me to shoot for a magazine he puts out on the side called Hallowed Ground, about the Civil War and CivilWar.org. He’s an incredible designer from up in New York and he was doing an article on Andersonville Prison, about an hour outside of Macon. I’m actually sending that on to him today. He gave me full artistic control and I really enjoyed it, except for almost no pay. But it really turned out well and I’m proud of it. I’m cool with that as long as people tell me up front: “Hey, you can shoot this the way you see it, we love your work so much.” That kind of lessens the sting from not making any money at it.
Where do you hope to see Adam Smith Photography in the next ten years?
You know, that’s a scary question. It’s something that I’ll always do. Recently I just had my website redone. I’m learning more about that every day. I’ve been kind of waiting around for things to pick up and, through some self-analysis, I’m realizing that I need to get off my ass and start up a new project on my own -- get out there, back to the basics in what I made a name for myself in. I have a few ideas swirling around in my head. It’s just a matter of having the time and the funds to get out and support it so someone else can have a look at it.
I hope that I will still be trucking along ten years from now and am always willing to talk to people and do interviews, just help spread my name through all the outlets that are there now. Social media and stuff like that. I know it’s one of those things that just sort of happens, but I don’t want people to go apeshit over my work after I die, you know. I’m always open for outside projects and teaming up with the right people, so you really never know.
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Adam continued to explain some of his new project ideas. To say the least, each one blew me away more than the next. He mentioned his undying love for NPR and how he wishes he had endless funds to donate during their pledge drives. Coincidentally, Smith will be appearing on a Little Rock, Ark., radio show entitled Tales From The South,telling more stories of his Junior Kimbrough days and answering some more questions about his work. It’s picked up by NPR and will air 7/1/14 on the “Tin Roof” series. Check the website to see if it’s in your area or how to tune in otherwise.
Visit Adam's website for more of his images and contact information, www.adamsmithphotography.com
+Words: Scott Zuppardo+