Last night, friends and fans of veteran fashion photographer Brian Bowen Smith crammed into Bookmarc, Marc Jacobs’ West Village bookstore, to celebrate the release of Smith’s new book Projects, a hefty collection of images showcasing his renowned work in celebrity photography over the past ten years. Models Carolyn Murphy and Jessica Stam showed up, as did Robert Duffy, longtime friend and President of Marc Jacobs International. “I think it’s great!” Duffy said of the book. “I hate my photo—I’m the only one who has their clothes on. I told Brian, Please don’t let me be the only old man in this book surround by all that beauty.” At 18, Smith met Duffy at the gym while working as a professional gymnast and model. The two became close friends and worked closely together on projects and collaborations for the Marc Jacobs brand —a relationship that helped catapult Smith to top-ranking industry status. We caught up with Smith to discuss the book, his nontraditional career trajectory, and the challenging dynamics of working with fashion and Hollywood’s biggest names.
Your first book signing for Projects was held in Los Angeles a little over a month ago. What did it mean to you to celebrate the release in your hometown?
Unbelievable. It was one of the most surreal things in the world. Robert Duffy even put a billboard above the store with one of my photos and just my name. So it was literally like being a celeb-superhero for one day. It was really, really cool, and to have all my friends and a lot of the celebs who are in the book there was unbelievable.
You mention Robert Duffy, the CEO of Marc Jacobs. Why is your book signing here at Bookmarc?
I’ve been collaborating with Marc and Robert for about fifteen years, so I’ve formed a special relationship with them. I think this is one of the best bookstores in the world, and that’s not just because he’s my friend. I’m very honored and glad. You look around at the people who are in here and it’s the best of the best, so to be involved and be a part of that is all their doing and a blessing for me.
Let’s talk a little about the book. It’s a collection of images throughout your career, with a primary focus on celebrity portraits. What is it about celebrities that you find so intriguing?
You never really know who a celebrity is because most of the time you’re watching them as characters. So to get into their personal life and have them give you something they don’t give other people is extremely special. You learn a lot about them in that short period of time, and it becomes such a different animal. You look at them different and it makes you feel a lot more honored that they’re doing this for you.
What are some of your favorite photos in the book?
The picture of my son is one of my favorite pictures. Selma Blair was one of the first celebrities I ever shot, Cindy [Crawford] — of course, because it’s Cindy — everything in that book is my favorite. I had to cut 300 photos so every photo in there means something special to me.
As a veteran beauty and celebrity photographer, you’ve photographed hundreds of music, TV, and film industry A-listers. Is it ever challenging to work with celebrities who are already under insane amounts of pressure and likely stressed or tired from a life of constantly being in the spotlight?
Absolutely. For anyone who’s overworked or has so much going on it’s not as special to them [compared to] if I just shot some random girl who’s never done a photo shoot. When you’re filming sixteen hours a day for two months straight and you have to come in and do another photo shoot, we make it fun. We make it about them and really try to listen to what they’re telling me and get something that they’re proud of. My main goal when shooting celebrities is to keep it fresh, keep it fun. I want them to be proud of their photo; I don’t want it to be a job.
In what ways has your background as a professional gymnast and roller blader translated to your career as a professional photographer?
Sports will teach you dedication, discipline, and mental awareness. I think that after doing those sports and getting to a certain level in those sports it’s very hard — you go through a lot of ups and downs and sometimes you don’t even make it. But when you do, you realize you can do anything. When I started I gave up everything and said, ‘I’m going to make this work’. I think that my drive that I got from sports has totally helped with everything that I do in life — even raising children and relationships.
You were the assistant to late iconic photographer Herb Ritts for four years. How did his work with celebrity portraiture influence or nurture your own work?
He was who I wanted to be. Everyone loved him, he was so mellow — there wasn’t an ounce of diva in that man. And he was extremely generous — he gave me one of his number one cameras for my birthday when I started shooting and said, “keep it up, you’ll do fine.” He gave me all the confidence in the world to follow [my] dreams and make them come true.