Photographer Cody Smyth has been to places some of us could only dream of. His normal day would probably consist of shooting some of the music industry's most brilliant minds. Read on to find about more about him, his work, and his next steps into his image making career.
Hi, Cody! Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hi there, well I was born and raised in Manhattan. Growing up between the Upper West Side and The West Village. My parents are from the city as well and were in the photo industry. My father owned his own custom photo lab and my mom shot for a little bit and then went on to produce.
They both had some pretty incredible experiences in their lives before they met and before I was even a thought. So I was lucky and fortunate enough to grow up in an environment where their friends and experiences carried over into my life. I was always surrounded by artists, filmmakers and musicians. Since they had kids, I grew up with many friends that went into the arts and have success of their own.
I spent a lot of time at my dad’s photo lab, which he named “Cody Color”. My father is a master in the darkroom. Since these were the years before digital I was able to learn a lot about printing and developing. The different machines we had to maintain and all the chemicals. It’s a fairly dead art now, but was so important to learn in terms of knowing photography.
My mom was a producer for a long time so I was always on set or stopping by shoots after school. High end clients, talent and photographers were always there. Being young I wasn’t fully aware of the caliber of talent I was surround by on those shoots, but I took it all in and remember it as a great time in my youth.
I was 9 or 10 when my dad got me my first camera. A Nikon FM2.
In 1989 I remember taking a photo of my dad and uncle in front of this painted mural on a wall over in hells kitchen. It was the same painting that is on the cover of Bobs Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” album, so we went to check it out. It was the first time I remember thinking I wanted to pursue photography.
I did a year at Suny Purchase for collage just to try it out, but I knew before going in it wasn’t for me. They only way I was going to learn was being on shoots and film/video sets. While shooting all along I spent the late 90’s assisting on some films and commercials. Then in about 2000 I put all my focus in to photography. Learning every area I could from production to lighting to digital. I started assisting Mick Rock in 2001 and have been with him since then.
Then it was around 2001 I started shooting professionally. My website has my work and clients on it. Seems kind of douchey to list all my work here.
It has been great so far and I’ve been given some amazing opportunities. Some has been luck and knowing people sure, but most of it comes from hard work and always believing in my self and what I do. As an artist, in my career and most importantly what is in my heart.
Who is Cody Smyth when not shooting? What do you do on your down time?
Family and friends are the biggest and most important things in life. So seeing family and friends is usually happening. Whether its dinners, catching a movie or just hanging.
Music is a big part of my life so always trying to catch a show. Anything from a small club or a stadium show. Hitting up a Museum or gallery show if something great is happening.
I sort of split my time now between NYC and Miami, so it depends where I am really and what’s going on. I have my dog Zeus, so no matter what, I’ve got him in my down time. He’s just perfect.
Tell us about how you discovered photography. Was it always something that was innate and natural or learned?
Well as you can see I was pretty much born into it. In my blood I guess you can say. I mean really some of the earliest photos I remember seeing are ones my mom took of Johnny Thunders. For those of you that don’t know who Johnny is…well look him up. One of the greatest punks ever. But she ended up photographing him for some press shots and the cover of his album “Hurt Me.” They are raw and honest and real.
So naturally photography was something I gravitated towards at a very early age. But there was a point in my early 20’s where I felt I had to start learning the craft a lot more. Lighting with strobes and available light, proper exposure’s, darkroom techniques, eventually photoshop. Whatever I could.
That included starting to assist with photographers whose work I admired. One of them was Mick Rock. Mick has shot some of the most iconic music photos in history. I’ve been assisting Mick for about 15 years now. Even with my own career and work going I still assist Mick when he calls. We’ve become a tight team over the years.
What can you say about ‘photography as an art or expression?’
I mean some of the greatest moments in history have been photographed. And they run across all genres and cultures. But for me whether it’s a photo taken by Edward Curtis or Weegee or Helmut Newton or Danny Clinch when it instantly brings you in and makes you wonder what was happening before and after that photo…that is the art in it. Making the viewer want to be there. Looking at it for the first time or the hundredth, but each time you still wonder.
In terms of expression it can be one of the most powerful forms out there. Look at someone like Francesca Woodman and her work.
Trying to express myself is something I’ve never necessarily felt the need to do in my own work. I don’t know maybe I’m not deep and dark enough for that. But I do hope my work shows cohesiveness in terms of style and feeling and what my eye sees.
Today though with digital and social media as it is, things are a bit different I think. Everyone likes to “express” themselves now. I’m just not sure if how much “art” is involved with it anymore.
What do you think is the most important subject you've shot?
I have to say working on putting this book together it has to be the document of The Strokes I have. Only because I realize how fast the years have gone by. It shows youth into adulthood in our lives. Not something I was aiming to do. It's crazy to see now.
After that I’m really proud of my photos of Joan Jett and Lil' Wayne. Those were important subjects for me to capture properly.
