Photographer Brian Bowen Smith Finds Beauty in Everything

World-renowned photographer Brian Bowen Smith has long been a favorite of Marc Jacobs--he's the man behind the images taken for his infamous Naked tees promoting skin cancer awareness and has worked with the designer on campaigns for years now. With the release of his second book, "Projects," at the New York location of Bookmarc, the Marc Jacobs' bookstore, Thread host and supermodel Jessica Stam sat down with the artist to discuss his latest project, shooting naked celebrities and his Marc Jacobs connection.
Stam and Smith | Photo courtesy of Dena Giannini for The Thread
Jessica Stam: Is there a running theme or certain composition that links all the images together in your book?
Brian Bowen Smith: There are like seven or eight different projects that I have been working on and the only link is that they are all just projects that I am continually working and expanding on. It's literally an autobiography of what I have been doing since shooting Selma Blair, who was the very first celebrity I photographed, and then the girl in the front with a cigarette is the very first photo I ever shot. There's commercial work and all the stuff in between, so I try to make everything beautiful, even stuff that is weird. I always am thinking, "We should do something cool." You know what I mean? The ongoing theme is simply to seek out beauty in anything and everything, and try to make it make sense.

JS: Your pictures are really beautiful.
BBS: Thank you so much! It's missing one thing but well get that on the next one.

JS: I saw that you chose Selma Blair to write the forward for your book, "Projects."
BBS: Selma [Blair], Cindy [Crawford], and Caroline Murphy. I used to assist [for Herb Ritts] so when I first shot Cindy is was such a surreal, like "Oh my god, that’s Cindy Crawford!" moment. Since then we have become good friends--I’ve shot her quite a few times now and it was only appropriate that she would write the forward since I also asked her to be on the cover. And then Carolyn [Murphy] I've been shooting since I began my career. For 13 years now we've been very good friends, and to have someone of her caliber to practice on is unbelievable. Then Selma [Blair] was the very first celeb I ever shot. That opened up a lot of doors for me in the photography world--so I wanted these three people who mean so much to me to write the forward to try to explain everything. I wanted them to say anything they wanted about me because a.) I wanted to know, and b.) I just think it's more interesting. If you really want to know something about someone, I think it makes the most sense to have someone who knows you to tell the story--it reveals more about you. And it's more honest that way, too. Like if they said something bad, I would have put it right in the book.

JS: So the reader is seeing you through their eyes.
BBS: Yeah, through their eyes--which is really funny because I have a "Glasses" section in this book, and it was originally a book idea where I wanted to have pictures like "through my eyes" where everyone’s wearing my glasses.

JS: That’s cool! How do you think assisting Herb Ritts influenced your photography?
BBS: Herb was such an amazing artist and person and the lessons that you get from working with someone like him--they can’t be taught. I didn’t go to photography school, but I would imagine that all you're doing is learning the technical aspects of light and how to run a camera. Once you know how to do that you’ve gotta do the other, artistic part. Which is why there are so many amazing artists in this world that aren’t doing anything because they don’t understand photography beyond the technical aspects. You have to work hard at certain things, make mistakes, and then work to correct them. Herb was very good at all of those things. I try to emulate him. The first time I shot Cindy was a prime example. I was so excited and I couldn’t wait. She had no idea about the connection I had with Ritts and usually doesn't shoot with new, young guys so I was very lucky. When we were shooting we couldn’t get clothes cause it was the middle of Fashion Week, so stylists didn’t have many options. And then options they did have didn’t fit, so we had to really, really try to figure out how to make this work. Cindy came up to me about a month later--once the magazine came out--and she said, "I have to tell you, I thought that shoot was going to be horrible. I didn’t even want anything to do with it. And when I saw the magazine it blew my mind, you really made that shoot happen." And I was like, "Wow. That’s how Herb would have done it."

JS: So he was very much like a mentor to you.
BBS: Yeah. When people tell me I'm just like Herb--that's what I want to hear. I have idols for a reason. I do want to be like him, I admire him greatly. I want to do what he’s doing so I'd never be ashamed of being compared.

JS: That’s so great. Now, you've shot celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, Demi Moore, and Kerry Washington--who have been your favorites to work with?
BBS: It’s a good question. When you shoot celebs, each one brings something different to the table. And you already know who they are because you’ve watched all their movies. You're a little star struck and it’s a weird thing, but all of them have something different to offer and you all have a connection at the end. Of course when you shoot someone six times you know them and it's way different. Which is like...

