James Smolka

Julian Richards

Published on .

James Smolka

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" known as Michigan. Now his wanderlust directs him, ironically enough, to the most "Michigan" of subjects, whether it be people or landscapes. "I'm really attracted to those everyday common things that everyone overlooks." A random patch of grass, a kitschy, oversized prop roller skate atop a pole, and a shabby motel room are among the subjects he chooses to shoot for his personal work. However, "you don't know that the hotel room's in Australia or the rollerskate is from Alaska, which I think may be their appeal," he points out. "People are connecting with something they see everyday, overlooked things that are just invisible. I think there's a certain universal quality to a lot of my photographs. They're simple, easily recognizable, but at the same time a little more complex under the surface. They're vague and ambiguous; there's room for play, yet they're straight enough to say something and make a statement."


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