Photo courtesy ASMP member Andy Batt
Interviews with ASMP Founder: Bradley Smith
Interview and transcript © 1992 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Bradley Smith was born in New Orleans in 1910. In his early career, he worked for several Southern newspapers and did some farm labor organizing; later he became nationally known for his photographs of sharecroppers. During the depths of the Depression, he came north and worked for several magazines in New York City. There, he became one of the central figures in the founding of ASMP.
In subsequent years, Smith wrote and illustrated 23 books, including the popular “A History in Art” series that related a nation’s story through its art works. The series included volumes on Japan, China, Mexico, Spain and the United States. He also wrote about photography and eroticism, and he illustrated the autobiography of novelist Henry Miller.
Bradley Smith passed in 1997.
Mimi Leipzig and Kay Reese recorded this interview at the Shoreham Hotel, 33 West 55th Street, New York City, on September 28th, 1990.
“We were being played against each other by an awful lot of the magazines.”
Smith: In the first place, it wasn’t a first meeting, it was a series of social gatherings. So this series of gatherings, usually for dinners on Saturday night that lasted well into the night, finally developed into a sort of semi-official meetings as such, towards the end of the various parties. And at those parties were friends, over a period of time, that I had talked to and they talked to me, and we talked to each other.
And our chief cook, who was a very great chef, was a man named Pierre de Rohan. His name was also John Adam Knight. And as John Adam Knight, he was the first columnist to write about photography in any of the New York newspapers. He wrote a column called “Photography” for the New York Post. And as a matter of fact, I just noticed that I had a clipping from a column of his where he mentioned the first show of photography — as far as I can tell — that the Museum of Modern Art had. And it was in 1946, so he was still writing in ‘46 about it.
These meetings had been in ‘44 and ‘45 at my house at 229 Whaley Street in Freeport, Long Island. Now, the people that were there were people that I knew and that I invited to dinner regularly, or they called me and said, “Can we come to dinner?” And so they came out there. Although, Freeport was not the center of photography; we were all working in New York. And I had been working in New York for about four years. And between 1944 and 1945, I had met a lot of photographers, and the general feeling was that we were being played against each other by an awful lot by the magazines. We’d go in and say we’d like to do this story; or they’d call us and say they had an assignment. And you would discuss how much it would cost; whether they’d pay the expenses, or whether they’d pay for the film. And you’d finally find that the editor might well say, “We can get so-and-so to do it cheaper than that.” This went on a great deal.
Of course, we were all very, very hungry in those days. The Depression hadn’t been over for very long, if it had been over at all. So when we went to magazines, we were most anxious, first, to get our work seen by people, and second, to try to make enough money to continue to work.
People ask me, every now and then, why I did go into photography at all. And I tell them because it was the only way I could figure out to keep from working. That’s pretty much what I think I did. It seems to me that is the kind of thing you do for pleasure, if possible. And if you work at it, it’s because you take pleasure in working at it. Not the kind of a job that I would consider grinding, but more creative.
So, that group consisted mostly of Pierre de Rohan, who was also John Adam Knight. The reason why he cooked for us was because his column in the Post ran twice a week. Once a week it was called “The Man in the Kitchen” — he was a great cook — by Pierre de Rohan. And the other column was called “Photography,” by John Adam Knight. Pierre had a number of different professions and different names. He was a great violinist; he knew music extraordinarily well. And we all listened to him when he spoke, because he knew whereof he spoke. He could tell you, if you put on a phonograph record, not only what the orchestra was playing, but he could tell you who was conducting and what hall they were playing in. He also knew a lot about photography. He knew a lot about lenses, and a lot about the technical side of photography. But he was primarily an artist and he was mostly interested in the aesthetic side of it.
“They had a big hammer and sickle made out of old Ford parts.”
I had been organizing sharecroppers in the South, and I had done a little work for Roy Stryker in Washington. And I worked for the Farmer’s Union and the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union.
ASMP: You worked, not as a photographer, but as an organizer.
Smith: But I was taking pictures, though, on my own. And I’d done a little work for Time magazine. Time had called me in New Orleans to go up and photograph the Governor of Arkansas, who was in some kind of trouble. And I did a very early story for Life about Commonwealth College, which was the first purely Communist college to be founded and started in the United States. It was in Arkansas. And it had a very interesting and radical staff.
I went up and photographed, and one of the pictures is still in my file. I think Life ran this one. They had taken a lot of old Ford automobile parts and they had put them in concrete at the entrance as you drove into the college, so they had a big hammer and sickle made out of old Ford parts. It was really a very effective entrance, and a very unusual picture. Probably one of the great historic pictures of the first Communist college in this part of the world.
“All of us shared whatever knowledge we had quite easily and readily.”
