“Thrifting is my middle name,” says photographer Aline Smithson. “I did do some of that, I used some of my own wardrobe, and photographer friends shared some clothing too.” Aline is quite the photographer. She’s the Editor in Chief of LenScratch and works on some very creative, conceptual photography. It’s easy to look at her photos and immediately fall in love with every frame. That’s what happened to me as I poured over Hollywood at Home, a photo project Aline did as an homage to old Hollywood.
A former fashion editor, Aline is meticulous about getting the details correct. First off, she shoots film. Her work has recently earned her an award as a Hasselblad Heroine. And if you stare at the images long enough, you’ll be lost in the various details. She uses color with intention, carefully chooses the wardrobe, and combines it all with the lighting of the magazines you’d see from the classic 1900s. What’s more, Aline uses the square format which is arguably one of the more difficult things to do. But all of this combines to create masterful photos.
The Essential Camera Gear of Aline Smithson
- Hasselblad 503C
“For this series, I used my 503C Hassleblad and one hot light. I still only shoot film and own an arsenal of film cameras—Maymia RZ 67, Mamiya 6, Mamiya 7, two Hasselblads, 6 Rolleiflexes, a ton of toy cameras, a widelux…and more. Let me know if you want to sell something!! The word “gear” is an interesting one. It’s a word I’ve never used. I think of the camera as a partner. Some people complain how expensive film photography is, but since I use decades old cameras and shoot very few images, I may spend less than someone who is constantly upgrading their digital camera and shooting thousands of images. My artistry comes when taking the photograph as I do my editing before I shoot or in camera. Digital photographers find their creativity in the editing…it’s just a different way of working.”
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Aline Smithson: Before I was a photographer, I was a painter and got my degree in art. My father was a hobbyist photographer, and we had a darkroom in our basement, and my uncle was an editorial photographer. Oddly, I never considered photography as my path. For a decade, I was a NY fashion editor, though continued to paint during that time. After I had my children and became the family documentarian, I found my uncle’s twin-lens Rolleiflex and I realized that I could use a camera, rather than a paintbrush, to make art—and never looked back. I took a few classes, learned how to use the darkroom, and then spent many years anonymously working on my craft.
Phoblographer: You’re a photographer who does a ton of different projects that are creative and documentary-based. For most photographers, it’s a fine line to walk. But that’s what Hollywood at Home feels like. Where did the idea come from?
Aline Smithson: All of my work comes directly from my life. I see my photography as an autobiography of sorts.
I have always been fascinated by how celebrity is created—not by the current stable of reality personalities, whose stardom is possible without talent or reason, but rather by the classical idea of a Movie Star. I had an early realization that the people we fawn over in the movies had childhoods just like the rest of us, as I watched a few of my classmates find their way onto the big screen. But I also came to observe that much of the mystique and glamour came from the marketing machines of Hollywood, where an ordinary Kansas-born kid was transformed into something more in a photograph, through makeup, wardrobe, a striking pose, or a flattering angle of light. Over the years, I’ve pored over hundreds of photographs of Hollywood hopefuls in books that celebrate the efforts of studio photographers such as Clarence Sinclair Bull, George Hurrell, Frank Powolny, and Jack Albin. All of them had the ability to exploit the visual markers of success and produce images that turned a Norma Jeanne Baker into a Marilyn Monroe.
Eventually, I set out to make my own portraits, inspired by the Technicolor images of the nineteen-forties and fifties. I would re-create the look of these vintage publicity photos but use ordinary people. I recruited men and women I know—family, friends, even a nurse I met during a hospital visit—to join my casting couch.
Phoblographer: Of course this is all vintage inspired. How did you find these locations and talk people into being your subjects for these photos?
Aline Smithson: 75% of the photographs were shot in my home, and a few in friends’ homes. I only photograph people I know—that was the point of the project: to elevate someone I know into a false stardom. My children appear int the images, as do neighbors, friends, and other family members. Everyone was thrilled to work on the series, though they had no idea really what I was doing. My children have been in front of my camera since day one, so this was just another activity by their artist mother. After a decade as a fashion editor, I am very aware of location, propping, and wardrobe.
It’s also important to point out that I only work alone. No assistant, no hair and make-up people. It makes everything much more intimate. I would help the subjects with hair and make-up and then worked quickly as I had already pre-conceived many of the photographs.
Phoblographer: What was it like trying to get the wardrobe together for this? Was there a lot of thrifting involved?
Aline Smithson: You know me so well! Thrifting is my middle name…I did do some of that, I used some of my own wardrobe and photographer friends shared some clothing too. That all was part of the joy in creating the series. I love the hunt!
