Through the Lens of Christopher Smith

I first discovered Christopher Smith’s work scrolling through Instagram one night and what I found was truly sensational. It seemed this guy had a rolodex of characters up his sleeve – none of which ascribing whole heartedly to any gender, age or period of time.

When I then read in his bio that it was just ‘Me in my bedroom’ I realised this solo visual diary was completely self actualised and something monumental for our selfie obsessed generation. Forget colossal budgets and elaborate shoots, Christopher creates little worlds of wonder using only a self timer camera, some makeup and a whole lot of passion.

We catch up with Christopher to chat about his work and creative processes.

So all I know so far is you’re 22 and live in South Africa.. would you tell me about yourself and how you got involved in photography?

Sure, I live in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth in South Africa. I love it here. It’s such a relaxed and friendly place – we are actually known as “The Friendly City”. When I was growing up here, I immersed myself in the world of celebrity, fashion, film and music. At around 10 years old, I convinced myself that one day I would work in film or television, as a prop or set designer. But my interest in photography actually started when I began taking self-portraits with my cell phone when I was about 15. I say self-portraits, because this was before Instagram and the term ‘selfie’. I began taking pictures of myself in my bedroom, putting sheets up as backdrops and wearing old clothes and accessories that I borrowed from my mother and grandmother. Initially, the pictures were motivated purely by vanity and curiosity; I didn’t take them seriously at all. But eventually, I got tired of doing the same thing over and over. I wanted to transform myself in each new image and that is when I started looking at fashion photography for inspiration.

Whose work do you look up to?

I like to think my eye has been shaped primarily by fashion photography. I love the work of photographers like Erwin Blumenfeld, George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst and Man Ray. These photographers worked hard to create their images. The lighting, backgrounds, sets, compositions, colours, models, clothing, hair and makeup in their work were always so carefully considered. I have never seen photography as a tool for documenting or capturing any sort of reality; I actually find my own reality quite boring. I like glamour, sex and violence, all of which are very far from my own life. My pictures are all completely contrived. Steven Meisel is another brilliant image-maker who I admire and who meticulously considers all these things, seamlessly transitioning between references while still retaining a distinct style.

Away from photography, what inspires you?

Eventually, I started to get bored of looking at fashion photography, because once I had looked at the work and visions of my favourites, there was not much more to do. So I started looking more broadly at visual culture in general, mainly through books and the Internet. Fashion, pornography, art, politics, the news, movies, music, music videos, and documentaries have all influenced me in some way. I think everything I’ve looked at has subconsciously become a part of me and influenced the way I look at the world around me. The most important thing for me is to keep looking and to not give up the hunger for finding new sources of inspiration. I think complacency is the biggest enemy of creativity, I never want to feel it. Luckily, I am quite young and always learning, so with every new image I find or that I create, I still get a renewed sense of excitement in what I am doing!

How often do you take the photos?

I usually take them when I have an idea or when I am feeling inspired. Ideally, I like to get at least two new images per week. Generally, weekends are the most productive for me, but sometimes I am just not inspired or too busy to focus and I end up getting nothing worthwhile. It really all depends on my mood.

Talk me through your set up. What are your essentials to shoot before all the props?

Well, I take all the pictures in my bedroom at home. It is a small space, but it is perfect for me. For lighting, I either use the natural daylight from my window or a tungsten reading light. The background is either my wall, or sheets of coloured paper stuck to the wall behind me. Many people are surprised that I use a point-and- shoot camera to take all my pictures. I’ve never really seen the need for big camera equipment my images don’t need it. The technical aspects of photography have never really interested me beyond the basics; I am way more interested in the content and composition of the images. I actually welcome imperfection in the quality of my pictures; it’s not something that scares me at all.

Do you see a prop, which sparks the idea for a photo, or are they more planned?

I’d say it’s a combination of both. I usually build a vague image in my head beforehand and if it involves some type of prop, I go out and look for it. Other times, I come across an interesting object and then begin building an image around that object. One thing I never do is go into a session blindly and if I do, the results are usually terrible. I always need some sort of image in my head to start with otherwise it is like trying to find something in the dark…hopeless.

I only see your work on Instagram, which in itself is quite special – I’ve seen Julien d’Ys (Hair Styling Icon) is an avid supporter. Talk me through how you use the app and who has been supportive of your work?

I love Julien d’Ys! Not only does he work with incredible image-makers, he is also a legendary and inspiring artist in his own right – a master of hair, sculpture and painting. He has shown me so much support and encouragement right from the beginning and is actually the only person I have gifted prints of my work to. I also love that great hair stylists like Garren and Jimmy Paul follow me, as well as the brilliant makeup artist Tom Pecheux and legendary fashion editor Paul Cavaco. These people are so inspiring to me, because they are real masters of transformation, I never underestimate the role that good styling, hair and makeup play in creating great images. Most surprising to me was the fact that actor and director Xavier Dolan started following me – I still don’t understand how he stumbled upon my profile, but that is what makes Instagram such an amazing place! I have also been lucky enough to get likes from the Queen of Makeup herself, Pat McGrath and the genius art director, Fabien Baron.

How did you feel about using your body in your work? You aren’t shy about it, which I commend as it’s a very public platform. What do you think?

I don’t really think about it, to be honest. I kind of distance my ‘real’ self from the version of me in the pictures. In real-life I am a bit of an introvert, but when it comes to the images, I become very uninhibited. I think that is because I am always role-playing in the pictures. None of them represents the ‘real’ me at all, and as a result I kind of feel safe doing whatever I want in them. My body becomes an illustration for my ideas. Whether I am nude, bald, covered in blood, masculine or feminine; they are all just temporary looks, I never feel self-conscious or shy about any of it.

If money weren’t an option what kind of shoot would you create?

Honestly, I don’t think I would change very much. I like the simplicity of how I work, it allows me to focus on the fundamentals of the image: content and composition. I don’t just want to do self-portraits for the rest of my life. I would also love to do some portraits, fashion and health and beauty pictures for great magazines in the future. I like photos that illustrate ideas. I don’t feel I really need that much equipment and space to do my pictures either, maybe just a larger studio with good natural light. But who knows what the future holds? For now, I’m still in my bedroom, creating my own little worlds.

Christopher Smith’s work can be found on his Instagram: @mechrissmith

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