From A Distance: Some Contemporary Contexts for Considering Ross T. Smith's Photographs

Otherworldly. Viewed from the vantage point of geographic and cultural distance, these images seem…foreign, yet familiar. Ross T. Smith's photographs of New Zealand's native Maori population and their surroundings have an anthropological function, but they are much more than travel pictures. True, they suggest the character of a place that many of us have never visited. But they also declare that distance and proximity can be measured in more than miles. 


Where the geographer/journalist ventures to far-off lands to show us things we may never otherwise be exposed to, his journey is a curious study in contrasts - to get close to remote subjects in order to see with a certain degree of detachment. But Smith sees with too much empathy and understanding to truly succeed as a pure journalist. Nor is he working within the tradition of the concerned advocate. Lewis Hine, in his day, and Sabastio Salgado, in ours, are examples of photographers who used their pictures as agents of change. 


Some of the precedents for Smith's photographs are to be found not in the history of travel photography or photojournalism, but in work done by artists like Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson. In particular, Goldin's landmark publication in 1986 of her "visual diary," The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, influenced the next generation of photographers and defined the initial parameters of this new approach to photography. Goldin wrote that "These pictures may be an invitation to my world, but they were taken so that I could see the people in them. I sometimes don't know how I feel about someone until I take his or her picture. I don't select people in order to photograph them; I photograph directly from my life. These pictures come out of relationships, not observation." Both Goldin and Pierson depict their extended circles of friends - their chosen families. Frequently, the subjects of their portraits maintain a precarious position on the periphery of the social framework within which they function. Outsiders within, they are often young, gay, solitary. The issues at stake are identity, sexuality and marginalisation. 


To a degree, Smith is a descendant of this tradition. The fact that his work is presented in large-scale colour only augments the sense of superficial aesthetic similarity. However, it might be misleading to consider his photographs a distant corollary to a body of work that by its nature is grounded in a completely different social and cultural setting. In this regard, the aspects of Smith's imagery that differentiate it from the likes of Goldin and Pierson, are equally significant. It is not at all clear whether issues of sexuality are at the forefront of Smith's photography, at least not in the way that Goldin addresses them. His portraits are intimate and sensual, but not necessarily about sexual identity. Furthermore, in conversation, he has made it clear that he regards the Maori as occupying a unique position within New Zealand's culture - possessing an identity that is both particular and assimilated. Even his landscape photography differs significantly from the work that Goldin and her circle have produced. Where they often seem to be travelers, passing by and observing, Smith's landscapes are imbued with an intense sense of place that can only come from an extended and profound relationship with the environment. And rather than working in the bold, infused colours that can be found in a Pierson photograph, for example, Smith's palette is much darker, somber and moody. 


While Smith's work certainly bears comparison and contextualisation with the emerging traditions of social documentary coming out of the United States and Britain, his photographs carry an aura of beauty, a dark, brooding presence that is almost more reminiscent of current trends in fashion photography. His sensual depictions of young Maori men and women would not look out of place alongside the imagery of someone like Bruce Weber. Smith's pictures are indisputably attractive. His subjects have a natural grace and elegance that seems very grounded and real. While an observer might regard fashion photography as the antithesis of the real, the way it is practised by someone like Weber reveals how fashion today can become life studies; rather than being pictures of clothes, Weber's essays are glimpses of a moment when innocence begins to approach knowingness. Smith's photographs are definitely in sympathy with Weber's. To return to the initial impression that Smith's photographs could represent a type of anthropological evidence, were that the case, then his subjects would be cast more as types. Instead, each of his subjects seems to be understood with an intimacy and immediacy that is so intensely personal. Smith imparts the sense that he is sharing a secretive collaboration. Like Weber, then, his pictures develop as studies in particular moments, about becoming aware. Seen from a distant vantage point, they seem so foreign, yet familiar.