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"Gnarled Tree" Photo by John Smith
“Gnarled Tree” Photo by John Smith

Landscape photographer John Smith did not take the transition from film to digital lightly.

He recalls starting his photographic journey as “a little lizard,” back in 1969 with a kit from Sky City Discount on Patton Avenue. For $13.95, he learned to develop black-and-white film in his home. From there he was hooked. “Once you get into it, you just can’t step out of it.”

Smith can trace his roots back many generations in Appalachia, which is perhaps a factor in his deep appreciation for the mountains of WNC, and his passion for photographing its landscape. He is attuned to weather and seasons, sometimes studying a location for up to three years until the conditions are right to photograph it. Such nuances lend well to using large-format film, rather than the more common 35mm. A single large-format negative typically measures 4-by-5-inches or 8-by-10-inches, and can capture the amount of detail and tonal values that a landscape photographer needs to set his work apart from the casual shooter.

Smith is well versed in the work of the historical and contemporary masters: Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna, Clyde Butcher. His 12 years as a photographer for GE instilled in him knowledge of photographic technique deeply engrained in darkroom practices. So when the tides turned to digital, he sought out a camera that could deliver the superior image quality that only large format film could traditionally provide.

The Arca Swiss RL3D is a digital large-format camera, capable of producing an image size of 200 megabytes. For some perspective, a lower-level professional 35mm-style camera may deliver an image of around 20 megabytes. Exactly what that technical jargon translates to is an image capable of capturing light quality as the human eye perceives it. Anyone who has ever shown a scenic photo that they shot to someone else and said “it looked really different when I was there” will understand.

Such a camera also works beautifully with black and white photography, a wistful subject for Smith. “There is an inherent beauty to black-and-white,” he affirms. “You can surround a black-and-white photo with color photos, and it will scream for attention.” The build of the RL3D and its lens creates a fine degree of sharpness, which is important for a black-and-white landscape photograph, which can’t wow its viewer with striking color. This combined with its ability to capture many subtle shades of gray makes it a perfect tool to match Smith’s vision.

Smith finds himself drawn to landscapes that are not quite perfect —  gnarled trees, snow, and stormy weather. Never blue skies, he says. “Especially with black-and-white, clouds are essential.” He finds himself on the Parkway a lot, or perhaps at Triple Falls, or maybe Max Patch. Right now his keen eye for composition has him occupied with one specific tree on a hillside in Leicester. “You have to be able to see a place and visualize it in another type of weather, or in a different season.” He may go out driving all day and not shoot one photo, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been working.

While Smith admits his preference is to be out in the mountains, eventually he must come home to make prints of his work. The smallest of these are in the 20- by-30-inch range  —  another advantage to using a large format camera being the ability to print large and preserve quality. Smith is lightly amused when people ask if his images are “photoshopped.” “All photographs are manipulated,” he explains. “Ansel Adams was adjusting contrast, making certain areas of the image dark, certain areas light, was photoshopping before there was Photoshop.” In balance with this, he is careful not to create images that look “too digital,” avoiding such maneuvers as switching out one sky for another. The work is more about trying to translate to paper what his eye witnessed rather than invent a new scene through his computer.

At almost 65 years young, Smith is happy to be able roam the mountains creating landscape images full time and selling his prints of WNC for others to enjoy. His work is available in multiple regional galleries such as Wickwire in Hendersonville, Iago in Blowing Rock, and Seven Sisters in Black Mountain. These venues offer both his color and black-and-white work, though the latter definitely strikes a sentimental chord in him that anyone raised in the darkroom can identify with. “Black and white simply has a power all of its own.”

Visit johnsmithphotography.net to see more of John Smith’s landscape photography or call 828-693-1389 for more information.