I had a very close friend, in addition to Pierre, whose name was Ike Vern. And Ike had had a certain amount of labor experience too. I’m not sure what it was, but he was interested in a group getting together. So he was out there with his wife Harriet. And then there was an unmarried photographer who was doing fairly well — he worked as a commercial photographer a lot, but he also occasionally worked for Life, Click, Picture Post in London — his name was Ewing Krainin. And Ewing really deserves much more credit than he’s ever gotten, because had it not been for Ewing and his studio, there wouldn’t have been any place in New York that the original ASMP could meet. We used his studio probably for the first six months, maybe a year, before we had any money; this would be mostly in 1945. We started some time in ‘44 with having an informal staff. We finally in ‘45 were next to Schraft’s on Fifth Avenue at 45th Street in Ewing Krainin’s third floor studio. And that is where the formative meetings where mostly held.
To get back to Freeport: Philippe Halsman used to come out with Yvonne. And there would have been Ike Vern, John Adam Knight.. .
ASMP: You mentioned Mike Elliott.
Smith: Mike and Steve Elliott were brothers who were in photography then; Mike mostly did the pictures and Steve did the selling. And they developed into a firm that made very early commercials for television, and grew into a bigger and bigger firm, and finally got out of shooting pictures and were shooting television commercials entirely. And that’s why they were only very early members of the organization. Did I mention anyone else?
ASMP: Alan Gould.
Smith: Alan Gould was a neighbor of mine who was not a photographer yet, but I was helping him become a photographer. Alan was the air raid warden in the area, because this was during the war, and I used to take over for him and walk his beat at night to see that everybody had their window shades pulled down and things like that in case the Germans attacked us. And Alan asked me if I would help him get some assignments, which I did, and show him how to shoot the stuff.
All of us shared whatever knowledge we had quite easily and readily. And I must say, we were not at all competitive. Our idea was to try to form an organization.
“We formed it in a very loose way.”
Nelson Morris was extremely important, because Nelson had a very clear head and a clear idea of how we’d have to have a constitution and bylaws and all that stuff, which up until then we really hadn’t thought about. So the three of us, Pierre de Rohan, Nelson Morris and I, worked for a long time unofficially on a constitution and bylaws. The first name of the society was SMP, Society of Magazine Photographers. We did not intend at any time to make it strictly American. We really wanted to make it a Society of Magazine Photographers from all over the world. And that’s why it was not called ASMP in the very beginning.
ASMP: Was all of this going on before that first meeting we have on record, or after it?
Smith: This is all before it. I don’t know what exact record you have.
ASMP: We just have the old publication. The article was the one that Kay wrote, but there’s a photograph where you’re second from the top.
Smith: That was out in Freeport. We did form the organization then. We finally formed the SMP. We formed it, though, in a very loose way — the idea being that we would have the next meeting and make it a more official meeting. I guess we must have had three very informal meetings before we moved into Ewing Krainin’s studio.
To do that, Pierre De Rohan, with me and Ike, made a list of photographers in New York that we would invite to the first official meeting held in the city, rather than out at my house. We asked everybody we knew. We asked a number of people from Life and we asked whatever commercial photographers we knew, as well as magazine photographers. I don’t remember the number, but there might be an official record of that. Fritz Gorow was there at the first group, among other people.
“He changed his name after he shot his wife.”
The morning of the meeting, I went over to buy some flash bulbs on Third Avenue, Walter’s Electric Company or something. And in there I met Philippe. I said, “Philippe, you know we’ve got that meeting tonight, and I would like to nominate you for president. How about being the first president?”
And he said, “Bradley, I can’t even speak English. I haven’t the vaguest idea how I could be president. I just don’t think I can do it.” I said, “Well, we’re going to try it anyway. And I’m going to nominate you and see if we can get you elected.”
Up to that time, John Adam Knight had served out in Freeport pretty well as the unofficial head of the organization. There wasn’t any official president, and at that meeting at Ewing’s, he really didn’t want to become the first president, because he kept saying he wasn’t a photographer. And that’s why Philippe was nominated. A number of us felt he could really run it and probably should be the first president. But he said he wasn’t a photographer and he didn’t feel that he should do it. So we elected Philippe as president and we elected this other guy as vice-president, but he became the president within a fairly short time, I think. It’s very hard to pin down that first eight or ten people, because we were really running after people trying to get them to join. And some of the names are a little difficult at this point.
There was one man I particularly remember whose name will turn up, but it’s a little hard because he changed his name after he shot his wife. And he was one of Life’s really important top photographers.
ASMP: He shot his wife, not with a camera.
Smith: He didn’t shoot his wife exactly on purpose. She was having an affair out in Brewster, New York, in a cottage, and he knew where it was. And he went out there with a private detective who had found the place and, unfortunately, he brought a gun with him. And when he knocked on the door, he heard her inside and he heard a man inside. They wouldn’t unlock the door, so he took a shot through the door, and he killed his wife. And so he left Life, changed his name and became a prominent television cameraman. There’s stories everywhere; you never know where they’re going to show up.
“They owed me the rent for a long time.”
