Seeing Souls

©Matthew Jordan Smith

Matthew Jordan Smith sits at a vinyl listening bar in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, which he calls home, when the clock strikes 10 p.m. Mid-song, he announces to his fellow photographers that he’s calling it a night; he’s got a photo shoot in the morning.

Discipline is integral to Smith’s four-decade photography career. The expression, “Ninety percent of success in life is just showing up,” doesn’t cut it. For Smith, life is about showing up early or, at the latest, on time. His clients around the globe—which include Toyota, Shiseido, Revlon, Ebony magazine, HBO, Showtime, Sony Entertainment and Wells Fargo—admire that discipline, but more importantly, they admire the magnificent images he always captures.

©Matthew Jordan Smith

Smith remembers fondly his first steps toward a career in photography. “My father was a minister but he loved taking pictures. He would keep his camera on his desk in his and my mother’s bedroom and I would sneak in there, take the camera, play with it, then put it back exactly where it was so he wouldn’t know what was going on,” he says. “He knew, of course, and one day he came home and said with a smile, ‘Here’s a camera for you. You can now leave mine alone.’ It was a Pentax Honeywell. He taught me how to use it and turned the kids’ bathroom into a makeshift darkroom. From that point on I’ve been bitten by the photo bug.” 

The future Nikon Ambassador and StellaPro Champion of Light was born in Brooklyn, New York, then moved to Columbia, South Carolina when he was 7, where he first learned about photography. He enrolled in the Art Institute of Atlanta to refine his craft but left before graduating to pursue what he calls “real world experiences” as a photo assistant in New York City.

©Matthew Jordan Smith
©Matthew Jordan Smith

“I started working for a lot of fashion, beauty, portrait, and celebrity photographers,” he explains. “That was my real training. Great photographers like Neal Barr, George Holz, and Gregory Heisler, then went on my own after three-and-a-half years.”

He started with small front-of-the-book editorial assignments for big magazines. Those led to photographing feature stories and magazine covers, which in turn led to creating images of celebrities. To help build his portfolio, he also photographed “new faces” for modeling agencies. One benefit, he says, is, “You get to know everybody and they get to know you.”

©Matthew Jordan Smith

Smith was based in New York until 2006, when he moved to Los Angeles. He gave the City of Angels eight years but, he says, he “never felt at home there.” So he continued west, landing in a place he’d first visited in 1999: Japan. On that visit, he first met his wife, Maki, whom he married in 2016. “As a photographer, you travel everywhere and I had been in Japan maybe a dozen times, always loved it, and thought, Of all the places I’ve been in the world, this is my favorite place. I would love to live here one day.”

Moving overseas was difficult at first, Smith recalls, “but what made it easier was having photographed celebrities in America. It did open doors in Japan,” he says. His first photography job in Japan was of a local singer and actress known as Becky. “At the time, she was the biggest Japanese star around. She was going through some career changes and I was the first one to photograph her with a short haircut,” Smith says. “It ended up on the news and got a lot of press. It was a nice welcome to Japan.”

©Matthew Jordan Smith

Smith then landed a prized assignment: covering the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. “For the first time in Olympic history, they assigned a photographer to live in the Olympic Village for the entire duration of the Games to document it from beginning to end,” he explains. “Usually that’s a no-man’s-land for press except for limited access for a short amount of time. I got there when it was empty and photographed everybody as they arrived, all day, all night.”

Because of the pandemic, Smith was not allowed to leave the Olympic Village, so he had to bring everything he would possibly need for 30 days, including strobes, camera bodies, lenses, “the whole nine yards,” he says. “And I had a ball.”

Smith photographed athletes as well as United Nations representatives, Olympic sponsors like Toyota, Omega, and Visa, and dignitaries, including Albert II, Prince of Monaco.  “I also photographed the athletes in a documentary style: working out, eating in the cafeteria, hanging out in their rooms, and other aspects of their lives inside the village,” Smith says.

©Matthew Jordan Smith
Matthew Jordan Smith

Today, much of Smith’s work is celebrity portraiture captured in a studio, where he uses Profoto for strobes or StellaPro CLx10s for constant light. Music is an important element for studio sessions, he notes. “I always have music on set selected specifically for the people I’m photographing. Part of being the director is making sure I have the right music to create an atmosphere appropriate for the person in front of my lens,” he says. He typically works without “being tethered to a computer.” This keeps him flexible, he explains. “Of course, there are jobs where you have to be so the client can see the images and make comments, but at times that can hurt the flow of the session.”

How does Smith create a sense of intimacy in his portraiture with so many people on set? Smith’s discipline in his work extends to the thoughtful choices of equipment and setup.

©Matthew Jordan Smith
The cover for Matthew Jordan Smith’s new book "Aretha Cool."
©Matthew Jordan Smith
Smith met Franklin in 2005 and worked with her until her death in 2018.

“I love using a Nikkor 105mm lens on a Nikon Z 9 and shooting very tight,” he answers. “It’s just me four or five feet away from my subject with V-Flats around to block us in so they’re not seeing everybody staring at them. That makes a big difference even if they’re a big star. It’s just them and me. The person in front of my lens can focus just on me.

“The V-Flats are also used to bounce either negative or positive light in or block light when needed,” he continues. “I also like using lights that are very bright. It makes my subject’s irises smaller so I get the full color of their eyes. If I’m using strobes, the modeling light will be on its brightest setting. The other big thing is that my key light is extremely close. One of my favorite modifiers is the white Profoto beauty dish, sometimes with a diffusor on it.”

Whatever equipment he chooses in his work, Smith says, “The goal is the same: to create an image where you can see into the soul of a person.” 

Mark Edward Harris is an award-winning photographer and writer based in Los Angeles.