JS:..You get to capture a piece of who they are?
BBS: Yeah! A picture is a picture. You can do it with some girl named Jackie or Jennifer Aniston. Just because it's Jen Aniston's name, it's going to make a big impact. Not to say Jackie is not going to take a picture that's just as cool, but people tend to relate to celebrities a lot more. I like shooting celebrities because I enjoy acting, I love watching movies, I love what they do, and I love that they transform from role to role.

JS: Is there something that you do in particular to open them up?
BBS: I kind of let us have a relationship. Like some don’t want to be talked to. I like to talk a lot, but for some people you have to figure out where their comfort level is. I always start off by telling them that I’m not going to do anything they aren't comfortable with. I never would want to shoot when someone isn’t comfortable--if they aren’t proud of it, then I don’t need it. I don’t care who it is--the President of the United States.

JS: You worked on a project a few years ago with Marc Jacobs to promote skin cancer awareness. Was it hard to get celebrities to take their clothes off?
BBS: Yes, absolutely! The ones who did take it off and and the ones who are in it, understand that this isn’t just a photo. Those photos saved a lot of lives and brought a lot of awareness and raised millions of dollars. When we started the project, [Marc Jacobs' long-time business partner] Robert Duffy had skin cancer, so we decided to do something to raise money. We came up with the idea and I got a couple of friends I knew would be in to it. They were nude but you don’t see anything. We've been doing these tees for six years and we're still doing them and I like that’s it's become a thing where people collect the shirts and everyone's looking for whose going to be in the next round.

JS: What do you love about working with Marc Jacobs so much?
BBS: They're a family. My first book was called "The Men And Women of Marc Jacobs." I went around the world with these guys for three years and just shot the employees. They are all so cool looking and all have something special. Every shade, every size--there is something unique about them all. I’ve never seen a company with such a family vibe before. I was astonished, so we did a book. They give you so much creativity and they are always so giving and nice and to be able to collaborate with them is unbelievable. It's an honor. I am one lucky mother[redacted].

Stam also scored the chance to speak with Marc Jacobs' longtime business partner, Robert Duffy, who's also helped Smith with his career.Stam and Duffy | Photo courtesy of Dena Giannini for The Thread

Jessica Stam: I just talked to Brian a few minutes ago--he’s so great! He's often referred to you as a surrogate father--do you want to talk about that?
Robert Duffy: I don’t think he knows what surrogate means! I met him when he was 18 or 19. He was still in college. And he was like any 18 or 19 year old--out of control. He was working at a gym called David Barton and we became friends. Marc and I didn’t have any money to do our fashion shows back then, so we had to have all our friends help us and he was one of the people I recruited to help us out during our rougher times. There is actually a very famous drawing of me and him in the New York Times from when he was helping me that I still have framed somewhere. That was his introduction to fashion, that was how he met photographers. We were just best friends. Now his son is my godson.

JS: Switching gears quickly, you’ve been partners with Marc Jacobs for over half you life. What do you think the key is to working with someone for so long? The secret to a successful working relationship?
RD: Respect. Honesty and respect. It’s the same as in a marriage--Marc and I always have respect for each other and we love each other. We are honest and there are moments we want to kill each other, but we respect each other's talent and our integrity. Same thing I have with Brian. When I started doing my skin cancer t-shirts he would be so nervous because some of the people we asked to pose are not the easiest people in the world. And we're asking them to show up--without hair and makeup--on time and not getting paid. But, it's for charity. And he’s had to deal with that. I can get the person in the room, get them there on time without hair and makeup done, but I'm not sitting there and holding hands. Brian has to deal with the personalities, and it's really incredible how good he is at it.

JS: You also work with Marc on staging his shows which are famously ornate and dramatic. In the past they've included everything from large scale escalators to functioning vintage trains. Do you have a favorite set piece?
RD: Well the train [from Louis Vuitton's Fall 2012 show]. Yeah, the train. We had to build it twice, actually. Once for Paris and once for the show in Shanghai. I think the one in Paris is in storage. I think they use it for special events.

What happens to the sets afterwards?
RD: We keep a lot of them in storage in New York. Sometimes we donate them to the High School for Performing Arts because they can use all that stuff. The Rachel Feinstein [sculpture used as the backdrop of the Fall 2012 Marc Jacobs show], obviously we returned that to the artist. She wanted that because it's worth a lot of money, though she created it for us out of the goodness of her heart. But she wasn’t leaving it with us. I know because I tried to keep it. I could quit working if I had that sculpture! But usually we donate to visual arts schools because they use it. In Paris I think they keep them because Louis Vuitton has so many stores around the world. They can always find somewhere to put a carousel.

JS: Between Marc and Brian it’s clear that you have an impeccable eye for talent. Where do you think your ability comes from? Is it innate?
RD: I don’t have any. When you don’t have any ability it's very easy to see another's.