Now, to get on with this as far as we can. The Society struggled for a long time. And as I remember it, we struggled for a long time both out at Freeport — whether there were subsequent meetings there I’m not sure — but I know that we argued a lot about the constitution. And we never thought we were going to get the constitution and the bylaws worked out. But Nelson persevered, he worked very hard at it and I helped when I could, and John Adam Knight did a great deal of it. I don’t think we had a lawyer at all in the organization up until that time.
That’s about the way it sounded to me and we did go over and try to get — we would talk to everybody we knew at Life, all the photographers, and try to get them to join. Some of them held out for years. We tried for 15 years to get Gjon Mili to join. The meetings went on quite regularly at Ewing Krainin’s studio, I would think, for between six months and a year.
Then we needed a place to have an office. I was at a tiny, little office that was rent-controlled, I think it was on the 14th floor of the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street — 1476 Broadway, it was right on the northeast corner of Broadway and 42nd Street. And there we had our first employee; was it Jacqueline Judge?
ASMP: John Whiting told me he had paid a young woman named Sami Slate to write a column about ASMP. He gave her 50 bucks a month and she served as secretary.
Smith: I don’t think she was on 42nd Street. Jackie Judge was one of the first employees. And I gave them space; there wasn’t very much space, because I didn’t have much space there. At first, we had a deal where the ASMP would pay $50 a month rent. And they did pay, part of the time, and half the time they didn’t. It didn’t make a helluva lot of difference, because when I had enough money to pay the rent I paid the rent anyway. They owed me the rent for a long time, though; I remember it kept mounting up, and I kept getting a little bit worried because they just didn’t have any money.
“Instead of a job as a photographer, they offered me a job as an editor.”
Jerry Cooke became an early member, and he used to come over to the office. He was our youngest member. Jerry wasn’t getting assignments; he was printing pictures for Eisenstat. He was Eisenstat’s number-one printer. All the top photographers at Life seemed to have their own printer in those early days. Of course, Kessel was very lucky because he had his sister, Manya Sweet, who was one of the best printers in New York. And she printed for Ike Vern and she printed for Arnold Newman, and she printed for me. And Manya printed for Bill Vandevert, who also became a fairly early member, as I remember.
ASMP: What were you doing in photography while this as going on?
Smith: I had first come to New York with my sharecropper pictures and a few New Orleans pictures. And I’d been writing for Women’s Wear Daily occasionally. And I’d been writing for Men’s Wear; that was a monthly that Fairchild turned out. And I’d done a couple of jobs for them in New Orleans. At the same year that Life started, I had thought that I might consider coming to New York; that would be 1936. And Look magazine had a half-page ad in the first issue of Life saying they were coming out in two weeks, which they did.
So I tried to show a few pictures to Life and I didn’t have much luck getting anybody. And I went over to show them to a man named Dan Mish, who was the editor of Look who had come here from Des Moines where the main office was, where the Cowles brothers were, and where Fleur Cowles, who later would become famous for her magazine, was. So, they looked at my pictures at Look and instead of offering me a job as a photographer, they offered me a job as an editor, which I promptly took.
“It was the era of the exposés in photography.”
I occasionally did pictures, but not very many. I remember a story on Stillman’s Gym on Broadway, where all the prizefighters would work out. I did a story on the most famous second — which was what these guys were called, that was the second man in the ring who took care of the prizefighter in the corner. There was a very famous guy who knew how to fix their faces, and I thought it would make a great story. So I got them to assign me that, although I was an editor rather than a photographer.
What I used to do there was mostly take copies that they bought from sometime-name writers. I remember Emil Ludvig; they bought stuff from him, and it was my job to take his six pages and condense it into four paragraphs. That’s the way it worked. There was also a famous sportswriter, I won’t remember his name, Steve somebody, a very famous guy, and I used to take his sports thing and get it down to sometimes three or four paragraphs, sometimes one paragraph, sometimes a few sentences. Whatever we could, we condensed at Look.
But it was the era of the exposés in photography. And Look did much more of that actually than Life did. Life tried to be on top of the news and to do photo essay, but Look did nothing but photo essays. They didn’t stay on any news at all; they did stories, like lonesome wives while their husbands are fighting in Europe. I remember that one, because they took a woman with her poodle three or four different places — in the car, at home, in the window, in bed with her. So, frustrated women were very big in those days. A lot of stories like that.
So I occasionally did a photographic story for Look, but they had hired some very good photographers. But I don’t remember practically anyone’s name at Look. Frank Bauman, who was really difficult — couldn’t get him to join the ASMP, I don’t think he ever joined — they had Frank Bauman and they had a photographer from Austin, Texas, a little later, whose name I don’t remember. And somebody named Garrison, too. But all of their stories were shock kind of stories. I remember a whole series of four or six stories on war propaganda, and how phoney war propaganda was. In fact, I think it was called “Exposing War Propaganda.” So we printed all those pictures of the Germans hitting the children, and stuff like that.
“I was one of the first of that kind of photojournalist.”