What's your favorite thing about photography?
That you can hide behind the camera. It gives you a reason to escape from what is happening all around you and focus on what you want.
What's your dream photograph?
Bob Dylan! Taking Dylan’s portrait would be my ultimate. But that’s high wishing.
What does the 'decisive moment' mean for you?
Each time I shoot I usually know when I get that decisive moment or shot. It’s those frames when you're looking through the lens and knowing as soon as the shutter snaps you got it. With film I was always happy if I got that one frame out of the whole roll. Now with digital things are a bit different, but it still applies.
I think the decisive moment should make you feel something inside when you take it.
How does your professional work differ from your personal photography?
In terms of my professional work and shoots there are always multiple aspects to those, so a bit more is involved when shooting. Being as prepared as possible is always key. Having solid assistants and all the gear you might need. Making sure clients and talent are getting the images they need. But being the photographer is like being the director and I feel it’s important to remember why they hired you to shoot. So while having to give the client what they need is important, so is not losing your vision for what you want to capture.
When it comes to shooting personal work I don’t really worry about what I’m using to capture it these days. This sort of fits in to the digital and social media thing I mentioned before. Now while I feel it has dumbed everything down I also feel it's made things new and fun. I mean the iPhone has basically become my new point and shoot. Does it compare to my old Yashica T4 I used and still use sometimes, of course not. But you can’t compare them.
There are also plenty of times where I use my Pentax 67 to take personal work and portraits with.
In both my professional and personal work I was never one to be to technical about things though. A so called “photo nerd” in the sense. I know my stuff, don’t get me wrong, just less is better for me.
In what area of photography do you think you feel most comfortable in? Or in what element do you find yourself more at home in?
Well it took me a while to get there, but I would say being one on one with someone and taking a portrait. The camera is an easy thing to hide behind. It protects you from the world a little bit when you have it up to your eye and becomes a barrier for you.
But when you sit down with someone and have to engage and bring them out its different. The camera shouldn’t hide you from that.
What’s your favorite subject? Where do you draw inspiration?
My favorite subjects to shoot are musicians, artist, actors, etc.. If only cause they usually have some sort of style or look already. Sounds so cheesy to say, but you know what I’m getting at.
I get my inspiration from for all aspects. Seeing my friends working and being successful in their photography, music and films motivates me immensely. Having us all champion each other’s work. So that always keeps me going.
And of course new and old music, film and photography… those will always inspire me to keep pushing myself.
How would you describe your style in five words?
Oh god….let's see
In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a good photograph?
This is like asking what’s your favorite song or film. It's so personal and up to the individual. I guess what I think makes a good photograph is one that instantly makes you wonder what was happening when it was taken. After that, framing and subject matter in the photo.
What’s your favorite photograph? Why?
Jeez I feel like I’ve become somewhat blind to what might be good of mine and not anymore, but that’s because I’ve seen them a thousand times.
If I have to pick one of own favorites it would probably be the first group photo I shot of The Strokes. Both personally and professionally, that photo holds a special place in life for me.
We shot it months before 9/11 and before they really broke big. It was the beginning of their career and mine. It still holds a great time in our lives whenever we look at it.
What camera/film/accessory setup do you use in your professional and personal work?
I started out using film only of course, because digital wasn’t around yet. So in the earlier days I was shooting nothing but 35mm on my Nikon FM2 and my Yashica T4. And lots of Polaroid! Loved my Spectra! But going way back to when I was a kid I had a Minolta 110 camera.
Then as I progressed I used my dad's old Graflex 4x5 for some personal work.
I love my Pentax 67 camera though! Have the wooden handle on. Love the way that thing shoots, sounds and holds when its in my hand. I’ve used it with strobe in studio and available light. Thing is a beast and I love it.
Now with digital I have my own Canon and a few lenses. It's fine and I’ve found ways to make it work for me where I’ve gotten it to feel like my film work, but it will never replace it or necessarily have the same grain feel.
Lighting wise I feel nothing beats great available light and being able to work and play with that. When I need to use strobes it just depends on the location and space really.
Any photographers/artists that you follow religiously?
I’m guessing this pertains to Instagram.
Well my friends and myself included, while we might not all be high up on the commercial radar consistently, are always posting and making great work. Whether it's new work or older work that’s never really been seen, I don’t think it matters.
I follow my friends' bands and a bunch of rock bands and stuff. Also people like Danny Clinch, Mick Rock, Larry Clark, Ryan Mcginley and other artist.
If you weren't a photographer, what would you be?
Probably involved in film and working to be a cinematographer. I have some film and video experience, but photo always held more interest for me. It’s something I'm hoping to do more of in the future.
Or I would be like totally living off the grid someplace. Two extremes I know, but what can I say.
In this part, Cody talks about his work with rock band The Strokes, his experiences photographing them and his upcoming photo book.
