I remember the moment I knew I wanted to be a photographer. It was during a lecture by Mike Smith on the work of Robert Frank. If I were betting, I would say that Frank’s book The Americans still holds the record for luring unsuspecting (but particularly inclined) viewers away from their previous pursuits and into an almost devotional obsession with photography. For me, however, it had as much to do with what was being said, and how it was being said, as it did with the pictures themselves. I had not previously heard anyone speak so clearly, humorously, and with such original experiential understanding about art before this. It was clear that the person talking about these great pictures was informed by his own practice of trying to make great pictures himself. I doubt I could have articulated that at the time, but over the next few months I witnessed it again and again in lectures on Levitt, Koudelka, Evans, Atget, etc. There were many more, of course, but I specifically remember these lectures early in my studies as coming from someone who was regularly wrestling with and incorporating the influence of the photographers he was teaching about within the habit of his own work. As I got to know Mike better what I sensed in these lectures was confirmed. His knowledge and love of the history of photography is inextricably linked with the prolific personal practice he maintains. This is a powerful combination for a teacher and artist. It was enough to persuade me that, whatever I needed to do to make a living, I wanted photography to be a way of life.
Due to its breadth and constant probing progress, Mike’s work is not easily packaged or conveniently summed up. His subject, loosely, is the place he has decided to live in and look at, primarily East Tennessee. Under this umbrella his pictures vary widely with a pulse that is his own. Perceptive empathy is partnered with biting critique and a gallows sense of humor to inform pictures filled with mud, decay, the thick Appalachian atmosphere, crosses, trucks, doll heads, coon paws, and the encroachment of mass culture into the landscape. Although the land seems to be the overall envelope in which these theatrics are delivered, Mike’s pictures are ultimately about people. People in their homes and on their land. People in their vehicles and in parking lots. Many of his pictures do not actually include people, but there is almost always evidence of their presence. What people make and how they manage to live interests him a great deal. Besides his subject, it is the ongoing investigation of how the camera can be mastered to render light, color, and space, transforming the four-dimensional world into a two-dimensional picture, that continues to drive Mike’s pursuit. This seemingly endless curiosity formed by the lessons of hard work has allowed Mike’s perception to evolve, mature, and define itself uniquely within this visual language. Although Mike has been looking at East Tennessee for over thirty years he seems not to tire of learning new things about his subject through the lens of his work. His eye has not become bored by familiarity but has continued to search for new elements to add to an immense body of work that will and should be understood in its entire oeuvre as a single evolving relationship with a subject and a medium.
I have had the pleasure of witnessing at least part of this progress as I’ve worked with Mike printing in his darkroom and out in the field. I have seen the energy he exhibits when investigating a new subject on editorial assignments. (Climbing up the backside of a mountain to trespass and photograph strip mining, almost having a load of earth and rock dumped on us in the process, stands out in my memory.) I’ve also experienced his generosity as a teacher. If a student is engaged in their work, Mike is all in. That level of attention by someone so committed to their own work was a driving force behind the consistent pursuit of mine. As I get older with a family and a job, Mike’s constant prolific productivity is even more impressive (and occasionally depressing). It’s tough to keep up with him! Seeing so much new work every time I visit reminds me of the potential of new discoveries gained from a committed, lifelong daily practice.
Discussing the work of your teacher is tricky because personal and artistic influences are difficult to separate neatly. In this brief essay I’ve dropped that attempt. This seems appropriate to me when discussing Mike’s work because, as much as anyone I’ve ever known, his life, his artistic practice, and his influence as a teacher are thoroughly integrated. His legacy as a teacher is secure in the continual achievements of his students, and his unique contribution to photography will be progressively realized as the most exhaustive in-depth visual investigation of the surrounding mountain culture. Ultimately, his work is his best lesson, and it’s one that will last.