ASMP: Did you also write for Click?
Smith: That was later. After Look, Moe Annenberg, who had started the Daily Racing Guide and was sort of a kingpin — I don’t think he was ever really a gangster exactly, but he was a very powerful kind of boss and racetracks were his field — he started a magazine called Click. And I think that John Whiting was one of the editors and I was one of the editors. But I was mostly a photographer there, although my status was an editor, and I shot a lot of stories. I remember doing Rogers and Hammerstein for them.
ASMP: And writing them too?
Smith: Writing the same stories that I was shooting. I was really one of the first, I think, of that kind of photojournalist. Of course, Life was developing photojournalists at that time too.
ASMP: And all this time you were helping organize the ASMP too.
Smith: I was at all the meetings and I was trying to get more photographers to join, there’s no question about that. In fact, that nucleus of us, we were all doing exactly that. And we were also independently trying to get a little bit better deal from magazines. Because I worked for everybody after a while. Click folded with the war and, for a time, I became a monthly columnist for Seventeen magazine. And I was in charge of something called “Teens in the News.” And I wrote that and took a picture of the greatest teen in the news that month, every month for quite a while. Now, that magazine got the paper when Click folded; paper was very scarce during the war. And Annenberg managed to switch the paper from Click to Seventeen. He also owned most of the stock in the Philadelphia Inquirer. And of course, his son finally turned out to be ambassador and had the most valuable art collection in the world.
ASMP: When did you start with the Code?
Smith: Philippe was the first president and, while he was president, most of the machinery began to go into place. Committees were formed: the committee to meet with editors, the committee on magazine ethics, the committee on photographic ethics. We weren’t supposed to steal each others’ customers, either. There’s not much on that. But the idea was that we would be as ethical as the magazines were, at least. And we kept meeting with the picture editors of Colliers; we’d go to Philadelphia and meet with the Saturday Evening Post a lot.
ASMP: The Ladies Home Journal?
Smith: Yes, I worked a lot for them. John Morris was the editor, but this was long before that. He was really very helpful, because he was one of the people who, when we went to him, was perfectly willing to go along — pretty much — with the basic Code that was beginning to be formed.
“You had to tell your story in five pictures.”
In those days, nobody got their negatives back. We can’t find any of my Click or Seventeen negatives. And nobody knows what happened to those very early ones; there are some very famous people involved. Because there was a magazine called the American Magazine that we all tried to get into, because they did stories on famous Americans a lot. I remember doing portraits for a few of them.
ASMP: Are you talking about the State Department magazine?
Smith: No, this was called the American Magazine, and it had a section of portraits every month, along with stories about Americans. The earliest people that were doing picture stories were Look and Life, and Saturday Evening Post got into the act, and Click came along. There was another one called Pic, but it did mostly stories about how to bake a cheesecake, and girls in their cheesecake clothing — panties, things like that. That’s what they did a lot of. I remember, I did a story called “How to Bake a Cheesecake and Eat it Too,” with a girl in her little bra and panties — very sexy.
Holiday came in a little later and, by that time, the ethical thing was beginning to form. You could ask for a minimum day rate. I can’t remember whether it was Look or Click, but they’d give me 10 four-by-five films to go in five four-by-five holders. And that was what you had to shoot the color story, you had five holders. You used each holder on both sides, and you’d shoot a picture on this side and I began shooting exactly the same picture on the other side because I didn’t trust exposures or developing. And then you would develop one side and if it was underdone a little bit you could do the other side and compensate. All photographers do that now; it’s standard operating procedure now. But in the very early days, the reason it was done was because you only had five holders, and you had to tell your story in five pictures very often. Some of them risked it and took it in 10 pictures, but then sometimes the exposures didn’t come out.
First I worked with a 5×7 Linhoff, it was called a 9×12 centimeter Linhoff. It was second-hand, of course. And then I managed to buy an 8×10 Dierdorf. And when I started working on assignments over at Life, I used both the Linhoff and the 8×10. In fact, I used those for the Lewis and Clark Expedition story, which I did for Time in 1950-something. It was Time’s first 12-page color essay; it was the biggest color essay they ever ran, it was a cover story. And I went across the United States, slowly, step by step with the diaries of Lewis and Clark, starting on the river, going up to North Dakota and then across the Judith River named for Thomas Jefferson’s girlfriend. And then into the gates of the mountains, up to where the Mississippi River starts and then down on the other side into the prairie, up through Montana, into Wyoming, and into the Clearwater River. And from the Clearwater to the Snake, and from the Snake to the Columbia, and from the Columbia to the Pacific, following their route day by day. Time wrote a story with me at the head of the Mississippi River.
ASMP: Did you use that size camera when you shot pictures down South, too?
