Why You Should Watch "Make" This Weekend

I feel that I should give a warning before you dive into this blog post. It contains a lot of links to other websites where you will likely spend a good deal of time watching, looking and listening to great art. If you're at work, you may want to wait to read this until you're on break.

I recently stumbled upon a documentary on Vimeo On Demand called “Make” and have been thinking about it ever since. The film is expertly produced and well shot. It’s a beautiful film that tells the stories of multiple artists and really reminded me of why I do what I do. 

I’ve been in the photo industry long enough that sometimes I forget why I got into photography. This is my job. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes it’s just a job. One truth that continues to hold up no matter what my day is like, is that I get to make things on a daily basis and that makes me happy. Sometimes I get to make pictures that I want to make. Most of the time I get to make pictures that other people want me to make. Other times I get to make my own rules and that feels pretty good too. Regardless, I feel blessed to have the opportunity to make photographs for a living and I try to remind myself periodically not to take it for granted. 

When I watched “Make” I was reminded of the drive that creators have to make things. Artists are compelled to bring new things into the world over and over again. The film features artists that I am familiar with like Miller Mobley, the band Sylvan Esso, and Elliot Rausch. Each person has something interesting to say about their lives and their art. After I researched Elliot Rausch a little more I was excited to learn that he was the director of a music video of a song that had a dramatic impact on my adolescent life, “Bro Hymn” by Pennywise. The influence of Pennywise on my younger self cannot be understated and to hear from the director of a music video of the song that defined my youth is particularly inspiring.

Just a quick warning. If you go to Elliot's website and watch "Last Minutes With Oden" you are going to cry. If you don't, then you are a heartless bastard. If you want to be inspired and moved without crying, you can do it for only $3.99 this weekend. Rent “Make” on Vimeo and enjoy this honest look into what it means to be a creator.  

Album Photography for The Hello Strangers

Band Photography, Lifestyle Photographer, Ryan Smith I have the very good fortune of being married to an amazing singer and songwriter. My wife, Larissa and her sister, Brechyn, started a band named The Hello Strangers in Austin, TX and have worked hard to create an authentic sound that highlights their sibling harmonies. I love their music. It’s not just because I’m married to Larissa. It’s because their songs are filled with stories and each is executed with precision and grace. They are the kinds of songs that you can listen to over and over again without ever getting tired of them.

As someone who spent his youth listening to punk rock and heavy metal I never envisioned myself being married to an Americana musician. The fact is that we all grow in one way or the other and years ago I opened myself to all kinds of music and am a much better person for it. I love music and I enjoy seeing how different bands present their stories, emotions and poetry to the world.

There are numerous benefits to being married to a musician. Aside from getting in to shows for free, hearing new songs first and feeling cool for being married to a musician, I also get great joy from collaborating with The Hello Strangers on their image and identity. Larissa, Brechyn and I have been collaborating on photos and videos for years now and each one has it’s own unique set of challenges and rewards.

I am exceptionally thrilled about The Hello Strangers' self-titled debut album. They worked extremely hard with Nashville producer, Steve Ivey, to create an album that is excellent. And I’m equally thrilled about working with them to create the photographs used in the album packaging. I’ve worked with them on other projects and have worked with other bands for promotional photos, but this was my first time working on photography that would encase the entire album. These photographs needed to introduce The Hello Strangers and to build a story in the viewer's mind about what they were going to hear on the 13 track album.

We worked together to craft a general idea of how we wanted to present the music and this idea changed multiple times over the course of this project. What we ended up with is new and old photography that shows who The Hello Strangers are while also creating a mood and story about music. The images we shot and selected went through numerous changes, and with expert guidance from Designer Carl Nielson, we were able to lay everything out into a unique package that introduces The Hello Strangers and their music to the world.

Their songs have a wide stylistic range, but at it’s core each song is meant to be sung by two voices. The harmonies are key, regardless of whether they are singing a murder ballad, a love song or a honky tonk number. These photos are about the love and respect Larissa and Brechyn have for one another as sisters, musicians and friends while also paying homage to the dark stories they create.

I’m proud of the creativity, love and hard work they have put into this album. I’m also proud of the photographs I helped create. These photos help give their songs and voices a visual identity. I couldn’t be more grateful to have been a part of this process.

If you have never heard their music, take a listen to a couple of my favorite tracks. It's really hard to just pick three, but these are my current favorites live and recorded alike.

If you like what you hear, then please consider downloading an album. The albums aren’t yet available for mail order so when the opportunity arises for you to come to a show, be sure to check out the schedule. You can pick up a real hard copy of the album then.

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Pregnant in Jail - The Hello Strangers

I'm going to go back in time a few weeks to recap my most recent shoot with The Hello Strangers. If you read my previous post then it's no secret that my wife and I just had a baby. And if you have read earlier posts (like this one), then it's also no secret that Larissa is one of The Hello Strangers. The reason this is important is because The Hello Strangers have a song called Pregnant in Jail. The song takes inspiration from a friend's true story. No really, it does.

