Professional photographer Mike Smith has a passion for people, the real side of people that is revealed when they let their inner "characters" come out to play. His "Characters" exhibit, on display throughout August at Gallery 200, 200 Main St. in West Chicago, reveals the whimsical interaction between theatrical models and the unassuming lens of a still camera without the illusion of digital effects.
As a professional photographer, Smith's business portfolio includes a wide range of subjects from industrial and commercial to documentary and artistic. With the artistic work came theatrical photography and a subsequent interest in the people that created the characters on stage. Said Smith, "I'm drawn to their realism and their ability to create a character as opposed to what I call Hollywood magic."
According to Smith, "Hollywood Magic" involves the affects of cinematography. With many of today's movies integrating computer effects, the finished film does not depict what would happen if the production were taking place in real time. Each theater production is a unique, one-time experience, whereas a movie will remain the same no matter how many times it is viewed. Said Smith, "I gravitate to vaudeville and the old burlesque shows because it's more one-on-one and predates Hollywood. I prefer real life over fantasy. In theater, the people are real."
As he began working with different theater groups, he found that these actors take their roles seriously, often attending conventions all over the world to maintain the "authenticity" of the character or era they are portraying. For example, conventions educate re-enactors on how to create historically accurate costumes and vocabulary from the Roman and Renaissance eras to the Civil War and women's suffrage. Conventions for more modern era characters include horror movies, Steampunk and science fiction genres.
With this in mind, Smith works with the theatrical models to create works of art that capture the essence of their characters. His exhibit will feature both professional and amateur models, ranging from pirates and fairies to the dark side of "Once Upon a Time." One of the amateur models is a full-time, decorated training police officer. Smith's image of her was submitted in a Steampunk contest, where she is currently one of only five runner-ups in the competition.
Persons looking for additional information regarding theatrical portraits can contact Smith at Photographic Services International, (630) 330-3595. Smith's theatrical credentials include official photographer for the Chicago Poetry Bordello in Chicago, the Elgin Opera Company in Elgin, Shakespeare on Clark in Batavia and the World of Faeries Festivals in South Elgin.
Smith has been employed in a variety of occupations over the years, including warehouse materials handler, chrome plating specialist and paramedic. Said Smith, "Although I landed in my career as a photographer in a round about manner, I've been successful at every career." In a twist of fate, it was the unexpected termination from the chrome plating position that catapulted him into photography.
After his dismissal, he returned to the company and proposed creating a training program, complete with slides and copy that incorporated his thorough knowledge of the chrome plating process. Said Smith, "They loved the program so much that I was contracted for seven more -- one in each department the company had. This was in the 1980s and companies weren't doing these kinds of training programs." At that point in his career, he became a paid commercial photographer, a career position he had longed for but had previously dismissed as "not attainable".
Smith recalled a lesson he learned as a young student. As adults, people often remember the wise words spoken by an influential teacher in their youth. Unfortunately for Smith, his first high school photography teacher told him that he would never be successful at photography. Said Smith, "It deterred me from going into photography for over a decade. As a teacher myself, I decided not to inhibit my students like that."
As Smith's photography career developed, his portfolio of works has covered a wide array of subjects. In March 2011, his "Tall Ships Photography" exhibit at Gallery 200 displayed a nautical look at the tall ships arriving at Navy Pier from the official media boat. Currently, Smith is taking continuing education courses at College of DuPage in fine art photography and gallery exhibition. Said Smith, "The character photography has become a bridge between my commercial and fine art photography." He hinted that an exhibit schedule for 2013 at the Gallery will be entirely different than any exhibits to date and may include state and national parks or a series of images that "make you look twice".
A free, opening reception on Friday, Aug. 3, from 6 to 9 p.m. will offer visitors a chance not only to meet the artist but also to meet many of the models seen in his portraits. The White City Rippers, a Chicago-based Steampunk cabaret act, will provide entertainment and refreshments will be served. The exhibit will be on display from Aug. 2-31, 2012.
Gallery 200 is a cultural initiative supported by the City of West Chicago and the West Chicago Cultural Arts Commission, and is one more reason West Chicago was named an Illinois Arts Friendly Community in 2007. Gallery 200 is open Thursday and Friday from noon to 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, including a complete list of current art classes, call (630) 293-9550 or visit www.gallery200.org.