Smith: Yes. The only camera I had was a 9×12 Linhoff, which is practically 4×5, and that’s what I was doing then. I didn’t get the 8×10 until I got up here. And I don’t know exactly what year I might have gotten the Rolleiflex, which suddenly all Life photographers were using. All the color stories I did with either the 4×5 Linhoff, the 5×7 Linoff, or the 8×10. And all of the 8×10 Kodachrome is just as good now as it was then. Everything that Eastman made after Kodachrome faded. And I shot Kodachrome almost exclusively. It’s just as clear, just as solid, just as printable as it ever was. I shot an awful lot on 8×10.
“Life would would pay $25 for a picture.”
ASMP: Do you remember any formal negotiations with an editor on behalf of the ASMP?
Smith: Yes, I talked to Wilson Hicks about the ASMP a number of times. And with him, there was a photographer who went out to Los Angeles — who at one time was Wilson’s deputy in charge of photography for a short time, but nobody would stand for a photographer being head of photography — he became a member. Two and three of us mostly would meet with Wilson and with Ray Mackland. And Ray was quite helpful actually; Wilson was helpful, they both were helpful. Daniel Longwell was not helpful; he was running things.
ASMP: In what way were they helpful? They were sympathetic, weren’t they?
Smith: They were sympathetic, and they felt that photographers should be treated better. That they might someday get Life to give their negatives back. We had to settle on every job. If I did the Lewis and Clark thing, we would say, “This is going to take six weeks. And how much will we pay you?” They’d probably pay maybe $2,000 for the six week’s work. But we didn’t have any day rates at the beginning.
In fact, I can remember when Life would buy pictures by the picture and they would pay $25 for a picture, for the various departments in the magazine. I think they probably finally raised that rate to $50. I remember that the last-page picture in the magazine was always very amusing. They finally got up to paying $100 for those.
ASMP: They’re still paying that.
Smith: Of course, when Life finally did accept a minimum $100-a-day rate, within six months, all of the independent photographers that they used had raised their rates to $200 a day. Certainly that was true of Arnold Newman and of me.
“That’s part of our cover policy and always was.”
ASMP: Philippe was in a special kind of spot there. He started doing covers early and he kept doing that sort of thing. And so while I don’t know what kind of contract he ever had with Life, he must have had some kind of continuing contract. I never asked Yvonne. Yvonne said he only submitted a couple of frames to them and always got them back. It seems to me that you and Arnold Newman were the first people who really made a fight at Time to get the material back.
Smith: And we did. I think it might have been Ray Mackland —- that within 90 days of the time that the story was laid out — and if the story ran we got the negatives back within 90 days. If the story didn’t run, we got the negatives back in 90 days. I told Jerry about this thing about the covers, he didn’t know anything about it. ASMP didn’t know anything about it. I was really shocked at that. Because last year, Life ran an issue with every cover they had ever run, and they didn’t pay anybody anything, although almost all of those covers were done by independent photographers.
ASMP: And it was the same thing with Sports Illustrated.
Smith: And they decided to pay it — just recently. I wrote Life and asked to be paid for the covers, and they wrote back and said, “No, that’s part of our cover policy and always was, and we are not obliged to pay it.”
ASMP: It’s not yet settled, is it?
Smith: I didn’t do anything about it; I was too busy with other things. I don’t think Arnold did. And I know that ASMP didn’t even look at it. But Jerry was jumping up and down about it because he had a lot of covers, and a lot of people had a lot of covers. There were a helluva lot of covers in all those years. And some photographers must have — for instance, I don’t know how Philippe was paid, but there must have been thousands of dollars involved there.
ASMP: You and Arnold got your negatives back from the Arts and Skills book?
Smith: Yes. We even got paid, the second time — the second edition of the book.
ASMP: On the tape, I need to have the time sequence on this. You’re now talking about the Arts and Skills issue, which was when?
Smith: We’re up to the first book that Time, Inc. published. The book department was founded and Charlie Tudor became the first art director.
“We were trying to make photographers respectable, not just photography.”
ASMP: That’s about when?
Smith: I would think in the ’60s, but it might have been the late ’50s. The first book was called “America’s Arts and Skills.” And the book was done completely by six photographers. Eliot Elisofon did two of the essays, I did two of the essays, Mili did one of the essays, and Andreas Feininger did one essay, maybe the last one.
ASMP: What do you think the ASMP has accomplished? What did you think it would accomplish when you started, or what was your ambition, and what do you think it has accomplished?
Smith: My ambition was to get photographers to dress better. [Laughter]. You never knew whether they were bums, or janitors, or what they really did. Photographers did not wear jackets or ties; we thought that that would help. Their image did come up at a couple of meetings, in the very early days.
And the next issue that came up was a written agreement for the number of days you were to work and whether the film and processing were paid for; whether the travel was paid for; what travel time consisted of; how much you got paid for travel time and how much per day you were paid. Those were the basic issues that we talked about all the time.
I can remember those conversations when I was doing stories for Colliers and Saturday Evening Post and everybody else that would hire me. And I think all of us were doing exactly that same thing. We were trying to make photography respectable and we were trying to make photography pay. We were trying to make photographers respectable, not just photography.