Here's the chorus. "Pregnant in Jail, won't somebody pay my bail, wastin' away in a cell, I'm just Pregnant in Jail." But, my favorite line of the song is, "Well these days ain't sunny no more. With all these people talkin' I'll be damned if I'm a two bit whore."

Last fall when it came to be known that Larissa was pregnant, Dave, the bass player of the band, asked if we were going to do a Pregnant In Jail photo shoot. We realized that this would be a great opportunity to bring this song to life in a photographic way. We decided to wait until Larissa was good and pregnant. The timing on this was tough because we didn't want to shoot too early and we didn't want to wait too long as the chances of going into labor increased. And, I definitely didn't want my son to be born in a jail cell.

The most difficult part of the shoot aside from the timing was securing a location. We wanted something with bars that had a turn-of-the-century kind of feeling to it. Well that should be easy, right? All jails have bars. Unfortunately what you are used to seeing in the movies is not quite like most prison's these days. To find our location I started by calling the mayor of my town since he works with our local police force on a regular basis. As a fan of The Hello Strangers, he agreed to help connect me with the Chief of Police. He informed the chief that I would be stopping by to take a look at the jail cell our small police office has. Unfortunately, the cell didn't have the space or the look we needed to complete the shot, but the Chief sent me to another Chief a few towns over. I followed a few more leads like this until I finally ended up at the Old Jail in Chambersburg, PA. It was perfect. Black bars with white walls and officially closed to detaining prisoners. The Old Jail now houses the Franklin County Historical Society. If you're ever on a road trip through PA and want to check out a fascinating museum be sure to stop in.

We had our location, and after some back and forth were able to schedule a suitable date for us to shoot. Now we needed wardrobe. Dave, the band's master of disguise, happened to have a vintage prison uniform. We decided to maximize the use of this and have both Larissa and Brechyn wearing a piece of it. Obviously, we wanted to show off Larissa's belly so she wore the pants while Brechyn wore the jacket.

Now for style and concept. The protagonist in the song is tough, yet sensitive. She's been dealt a tough hand, but has to keep moving on. Larissa and Brechyn already know their part because they wrote and perform the song regularly. As with all of our shoots, they make my job much easier by quickly getting into their part. As for light, the location actually had some beautiful natural light. Most of my previous shoots with the band had been much more heavily lit, but for this particular scenario I wanted to use as much natural light as possible. This served a double purpose as it helped us to move a little more quickly (see above about not wanting to have my son born in jail) and it gave the photos a feeling of authenticity.

I love photographing bands because of the collaborative nature of the photos. All of my projects are collaborative, but band photography really does extend that collaboration by merging music with photography. We take the creativity of the music and bring its visual form into existence.

That same creativity and process can be applied to all the work I do. There is creativity all around us. It's in our schools, hospitals, backyards, local pub, etc. It's everywhere and I see my job as being that of explorer, and of problem solver. Each place presents its own unique set of problems and my job is to solve that problem. It's like a mathematician working out an equation, a writer doing research for a character, or a dancer choreographing a new dance. You look at the pieces already in place, sort them out, and turn them into something that didn't exist before. Here is the result of the problem we solved this time.



The Hello Strangers - My Favorite Band Wins a Record Deal!

It's not every day that I get to brag about something this cool. For those of you who don't know, I am married to a beautiful, charming, caring and intelligent woman named Larissa. Not only does she exhibit all of these qualities, but she is also a talented songwriter and musician. But here is the big news. I am so incredibly excited and proud to announce that The Hello Strangers recently won the grand prize package for the “AirPlay Direct Win an Americana Record Deal” contest. Check out the press release HERE. This is a huge deal and a major boost for the band. It is a well deserved honor and I can't wait to see how the next album turns out. I've already heard all of the songs and know there will be some real gems on this next album, but I can't wait to see it all come together. Check out their current EP HERE.

And here is a bit more history about the band. In the fall of 2006, Larissa and her equally talented sister Brechyn, started writing songs together in a small cottage in South Austin, TX. I've been fortunate enough to see the two of them develop their music for the past 5 years into the remarkable package it is now. I'll spare you the entire history with a quick summary. After moving from Austin back to their hometown of Mercersburg, Pa in 2007, the sisters (known as The Hello Strangers) began to form a full fledged band. Fortunately, we are surrounded by many talented people here and they quickly found a perfect match of musicians for their band. Kevin Shannon is on guitar, Dave Holzwarth on bass and Katie O'Neil on drums. (Here's an interesting side note. Katie and I played in a punk band together when we were 16. Dave used to run me over on the basketball court when I was 12. As for Kevin, I didn't know him when I was a teenager, but can say now that he's a pretty cool dude.)

Anyway, since this is a blog dedicated to photography and the business of it, I need to talk a little bit about that. So on top of having the privilege of watching The Hello Strangers evolve, I have also been fortunate enough to work with them in building their visual identity. I can't begin to describe how much fun it has been conceptualizing and photographing The Hello Strangers year after year. Below is a selection of some of my favorites from the past few years. These were all fun to produce and many of them have been in my portfolio at one time or another. I can't wait to do the next round of pics.

Congratulations to The Hello Strangers!



The picture below is nostalgic because it was shot after their very first show in South Austin.