How was it like being in the center of it all? Seeing behind the scenes, participating in the movement as it happened...
I mean it has been amazing to witness and be part of it in my own way. The writing and stories in the book are going to recount some personal moments through the years. Both from myself and our other old friend from high school Claude Franques.
Seeing the guys formed the band, I became the photographer and Claude became the writer. He has a way of writing down and capturing how we all felt during the shows and personal moments and adventures along the way.
I’ve seen some amazing shows though witnessing historical musical moments. Meeting some great people. But if it weren’t for our parents putting us in the same school all those years ago, it would have been very different I’m sure. Just the way fate worked out I guess.
I always say with all the fame and fortune that came for them, they could have easily moved on and not allowed me to be part of it… but they didn’t.
The guys in the band, and especially Nick V, welcomed me along with them. They always let me join them on tour or at a show. They always have a spot for me on the bus or in a hotel room. It’s a family thing at this point and that is more important then all the fame and money in the world I think.
Was there a point in time when you thought "This is going to be a book someday"?
You know I never thought that in all those years. I was just trying to shoot and document as much as I could.
I remember realizing in about 2011 that I had this large body of work of them that I would love to show someday. But I always had a gallery show more in mind than a book.
It wasn’t till January of this year that my close family friend Jacob Hoye approached me and wanted to see what I had. He has been in publishing forever and has made some great photo books. He had just started working at Lesser Gods Publications and was looking for new content. We met up and here we are!
I reached out to each of the guys in the band and asked if they were cool with it. Let them know I’m looking to make something special and that will make us proud of this friendship we have. They are all behind it and super supportive and excited to see it, so that means a lot to me.
What was the greatest part of the project?
Going back and finding all these lost photos or ones that I forgot about. Starting from back when we were teens and I was just shooting my life up till the past few years.
With The Strokes I’ve always only had my favorites on my website, but I’m finding so many more on the rolls I shot. So I’m excited for all these outtakes and more personal photos to be seen.
What was the toughest part of being a photographer on the road?
I never found it tough being on the road with them, if only because its like family and they always welcomed me. But I was never on tour with them for more than two weeks at a time usually. So I don’t think I stayed out with them long enough to get on everyone’s nerves.
What was your favorite thing about it?
Probably being lucky enough to meet these guys over 20 years ago and we are still so close as friends. That speaks volumes on how much we all love and respect each other.
I’ve gotten to see and experience some amazing things because of these guys. Having met new friends because of it. Got to meet a few celebs and rock stars along the way.
But what I love the most about it are the down moments for sure. Nick Valensi is like a brother to me. And for all the great gigs I was side stage for and the perks he has that come along with being a rock star, it’s the personal times that mean the most. The book will have those kinds of stories in it. The off stage moments and experiences.
How would you describe the whole experience?
I mean somewhat life forming. In the sense that watching them get better and play more, just made me want to shoot more and get better at my craft. It started me on my career and has lead to commercial work. Introduced my photos to a larger audience for sure. You and Lomography were amazing enough to get in touch with me for this interview because of it.
So I’ve been extremely lucky to be there for it all, both on and off the stage.
Given the chance to do it again, would you?
Absolutely! Again I was born into it, so some of it was built in. And lot of it was life or fate or what have you. But it’s the path I’m on so I’m going along with it. Could be worse I guess right?
What's next for Cody Smyth?
Working on The Strokes book is the main focus these days. I’ve never done a book or been published before so it’s a whole new experience for me. It will come out next year (2017.) It's a 20-year documentary of The Strokes. We all met in high school back in ’95 and have remained close friends all these years.
So its going to cover a long friendship basically. Back in our youth and then showing the early days of the band. Showing how they grew and became one of the world's biggest rock bands. It will cover about 1995-2016 in terms of photos. And then we are adding some stories and text to it. The writing and stories I think are going to add a whole other aspect that will complement the story and history of the photos. I’m really excited for it to be seen and having the guys in the band support it means a lot. I’m hoping to make something special with it. But it will be coming out in September or October of 2017 so I’ll be making updates and posts along the way.
Hoping to shoot more magazine covers and ad work. I would love to shoot John Varatos ads! He’s a big champion of music and fashion so ya never know.
I feel my career is just starting for me honestly. What I’ve done has only prepared me for what is to come.
Last words for our readers?
Keep shooting. Whether on your iPhone or a proper camera. Doesn’t matter what you use, just keep using it.
If you are just starting out always ask questions. If you want to photograph someone just ask them, cause the worst they will say is no.
Like anything freelance and in the arts there will be times when you struggle. Mostly money wise but also creatively. Don’t let that discourage you from what and why you love what you do. Always believe in yourself and you’ll be fine.
See more of his work here.
We would like to express our gratitude to the artist for letting us interview him for this piece. All images in this article were used with the artist's permission.