“I don’t think it would have changed without the ASMP.”
I worked on a newspaper in New Orleans before I came to New York, and the way it worked there was, if somebody applied for a job in the editorial department, they would see if he could write well enough to become what they called then a cub reporter, and if not they sent him to the darkroom. And the darkroom was a darkroom. And that was the status of photographers in those days: They had no status at all. They really were not looked up to as artists, or even craftsmen. There were a very few who did portraits independently who were looked at as craftsmen.
Steichen helped a great deal. Steichen’s respectability helped a great deal, because he was a respectable photographer and he wore regular clothes and he worked at Vogue. And when we began to get a few people like that into the organization — it took a long time; we didn’t get him right away — but when we began to get some respectable photographers, then the whole industry began to become what we wanted it to become.
Only at Life did photographers ever achieve the status of writers. It’s quite true at Life that writers did carry our equipment a lot.
ASMP: Do you think the ASMP really contributed to this kind of thing?
Smith: I think it had everything to do with it, I really do. I don’t think it would have changed without the ASMP. As long as they could play the staff people off against the freelance people, it was fine. They could always say, “We have staff to do it.”
But Life began to realize that over 50 percent of the magazine was not staff-done, that they had to buy pictures. And when they finally realized that, then they began to deal with photographers on photographers’ terms. And by that time, those were ASMP terms.
“We had great meetings, fabulous arguments among ourselves.”
ASMP: You did a beautiful issue of Infinity in 1952 for the West Coast photographers, which you have probably forgotten, and you made a lovely statement. You said, “We must keep in mind that we are an important part of a special kind of news media and that our responsibility extends to helping in the development and contributing to the future of our industry.” It’s a beautiful special issue on the West Coast.
Smith: I think that Infinity had quite an effect, because it was aesthetically a very good magazine. It published interesting and progressive photography. And that is one of the things that we needed, along with financial compensation: We very much needed stature. Before, if you went to a big party that you wanted to photograph, they wouldn’t let you in if you were a photographer; now they’d let you in.
ASMP: We’ve noticed talking to a couple of people that there was a tremendous feeling of camaraderie, that you were comrades together in a tough time. And that ASMP was a friendlier group, because it was quite smaller.
Smith: That is quite true. We had great meetings, at which there were great, fabulous arguments among ourselves. But we did know each other personally quite well and we liked each other a lot. In fact, men who became famous photographers telephoned each other all the time. We got to know each other very well. We’d meet in strange places like Tokyo for dinner.
ASMP: We got the feeling that you helped each other a lot.
Smith: We did; every time you needed help you didn’t necessarily call the ASMP, but you’d call an ASMP member who was a specialist in that field.
I would call somebody and say, “How much should I charge so-and-so for this job? Can we get more than our $100 a day rate from so-and-so?” There was a great deal of exchange.
David Eisendrath ran an ASMP photographer’s answering service. Almost every day, he spent most of his time talking about what to do — what kind of film Eastman was going to release; which batch of film was bad; who’s turning out cameras that don’t work well; what lenses to watch out for; and what magazines are doing what. He was really a marvelous center figure, but there were others. We could all call each other and find out. If you wanted to know what was happened at Vogue, you could call somebody who worked for Vogue.
ASMP: Do you remember any other specific instances of people helping each other?
Smith: I actually took pictures for some photographers once or twice when they were ill, and I gave them credit. People did all kinds of things like that. And you’d call up and ask for advice sometimes from somebody you thought knew better.
“You better take the first train out.”
I was sent by Life to do a story on the Elks Clubs of America. And their central office was in Terre Haute, Indiana, and that’s their first chapter and that’s where they all met and had big parties. So I got there and was met by someone at the train and went to lunch, and two or three people at lunch said, “We’re glad they didn’t send another one of those New York Jews down here to do the story, because we’re having enough trouble keeping them out of the organization anyway.”
Before this lunch, I’d already gotten about 30 Elks who were dressing up in minstrel costumes, and we were going to shoot a picture of a big celebration on a stage that late afternoon of this day. And I worked with them all morning getting everything set up and figuring out how to use the lights, and we were going to do the principals, and then do the way they put the shows together, and then we were going to do what good they did. At this lunch, I just couldn’t eat, I couldn’t make it.
First I called Philippe and said, “Philippe, I’m not going to do this story, but who should I call at Life to get them to cancel it?” Because they had made the dates and set up the assignment, kept the whole thing ready for me. And here I was with the people who ran the Elks all over the United States and I was saying we’re not going to do the story.
He told me to call Wilson Hicks, who said, “Bradley, if you don’t want to, don’t do it, but you better take the first train out.” So that’s why the Elks story didn’t run.
ASMP: When was that?
Smith: That’s really early, because it didn’t run. Nobody ever shot it.
ASMP: Good for you.