Phoblographer: You’re using color very intentionally in this series. When you were coming up with the ideas for the various shoots, what sort of research did you do?
Aline Smithson: I own a gazillion books on old Hollywood, particularly the “candid” photographs taken of movie stars at home in the 40’s-60’s, shot on Kodachrome, filled will brilliantly with color. I studied lighting and pose and tried to understand how an ordinary person can turn into something more.
Phoblographer: You have to tell us the story about the dog photo! Please?!
Aline Smithson: My dog, Riley, was always interested in being part of what I was photographing. When I’d set up a seamless backdrop, she would trot onto the set and plop down in the middle, ready to work. She suffered through a lot of my ideas…she wore animal masks, wigs, and appears in other projects. She was a spectacular dog and is very, very missed.
Phoblographer: Was the format and crop of the final images intentional? They look like square or 6×7 film.
Aline Smithson: Almost all my work is square as most of the cameras I work with are square format. I love the square—one of my biggest visual influences growing up were album covers. I loved how so much could be conveyed in one square image.
Phoblographer: I’m sure you shot tons of photos for this. But what dictated whether or not a photo made it into the final project?
Aline Smithson: When I was a fashion editor, I was responsible for editing all the film and it’s a skill I bring to my own work. There are images that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another. A photograph must have a certain kind of magic, be elevated, and show a level of excellence. I juror a lot of shows for different organizations and I am keenly aware of what photographs rise to the top.
Phoblographer: How much inspiration came from Mad Men? This almost feels as if it took place on the West Coast.
Aline Smithson: The project was created before Mad Men and you are right, everything was shot in Los Angeles, where I live. I grew up in Silverlake, an area right next to Hollywood. In high school I worked at a department store on Hollywood and Vine and at night, would step out onto the sidewallks covered with stars.
Phoblographer: How has the pandemic affected you as a creative? How do you think you’re evolving?
Aline Smithson: I did create a fun project during the pandemic, Undercover, about losing our identities when wearing masks. The best part of the stay-at-home mandate was that it allowed me to revisit my archive in a whole new way, combing images, vintage and my own, to create new conversations. I started several small books with stories about my life, and it got me thinking about how I want to use my time and create my legacy. I want to leave something for my children and grandchildren, and the best way to do that is in book form.
The other thing that happened during the pandemic is that zoom opened my world in a new way. I was asked to teach all over the country, and give lectures, and moderate panels, etc. I honestly have never been busier. I never imagined I would be stuck in a chair in front of a zoom screen for 7-8 hours a day!
About Aline Smithson
Aline Smithson is a visual artist, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles, California. Best known for her conceptual portraiture and a practice that uses humor and pathos to explore the performative potential of photography. Growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, her work is influenced by the elevated unreal. She received a BA in Art from the University of California at Santa Barbara and was accepted into the College of Creative Studies, studying under artists such as William Wegman, Allen Rupersburg, and Charles Garabedian. After a career as a New York Fashion Editor working alongside some the greats of fashion photography, Smithson returned to Los Angeles and her own artistic practice.
She has exhibited widely including over 40 solo shows at institutions such as the Griffin Museum of Photography, the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, the Shanghai, Lishui, and Pingyqo Festivals in China, The Rayko Photo Center in San Francisco, the Center of Fine Art Photography in Colorado, the Tagomago Gallery in Barcelona and Paris, and the Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Atlanta. In addition, her work is held in a number of public collections and her photographs have been featured in numerous publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, PDN (cover), the PDN Photo Annual, Communication Arts Photo Annual, Harper’s, Eyemazing, Soura, Visura, Shots, Pozytyw, and Silvershotz magazines.
Smithson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Lenscratch, a daily journal on photography. She has been an educator at the Los Angeles Center of Photography since 2001 and her teaching spans the globe. In 2012, Smithson received the Rising Star Award through the Griffin Museum of Photography for her contributions to the photographic community and also and she received the prestigious Excellence in Teaching Award from CENTER. In 2014 and 2019, Smithson’s work was selected for the Critical Mass Top 50.
In 2015, the Magenta Foundation published her first significant monograph, Self & Others: Portrait as Autobiography. In 2016, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum commissioned Smithson to a series of portraits for the upcoming Faces of Our Planet Exhibition. In the Fall of 2018 and again in 2019, her work was selected as a finalist in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In 2019, Kris Graves Projects commissioned her to create the book LOST II: Los Angeles that is now sold out. Peanut Press Publishing released her monograph, Fugue State in Fall of 2021, also sold out. Her books are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty Museum, the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, among others. In 2022, Smithson was honored as a Hassleblad Heroine. With the exception of her cell phone, she only shoots film.