During the 17 years that photographer Kristen Smith lived in Los
Angeles, she often did a rather odd thing in that famously vehicular city: She walked. And when it came time to take a photograph, she ignored mountains, beaches, surfers, and celebrities and shot what was literally beneath her feet. It was the beginning of her continuing Concrete series, a remarkable collection of carefully composed, square-format photos of that most mundane of materials.
“The first one was ‘Concrete Series Pine,’” says Smith. “I was walking on a rare gray day in LA, after an even more rare rain, and looked down and saw the remnants of a wash. The pine needles on the sidewalk had washed around an orange traffic cone that had since been removed, and left behind a swirl backed by a stain and the subtle colors of the concrete. From then on, I couldn’t stop looking down and seeing texture, color, and design.”
Attention to detail had been a key element of Smith’s training at UNC-Charlotte under Martha Strawn. One of Strawn’s assignments was for her students to take one city block as their subject and shoot roll after roll of whatever details caught their eye. She called the approach “visual ecology,” training her students to create a sense of place from their images of the raw materials that make up the world — so ubiquitous as to pass unnoticed to photographers with grander visions of sweeping landscapes or carefully lighted studio portraiture.
It was an approach that fit perfectly with a habit Smith had nurtured since growing up in Arden. (She lived in California for 27 years before moving back to her home state, and now lives in Hendersonville.) “As a child,” she says, “I would come home from school and walk for at least a couple of hours. Even then, I would notice the details.”
Her first camera was a Nikon FE2 film camera, then a Polaroid pack film camera. “When digital first came out, I naively protested that it was a bastardization of the art form,” Smith remembers. “Never say never — that’s all I shoot now.” Most of her work is produced with just a smartphone camera, which can easily supply the square format that once was the domain of bulkier film cameras. But even with the array of digital editing tools at everyone’s fingertips, Smith’s images are raw. “I don’t touch anything, or arrange or add color,” she explains. “It still takes a good eye to make these photos what they are.”
The Concrete series has grown to encompass the textures and colors of rust and weathering stains, the patterns formed by cracks, or shadows thrown across the pebbled surface. They’ve been joined by a collection built around weathered metal or the more subtle patterns of old glass. Back in the mountains, with the effect of four seasons, Smith finds her work is expanding into nontraditional portraiture and commissioned projects. “You have to challenge yourself to new ideas, and allow yourself to mess things up, to break them. We should have fun with creativity.”
Kristen Smith, Framed on 4th, 135 4th Ave. West, Hendersonville. For more information, call the gallery at 828-595-2883 or see Framed on 4th on Facebook. To contact the artist directly about work, call 310-570-5273, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her website (www.ksmithla.com) or Instagram page (@ksmithla).