JS: Wow! Well said!
RD: I wanted to work in fashion and own my own company. I can draw, but that’s it. I can’t design, so Marc is a pretty good designer--he’s amazing. Brian worked with Herb Ritts, and when he started working with him you could see that he photographs people in natural light and it's amazing. Not many people can do that really well so you recognize his talent easily. The hardest thing is making the person feel comfortable in front of the camera and Brian’s really good at it.

JS: You can tell from his pictures.
RD: I know a lot of the photos that weren’t in the book that were shot especially with Carolyn Murphy. I know her and was on a couple of the shoots at my house and there are so many great pictures that are personal, that are absolutely beautiful, and that he didn’t want to use. He’s a good photographer.

JS: One more question: Bookmarc [the Marc Jacobs bookstore] was your brain child and you love Brian. How does it feel to take everyone’s talents and kind of bring them here?
RD: That’s the best thing, when you have friends that launch a book it's so hard to get published so now we have enough of them around the world, so I can publish books and your friends can become best sellers. The first time we realized it was Little Kim’s record label. And I told her I'd sell her CDs in all of our stores. Now, everyone wants to launch a book in our store.

JS: You guys have such good taste is books.
RD: We also have a store in Paris, London, and L.A., and were doing Kate Moss’s new book, too!

Supermodel and personal friend of the photographer Carolyn Murphy also stopped by to wish Brian good luck.
Duffy, Smith, Murphy, and Stam. | Photo courtesy of Dena Giannini for The Thread
Jessica Stam: So what’s it like being shot by Brian?
Carolyn Murphy: My crazy friend, my brother from another mother. He’s amazing. I first met him in '98 when I was shooting with Herb Ritts and he was his assistant. Then again in 2001, I was on a shoot and he was still assisting Herb and that’s when we became friends. I was like, "I actually really like this guy!" I met his wife Shay and I was moving to California at that time, so we bonded. I thought they were paying him to be funny on set because he’s crazy but I later found out he's a really good photographer. He said to me one day, "Hey, you just moved here. Let's go surf together!" or, "You have a baby! Let's barbeque! Let's hang out!" So, that’s how our friendship began. And you know how it is you meet someone you like them and then we started taking pictures for fun. We took our first series in 2001, which seems like such a long time ago now.

JS: Do you have a favorite photo he has taken of you?
CM: There are quite a few of [my daughter] Dylan and I that aren’t published. Those are my favorites because you know they are super close, so he gets more of a connection out of the two of us. And with regards to fashion it’s what I call "The Bed Shot." I'm lying in bed naked, no makeup, no hair. It's so sexy! That’s in the book and that’s my favorite.

JS: That’s special to have those memories when you have a great friend who is a great photographer take pictures of you and your daughter when she’s young. You’ll always have that.
CM: Well, I don’t photograph with her so he’s the only person aside from one picture I did with her when she was baby with Steven Meisel. So he was the only other person. There are some personal shots there, yeah. He’s amazing--you have to shoot with him! I think that’s gonna happen now because he’s probably like your "Oh my god you're beautiful! I have to shoot with you!"

JS: I hope so! He's great and his pictures are so beautiful. So you’re a model you have acted and most recently you've hosted Project Runway-All Stars. What were some of your favorite or most outrageous moments from last season?
CM: Oh my god. Well, let's regards to outrageous moments it was being told I had to be more German and more mean, having the producer yell in my ear bud that I was too nice. I felt connected to all the contestants and would get emotional and the best way for me to not be like that was to be intellectual, which didn’t work either so I wont be returning to Project Runway. But I'm back in New York, this Mecca of our industry, but I feel like I don’t know who anybody is. I can't pronounce half of their names and nobody looks up and talks to you the way they used to. Being here tonight makes me think of when I first met Marc Jacobs. It was 1993 and I had combat boots on and corduroy jeans and the agency said "You have to take care of yourself and dress nice," and I was like "Huh?" A lot of evolutions since then.

JS: What are you most excited about next with Marc and Brian?
CM: I am most excited to see Brian shoot campaigns and be known more in NYC. I think he’s done really well--he kind of went straight to the top. But the fashion world has not really grasped him outside of the Marc Jacobs bubble--which is fine but there is so much talent there I would love to see Brian get into the pages of other magazines. He'd probably have to move to New York, which I selfishly would be very excited to have Uncle Brian and Auntie Shay-Shay and baby Jonah here--the whole family. So, I think he has such a fresh eye and fresh take in an industry where people can seem so stiff and rigid. I think he can bring some flair and fun to pictures again and outside that Hollywood world.

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