A vanished view of New Orleans Ottsville photographer Michael A. Smith's work shows the city before the devastation of Katrina.

Posted: January 01, 2006

Opening a battered trunk bound with frayed duct tape, Michael A. Smith pulled out "35 pounds of camera."

He mounted the 50-year-old, 8-by-20 Deardorff on a wooden tripod, attesting all the while to the detail and quality that the bulky view camera delivers.

"As a photographer, I feel I'm responsible for filling every square millimeter of picture space. Just as a composer is responsible for every note, as a poet is responsible for every word," said the Ottsville artist, 63, flanked by his New Orleans photographs - pre-Hurricane Katrina - at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.

"I look at photographs as rhythmic events, and I consider a photograph successful when a viewer's eyes are compelled to navigate the whole picture space."

"New Orleans: A Beloved City" is an exhibit of 38 black-and-white photographs from a project commissioned by the Historic New Orleans Collection in the mid-1980s.

Smith was captivated by the city's architecture and the faces of New Orleans at work and play. The Superdome is included, but the places in most of his images were not ravaged by the hurricane.

Smith, who said he works 18-hour days and has never owned a television, followed the hurricane on the Internet.

His contact prints were made directly from 8-by-10, 8-by-20 and 18-by-22-inch negatives.

Admiring the exhibit was Sarah Holwager of Pottstown, who had lived in New Orleans from 1985 to 1999.

"I thought the exhibit would make me sad, but it doesn't," said Holwager, who was touring the museum with her husband. "It all looks so familiar. It's poignant."

Bruce Katsiff, museum director, called Smith, a self-taught photographer with work that spans nearly four decades, "unquestionably a nationally known figure."

"Michael has one foot back in the 19th century in terms of the technology he uses," Katsiff said. "But his visual sensibilities are very much 21st century - the way he organizes his pictures, the space, the composition."

Smith, who took pre-law and accounting courses at Temple, tried teaching, acting and painting after he graduated in 1963. He picked up a 35mm camera in 1966 after seeing 10 minutes of a movie about Edward Weston.

"I found myself looking at the world as if I had a camera," said Smith, who started using a view camera exclusively the next year.

Although influenced early on by Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz and Dorothea Lange, Smith said that "at a certain point in an artist's career, you're growing from your own work and other artists are not your primary interest."

His initial work was close-up, abstract and bold. Then he stepped back and shot sweeping vistas, traveling across the United States and Canada. His 1961 pickup, equipped to handle his three view cameras, is on its second engine and over the 300,000-mile mark.

Smith, who intends to drive the pickup to Guatemala in 2008, said he might take the truck to a workshop in Arizona this month. If he does, he is considering a stop in New Orleans to re-photograph a few scenes that are in the Michener exhibit.

He also plan to return to Iceland and is working on a book, The Bonsai of Longwood Gardens, with his wife, photographer Paula Chamlee.

The couple's collaborative efforts extend to Arts of Our Time, a nonprofit organization they started to present classical concerts and photography symposiums on their 18-acre property.

"It's constantly a struggle. I'm constantly living on the edge," said the author of Michael A. Smith: A Visual Journey and other books. "I make more money now than I made 35 years ago, but the expenses are more."

He said he keeps his work fresh by not limiting himself to what first captures his interest.

"It's a process of discovery. If you photograph what caught your eye ahead of time, then you're only confirming what you already know," he said.

A lover of black-and-white photography - "the world's in color, so I don't have to do that" - Smith said he might do his first color work in Iceland.

"It will not be landscape. I will not do color landscape," he said. "I know what I'll do. I'm just not saying."

Contact suburban staff writer Valerie Reed at 215-702-7806 or reedv@phillynews.com.

If You Go

"New Orleans: A Beloved City" continues through Feb. 19 at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown. During the exhibit, donations will be collected for Museums Helping Museums, a national effort to assist Gulf Coast cultural institutions in recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

The Michener is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is closed today for the holiday. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $6 for adults 60 and older, and $4 for students. Children younger than 6 are admitted free. For more information, call 215-340-9800.

For more on Michael A. Smith, visit www.michaelandpaula.com.

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