Elevating the unreal
Growing up in the shadows Hollywood, Aline Smithson was already well acquainted with artistic expression and the idea of the unreal – and after studying art, she naturally took the path into fine art photography.
She has produced countless series, in both portraiture and fine art photography, which she hopes evoke a sense of beauty, pathos, and joy. And with some projects, laughter.
Always working alone, without stylists or makeup artists, the exclusively-film photographer gave us some insights into the industry and how she, as a Hasselblad Heroine, sees women getting more of the spotlight than ever before.
A new dawn for women in fine art photography
Over the course of Aline’s career, she has seen the fine art photography world take huge strides in equally representing women. “Most Photo Center directors are women, there are more and more female curators and photo editors, and women photographers have been recognized with awards and exhibitions more than ever before,” she said.
“I have been keeping my eye on this phenomenon and it’s truly exciting. As a photo educator, I find that my classes are 85% women.”
In order for this to continue, Aline believes women supporting women is key. “Women mentors are critical, as are women hiring women. We have seen huge strides in the film industry as BIPOC and women directors hire individuals that represent a wider selection of the population, creating opportunities that weren’t previously there. Photography has historically not celebrated women and we must make it happen ourselves.”
Aline didn’t have a mentor herself, but she did turn to other established female artists for inspiration. “One [female artist] that continues to amaze and inspire me is Sophie Calle, a French icon that uses her life to tell her stories. I love her conceptual approach to her art making.”
The journey of becoming a fine art photographer
Becoming a fine art photographer is not the easiest of roads, Aline admitted, and she sighted learning the ropes as one of the biggest challenges. “It’s not just about making stellar prints, it is everything that surrounds the work,” she said. “The deep thinking that is part of the articulation, figuring out how the fine art photography world works, understanding how people can help you, and so on.”
But the decision to be a professional photographer was simpler. “It was an organic evolution. I was the family documentarian, then it dawned on me that I could use the camera to make art. And like most photographers, I was hooked.”
Fine art photography can mean many different things to different photographers. And it took Aline a long time to define it for herself. “I came to the conclusion that it is where the photographer has transformed the subject in some way, as an artist. Transformation can be in the articulation of the work, in the process used to create it or unique way of presenting it. The work has to be created with intention and speak both to the personal and the universal. It has to hold a bit of magic.”
Inspiration finds Aline in every corner of her life and she is influenced from a range of things from her location to the people she cares about, her past experiences, and her work. “In terms of my work, I tend to be more inspired by painters.
“Growing up in California, the quality of light is so important to how I see. Another childhood influence was Hollywood itself, the myth and the place. Fashion magazines made me dream of a bigger life.
“I am fascinated by witnessing humanity through a medium format lens, capturing moments and gestures that translate into a form of storytelling. Photography enables me to fold in all the things I love: film stills and storytelling and colour and noir and humour and family and the pathos of simply being human.”
The process of creating portraiture photography
One of Aline’s specialisations within her fine art photography is in portraits, and she has a unique process for getting the best out of her subjects. “I always work alone—no assistant or hair and makeup artists. I find that making portraits is a collaborative process where the experience becomes a two-way gaze when both the subject and I reveal ourselves to each other.
“For the most part, I create work close to home, using subjects that are family, friends, neighbours, and friends of friends. That familiarity with place and person allows for an intimacy and camaraderie, where my sitters trust in my desire to present them with dignity or with humour, but always in a way that celebrate who they are.”
Finding a home in the fine art photography industry
Working as a fine art photographer was something Aline knew would be a challenge. “Fine Art is a much harder road than being an editorial or commercial photographer, as it’s very hard to make a living at it. Most fine art photographers teach or do other things to pay the bills.”
And as a result of this, she moved into the realms of educator and editor as well. In 2007 she established Lenscratch, a website which encourages community in the fine art photography world as well as much-needed exposure for photographers. “I made a vow to myself to write about a different photographer every day,” she explained.
“Fifteen years later we have featured thousands of photographers and have created many opportunities for exposure. Photographers featured on the site have received exhibitions, gallery representation, and book deals, which is so satisfying. And many educators use the site in their classrooms.”
Aline also offers different workshops, from private mentoring though to working with students on how to present their work in the fine art market.
And this education role, coupled with her work for Lenscratch, have made her photography career so much richer. “I am so inspired by those in my classrooms and have been blown away by what they are achieving – books, museum shows, and recognition.
“I am so happy to share in this journey with others—I love celebrating photographers and I hope I have helped artists understand that it isn’t a race or a competition. There is room for everyone.”
A passionate Hasselblad film photographer
Aline has been a Hasselblad fan since working as a fashion editor in New York. “Hasselblad has always set the bar for excellence. When I was working with Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, Arthur Elgort and others, the Hasselblad was the ubiquitous tool of choice. Later, when I began my own journey, all the fine art photographers were using the Hasselblad and it was a dream to own one.”
And her use of Hasselblad film cameras comes back to her passion for the entire process of photo creation. “I truly cherish working with film. I love the connection to photographic history; I love unwrapping the film and loading the spool into the camera.
“These processes make me slow down, and all my creative decisions are made before I hit the shutter. I take very few images, doing my editing in the camera. And then that delicious wait to get the film back and the discovery of one’s efforts.
“I love objects that have a patina of time, and my 500c/m just keeps bringing excellence to the images, so why change?”
As one of Hasselblad’s Heroines for 2022, she is most excited about celebrating women photographers. “It’s about creating a space for women’s voices, women’s visions, and sharing such excellent and exciting artists.”
She offered some final advice to someone looking to start out in photography. “First, stay anonymous as long as possible. I know this sounds peculiar, but the years of creating photographs solely for myself were some of the best years on this journey. Make your mistakes and try out new ideas in private.
“Second, be humble and grateful. Thank everyone. Take the time to acknowledge what others contribute to your work and journey.
“And third, find your own voice—don’t copy others. Use your own life for inspiration, tell your stories, be fearless. Your best teacher is failure.”