Mike Smith: The States Project: Tennessee
I first met Mike Smith in Concord, Georgia at Slow Exposures festival in 2008. Before then, I wasn’t familiar with him or his storied career. While his name may be a common one, his body of work is anything but.
His images centered on parts of rural Appalachia, depict the land and the people who reside there. He avoids the “easy” shots that less talented photographers covering the area might create. Instead, he travels much deeper into this terrain helping the viewer experience life there in surprising ways, seeing from an insiders’ empathetic viewpoint.
Mike Smith graduated from Yale University in 1981 and began his teaching career at East Tennessee State University that year. Since then he has taught full-time and maintained an active engagement in his work producing an extensive archive of photographs describing the culture and landscape of that region. His work has evolved both conceptually and in terms of the tools and materials he chooses. From 35mm black and white images to digitally scanned 8×10 color negatives printed in ink, he has managed to redefine the land and discover new ways of working with the people he has photographed.
Mike’s work has been published in books, magazines, and purchased by museums across the country. The New York Sunday Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal have all featured his work. Museum collections include MoMA, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art SF/MoMA and many other major museums. He is represented by five galleries nationwide and has received numerous awards. Among the most notable awards are a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, the United States Artist Lowe Fellowship, the Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission Artist Fellowship. He has presented lectures at many prestigious institutions including Yale University, Notre Dame, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Recently his work was included in a traveling exhibition curated from the Bank of America’s private collection titled, “Conversations”, which originated at the Dublin Museum of Fine Art in Ireland. Currently, one of his photographs is included in the 2016 National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boocheaver Portrait Exhibition in Washington DC.
The truck portraits are from 2008-2010 and reflect a 35-year attempt to describe the people and landscape of East Tennessee where I have lived and taught photography at East Tennessee State University since 1981. They were made using a square film camera with a right-angle finder, a 38mm lens and a handheld flash. Two regional service station companies allowed me access to their locations to work. I would “lurk” in a corner of the parking lot and wait for men to arrive in their trucks to buy gas, cigarettes and beer. Generally I found the rougher the truck the more willing the owner was to be photographed. It had to do with pride I suppose. Once I gained access to the bench seat of the truck’s cab the camera, lens, and flash combination worked well to include everything “from the foot pedals to the gun rack” (a phrase I have considered as a title for the series) with remarkable clarity.
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