Patrick Smyth: Big or small, shooting everything in sight

An F-35 over Huntington Beach. Photo by Patrick Smyth

Passion projects

Conversing with photographer Patrick Smyth

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Intrigued by the grimacing heads sculpted by Franz Xavier Messerschmidt in the late 18th century (and by the Getty’s “Vexed Man” in particular), Reidar Schopp invited several photographers to his San Pedro studio in order to shoot one another in facial poses — frowns, scowls, sneers — that would have made Messerschmidt proud. I too was invited, to stop by and observe, but pretty soon I’d entered the fray and was posing and photographing as well.

Matriarch from the Kayan tribe in Myanmar, March 2019, prior to the coup. Photo by Patrick Smyth

That was how I first met Patrick Smyth, a member of PADA (Photographers and Digital Artists), one of the seven artist groups associated with the Palos Verdes Art Center. We didn’t exchange more than a few words that day (despite scowling or sneering at one another), but that chance encounter several months ago led to us sitting in his Torrance backyard and discussing his photographs. It’s an extensive body of work, the images artful, often colorful, crisp and precise.

Therefore one would expect to hear tales of art classes, darkroom adventures and photography courses, let alone accounts of hours spent in photo galleries. But, no, it didn’t unfold in quite that way.

“I’m a full-time chemical engineer,” Smyth says, “and this is just a passion I have.”

If so, it’s a passion that most people — and I think most photographers — would envy.

Smyth was born and raised in a town of about a thousand people, tucked away in mid-America Kansas.

Patrick Smyth. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“I went through 8th grade there. My father was an educator and my mother was in education as well.” Then they moved a couple of states west. “So I went to high school in Littleton, Colorado, and I went to the Colorado School of Mines, which is a small engineering school in Golden, Colorado.” That’s where he picked up a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering. “Then I came out here as an engineer, and have been here since 1980.”

And you’ve been an engineer all that time?

“Yes.”

So you should be retiring at some point soon?

“Well, I’m still enjoying it,” Smyth replies. “I like mentoring the young engineers. I want to be in a position to retire to something, not necessarily away from something.” And what that means is: “Photography and more photography and travel.”

Homeschooled

Looking at Smyth’s body of work, one may be forgiven for assuming that he also has a background in the visual arts.

“I’ve never studied art,” he says, only adding that while he did indeed enjoy art class in grade school, he was more into sports. However, trips as a youngster with his family to the mountains and so forth instilled in him “a sense of wildlife and landscapes.” And one doesn’t need a Ph.D. from Harvard to appreciate the beauties of nature.

“I’m self-taught,” Smyth replies afterwards when asked where he learned his photographic expertise. He also notes that one can pick up pointers from YouTube. That said, he’s acquired some personal instruction along the way.

Blue hour in Bruges. Photo by Patrick Smyth

For example, while on a trip to London, where his daughter Pilar was studying at the time, Smyth was able to meet Gavin Hoey, whom he’d been following on YouTube. This came about through his wife, Doré, who arranged the meeting as a gift to her husband. They were invited to Hoey’s home, and Smyth received what he says was his first lesson in portrait photography.

Model in a Tuscan barn, the shot inspired after encountering Caravaggio’s works in Rome. Photo by Patrick Smyth

More recently, he and Doré were in Tuscany, Rome and Florence, where Smyth enrolled in a four-day workshop led by Damien Lovegrove, yet another UK photographer, “who wrote a book and got the attention of Martha Stewart.” Smyth also singles out the work of Haze Kware, who lives in France. “I’m attracted to his use of dancers, fabrics, and in Toulouse (where Kware lives) he shoots in the cathedral. I like that.”

But it was also while in Italy that Smyth sought out the paintings of Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610), known for his chiaroscuro and accentuated shadows.

“I don’t follow particular photographers,” he answers when asked, “but I like to go back to the masters in painting, and really draw inspiration from them.” As for Caravaggio, “I’m intrigued by his darks, and then the tenebrism. I really just discovered that as I started to shoot portraitures.”

And so, while in the Tuscany workshop, which utilized two professional models (a blonde, Leo Leblanche, and a brunette, Mischkah Scott), Smyth was mindful of what he’d observed in the Caravaggios, and I think it’s an influence that he’s called up and utilized, to some degree, ever since. It’s often a mixture of stark lighting and deep shadows.

Ballerina Ellen Bigelow, from their most recent session. Photo by Patrick Smyth

Back in this country, Smyth has been collaborating with ballerina and ballet instructor Ellen Bigelow. He first met her through PADA and photographed her in various colorful kimonos, and subsequently has shot pictures of her in balletic poses inside a rental dance studio in Torrance.

“Ellen’s just been great to work with,” he says, and receptive to his ideas as they try out one pose or another. “Some things will work, some things won’t. I’ve learned that, when you’re shooting a ballerina, what looks great to me may not be technically right for them.” But one thing’s for sure, he’s come up with some striking images of Ellen and hopes there’ll be more.

Wearing many hats

On his website, Smyth’s photographs are grouped by category, and there are quite a few of them: People, Wild Life, Scenics, Fine Art, Fashion, Fun, Places, Flora, Things, Macro, and one called the 100 Hats Project. But is there one category among these that he prefers above the others?

“I found myself not wanting to be in a certain genre,” he says, “and that’s why I have these categories. I’m kind of looking for shiny things, beautiful things, and so it’s not important for me to stay or hang in a certain niche. I think it opens up more of the world in photography,” and he mentions his Macro category which represents his photographic foray into the microscopic world. So in case you were wondering, it’s not all Stonehenge and dancers. “Things like that,” Smyth says, summing it up, “continue to keep it fresh and different.”

In his backyard, a macro shot. “Beauty is all around us. Sometimes we just have to look a little closer.” Photo by Patrick Smyth

In short, he’s open-minded and goes with what moves him at the moment.

And then there’s the 100 hats project, which began as a way of challenging himself, perhaps to test his personal comfort zone, because he’s been reluctant to simply walk up to people and ask if he can take their picture.

Suri tribe woman in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia, adorned in colorful flora and clay. Photo by Patrick Smyth

The theme of the project (which I imagine he could still add to) is “characters with hats/hats with character.” Although some of the capped and hatted folks (from infants to nonagenarians) he’s shot are friends, many are complete strangers. But the nature of this series led him, by way of approaching people, to “sort of overcome my insecurities.” Which never seems to be a problem for members of the paparazzi, some of the pushiest beings on the planet.

Smyth isn’t really thinking of assembling his hat photos into any sort of publication. “I did it just pretty much for me,” he says, “but at the same time there are so many stories behind the pictures.” Later in our conversation he says that maybe in his retirement he’ll gather some of those stories together, and then who knows what’ll happen after that.

Although he professes to be drawn to a multitude of subjects, my impression is that he’s more attuned to portraiture, or “the human element” as he puts it. Remember what Smyth said earlier, that after he’s set chemical engineering behind him what he’d like to pursue is “photography and more photography and travel.”

A Suri beauty in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia. Photo by Patrick Smyth

If we assemble all the pieces from what he’s been saying, one clear goal would be to photograph models in stunning locations, such as castles and cathedrals. And of course the models can’t be wearing just ordinary clothes, slacks and T-shirts and tennis shoes. No, there’s an elegance that’s calling from the sidelines.

“I could have seen myself being some sort of fashion designer,” Smyth says. “I probably couldn’t do it, but I’m intrigued by fashion.”

Retirement, when it comes, is going to open up lots of doors, a lot of photographic possibilities, and Smyth will be ready for them.

To see more of Patrick Smyth’s work, visit his website at digitalsmyth.com. PEN

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