If James Smolka had his way, he'd be the itinerant shooter, roaming the globe and documenting scenes from his travels. Fortunately, his latest gigs have allowed him to do just that, as in a recent campaign out of Publicis, which took him through Jacksonville shooting elements from the workplace for Principal Financial. Not exactly the expected stuff of travel photography, but it's the fare toward which Smolka's lens naturally gravitates. "I love the fact that I turn the camera away from something obvious and get something interesting," he says. Combining a documentarian's eye with the technical mastery of an experienced shooter, he manages to draw curious qualities from the most mundane subjects.
Although he's been shooting professionally for more than five years, the 38-year-old Smolka says things started to come together only about a year and a half ago, when his ad jobs began to dovetail with his sensibilities. On a campaign for Gulf Oil, he traveled through Houston capturing richly detailed slices of life from truck stop culture. A landscape job for Nike ACG sent him to Maui, exploring gorgeous yet ambiguous closeups of rock formations and tree trunks.
After apprenticing about seven years ago with advertising photographer Chris Buck, Smolka, a music school dropout, made early inroads shooting fashion for clients like Barney's and Levi's. But he soon realized that sexy jobs weren't his forte. "I wasn't so driven by beauty, which overshadows everything else you're photographing," he notes. Surprisingly, he had originally set out to go glossy, perhaps a reactionary response to having grown up in what he calls the sheet metal "vacuum" of Michigan. Now his wanderlust directs him, ironically, to the most "Michigan" of subjects. "I'm really attracted to everyday things that everyone overlooks." A drab motel room and a kitschy, oversized prop roller skate are among the subjects in his personal work. However, "you don't know that the room's in Australia or the rollerskate is from Alaska, which I think may be their appeal," he points out. " The pictures are more complex under the surface. There's room for play, yet they're straight enough to make a statement."