Smith: One of the things that was going on simultaneously with the ASMP is that Bob and Cornell [Capa] were working hard on this whole idea of the “concerned photographer.” And I think that phrase permeated the ASMP a great deal. And so it became an organization, for a while at least — not everybody, I must say, because we kept getting more and more strictly commercial people — but generally I’d say it developed from a nucleus of concern for [inaudible].
“It did become too much a New York organization.”
ASMP: Do you remember working with other people? I know there was an interesting insurance man who did things with photographers.
Smith: Sure, Don Shepherd was one of my first contacts with ASMP. I must have had a policy with Don Shepherd from 1946. He came into the office on 42nd Street and Don started on insurance very early.
ASMP: These were things that freelancers never had.
Smith: Freelancers never even had each others’ phone numbers. There wasn’t any book of numbers. When we printed a directory, it was a tremendous step forward, because everybody knew what was going on. And maybe it’s getting so it’s not as tight as it used to be.
I think it needed to break into smaller groups, because it did become too much a New York organization. It was important that it break into other groups. Now, if we can get those other groups to become concerned for [inaudible]….
ASMP: The other problem with the small group is they’re becoming more provincial too. When it was one organization for the world, everybody participated. Now everyone is working for their own little piece of geography.
“I’m waiting for a stopper.”
I wanted to ask you now about your own way of working. How do you go about getting clients?
Smith: I had a few sample sharecropper pictures. I had a few pictures of people like Reinhold Niebuhr and Norman Thomas, people that I worked with, organizers for sharecroppers who came down South, and I took things in the cotton fields with them. And then I’d done a few pictures for Time.
So I’d simply call up, make an appointment with the picture editor, whoever it was — which was never easy, because they wanted to know who you were and why you were coming, and it was hard to get them to look at pictures. And people really didn’t have portfolios in those days. Henrietta Brackman hadn’t even been born yet.
There were very good people up at Colliers, and Saturday Evening Post wasn’t bad. They were all very stiff and formal. Life was very loose. There was not always too good a chance to see Wilson Hicks. But after Ray Mackland came in and worked with Wilson, John Bryson was accessible as assistant — to Mackland first, and then assistant to whoever else was there. And you could get in to see him. You had to wait and you had to be persistent. Some editors were really difficult.
Over at Look I can remember Dan Mish taking a stack of 30 or 40 pictures and he would just shuffle through them like this. And I would say, “What’s going on there?” And he would say, “I’m waiting for a stopper.” I started to believe that people would look at pictures that way.
“Never give an editor a picture that you don’t want him to print.”
ASMP: How did you feel when they were doing that to you?
Smith: You felt like they were stabbing you. You felt like they were cutting you up. I think you had to feel photography was very satisfying to you, and after you got the pictures taken and printed, a lot of your satisfaction was such that you didn’t actually feel like killing the editor, because you had the pictures — and you wanted him to have the pictures, but at least you had the pictures. I think that may be an important psychological thing. And that’s what kept a lot of photographers going, because they could show their pictures to somebody, sometime.
ASMP: Were you the kind of person who went out and shot stuff and brought it back and immediately took care of things?
Smith: Yes. What I did is, I made a lot of notes when I was on assignments and I did a synopsis of the assignment text. And I’d make contact sheets and I’d get Manya Sweet to make 8×10 enlargements of everything I thought was worth running. And then I would take the assignment into Life. Margaret Bourke-White had somebody else doing hers too; everybody had their own printer.
ASMP: That was when you worked for Life and not for the other publications?
Smith: I did the same thing with everybody. I gave them the best prints that I had. I would take along the contact sheets in case the guy really wanted to look at them. My policy always was, never give an art director or an editor a picture that you don’t want him to print, because he’ll print the wrong one every time. And so I would never give them a picture I didn’t want them to print. I still don’t.
“You should never do a job for less than the people around you.”
I just did a job, “Life Goes to a 50th Anniversary,” and they wanted 32 pages of pictures of all kinds of people, like Jonas Salk, who were to be at this 50th anniversary thing. And they called me and asked me how much I would charge them to do it. I said, “I’ll have to have a minimum of 10 days to shoot it. I don’t know how many pictures I shoot a day, and it will be many.”
Now this is typical ASMP. I first called three of the leading photographers in San Diego and I said, “What is the highest rate anybody charges for anything in San Diego?” They said that the top is about $1,500. So I said, fine, my rate is $2,000. So I called and told them that my rate was $2,000 for 10 days. They said fine.
ASMP: Who was this, Life?
Smith: No, this was actually the people who owned the Golden Door and another big spa, and this was the 50th anniversary of the spa down in Mexico. And they wanted 32 pages of pictures and they wanted the famous people in it that would be down there during the celebration, but they wanted scenics. I shot 8×10 color on a lot of it. They wanted half of it in color and half in black and white, or something like that.
But first I checked with the local photographers to see what the top rate was, because I’ve always felt that you should never do a job for any less than the top rate that the people are getting around you. That’s the only way to keep the prices up, actually.
I must say, there’s a lot of cutthroat business going on within the ASMP. In fact, I get complaints quite regularly. But this is I think the way it should be. I’m sure there are photographers who can’t afford to do it, so that’s why they don’t do it. But I could afford to say, “You’ve got to do a byline at least in 14-point type and I have to have the negatives back and you have to pay for the prints as well and the processing.”
You can’t do that all the time; it’s a very special case. I’ve done that twice. I helped get a senator elected to the California state legislature by doing exactly the same kind of publication. I did a 32-page book, she sent out 700,000 of them I think, and it was in color and black-and-white. And [the book] was only of the projects that she had done in the last five years that I did the stories on; it had nothing to do with her at all. It had one picture, but all of it was the museum for firemen that she had built, and it had little kids on the fire trucks, and all that stuff.
“I want about 80,000 words.”
So, photojournalism, in my opinion, is disappearing, but photography is moving fast ahead. That’s one of the problems I’ve had to face, and it’s been a very tough one. It’s kept me from making as much money sometimes on lots of assignments, because I’m a writer. If I was not a writer, it would have helped me a great deal, because people just do not believe that a writer can be a photographer, and they don’t believe that a photographer can be a writer, and they’re not going to believe, no matter what you do or what you try to teach them. Actually, the number of photojournalists as such who actually wrote and photograph, you could almost do on the fingers of two hands. There were very few successful ones; they’re really rare. John Bryson is one of the outstanding ones and there were a few, but so few.
ASMP: I remember you told me that about the Japan book. The reviewers thought the man who did the introduction wrote the book, because it was obvious that a photographer didn’t do the book.
Smith: No, photographers don’t write books, and I still have problems. Almost all my books have been roughly half text and half pictures. Escape to the West Indies was a great shock to me. Alfred Knopf called and he said, “Bradley, Blanche and I have been up tonight and we think that we should do a book on the Caribbean, there isn’t any. And we’d like you to do it. We saw a story of yours in Life called ‘West Indies Escape.’ ” I said, “This will be easy. I can use a lot of my Life pictures, and I’ll do some more pictures and that will be the West Indies.”
And he said, “I don’t want any pictures in the book. I want about 80,000 words, 70,000 at the least, and I want you to do all 31 islands of the Caribbean. I want you to do the history and any anecdotal material; their poetry and music.” I said, “That’s going to cost quite a bit to go back and do that.” He said, “We’ll raise the advance a bit” — it wasn’t much anyway — “that’s what we want.” I said, “Could we have one black-and-white picture to introduce each chapter?” He said that would be okay. “This is a book that will be beautifully printed, we’ll use great paper, the best designer we’ve got in the house, and that’s what we’d like you to do.”
So here I was, a photographer being hired as a writer to do a book for a very prestigious firm. It never happened again, I don’t think. From then on, I saw that my books were very illustrated. For example, in Japan, A History and Art, I was photographing the earliest art to the latest art of Japan and selecting only those pieces that carried the story forward of Japanese life and Japanese art. So, Japan, A History and Art was really a sensational idea.
ASMP: How many books have you had published?
Smith: Twenty-three. I had bids from Simon & Schuster, Harper & Rowe, MacMillan and Doubleday, and they all were fighting to get that book. And all I had was a few pictures and some text. And I told them what the book was going to be like. And Simon & Schuster and Book of-the-Month Club finally came together on it; they had such a big order that I did it for them.
That book has sold about 800,000 copies in the world, in Japanese, French and German. It’s the biggest selling art book that’s ever been, except maybe Dave Duncan’s Picasso. Then I had a contract to do Spain.
Then I began having trouble getting assignments. Why? Because they say, “Smith is great, but he only photographs pictures of pictures in museums.” I really do still have that trouble; they say “Aren’t you the expert at photographing photographs?” Imagine being known for that. I thought they might remember my sharecropper’s story, or my Harry Truman story.
“The only working photographers’ organization of any serious value.”
ASMP: Which pictures go to the National Gallery now?
Smith: They’re selecting the pictures they want to buy of mine for their permanent collection, and I don’t know which ones they’re going to buy. I have a batch of them here that they ran through.
ASMP: Will they give you a reasonable price for them?
Smith: They’ll give you the price that you can get on the current market.
ASMP: Meaning what?
Smith: I’m selling Billy Holliday and Louis Armstrong at $475 a print, and I’m selling quite a few. And I’m selling Harry Truman at $750. What they want to do is they want you to make a special deal with them. They know by now that certain collectors have some of my pictures. So they say, “If we take 10 of these pictures, can we have a discount?”
ASMP: Do they ask you for original prints?
Smith: They’ll buy the prints if you’ve either printed them yourself or supervised the printing. Actually, they’ll pay much more for vintage prints, but they’ve got to be over 30 years old, maybe 50, and they’ve got to be slightly cracked on the edges.
ASMP: I just have one last question, what do you think of the ASMP today?
Smith: I think it’s the only working photographers’ organization that is of any serious value.