Brad Smith On the Art of Selecting Photos for Sports Illustrated and the White House

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Photograph used with permission from Brad Smith

Brad Smith has had a fascinating career that spans over 30 years of editing photos. He has worked as Assistant Director of Photography and Photo Editor at the Bill Clinton White House and Sports Photo Editor at The New York Times. He has also served as Director of Photography for Sports at Time Inc., which included overseeing photos for Sports Illustrated.

Brad has viewed hundreds of thousands of incredible and historic photographs and has decided which of those photographs the rest of the world would get to see as well. That is an awesome responsibility.

I sat down with Brad in October during PhotoPlus Expo in New York to discuss his illustrious career. The interview that follows is the first in a series of interviews I will publish that explore the art and craft of editing photographs on the world stage.

Ben Arnon: Describe your career for me?

Brad Smith: It goes a little over 30 years. I started with a French news agency called Sigma. That was really the first job that I had of any substance. I was there for about four years.

Then, eventually within a year or so after that, I navigated my way towards Sports Illustrated. I was there for a few years. I left Sports Illustrated to go to the White House to work for Bill Clinton. I stayed there for a part of the first administration. I was there with the Clinton staff photographers and we documented the Presidency and the First Lady and then there was the separate staff for the Vice President. That was a pretty interesting job to say the least.

Then I went back to Sports Illustrated a second time. I then went to the New York Times where I was the sports photo editor for about 12 years. Then about 3 1/2 years ago, Sports Illustrated recruited me to come back and be their Director of Photography which I did for about three years. I left in January 2016 and now I have my own visual consulting group called Brad Smith Creative.

How would you describe the differences and similarities between working at the White House and at Sports Illustrated?

The basic difference between Sports Illustrated and the White House is essentially that it's just a little more formal at the White House, for obvious reasons, and you're there for documenting true photographs, the historical record of the presidency, that's what you're there for.

If other things come into play and they work out then that's great, but what you're really there for is to document the Presidency. Whatever the President allows you to document, you really have to follow their lead. In this case, I was fortunate enough to work for a President that appreciated photography and photographers and was really easy to work with. It was a big plus. It was all news-oriented. There was a lot of news value in the fact that you have world leaders coming in, you're signing peace treaties in your backyard literally. A lot of that kind of stuff is very interesting and happy to be around. It was enjoyable to me because it was something new. I enjoyed working for that particular President a great deal. That part was a lot of fun.

At Sports Illustrated, you're working within the confines of working with athletes and sports teams and hoping that they will agree to whatever it is you're asking for. In the end, they're fairly cooperative based a great deal on the fact that Sports Illustrated still carries a lot of weight with athletes and sports teams. The brand itself still means a lot.

How much, if any, artistic freedom did you have at the White House?

The way it tends to work is you have four photographers for the President. There's a chief photographer and then there are three other ones. Between those four, the President's doing something on a given day, we would go over the schedule and determine whether all four had to be there or one or two depending on the size of it, depending on the location, the venue, the significance of the event and so forth. If you have a few photographers, you have to make sure that you document it for the historical record which is pretty straight forward. But at the same time, a couple of photographers means that you definitely have the opportunity for at least one of those four to rotate around and do something a little more visually interesting.

Were you always a photo editor or were you a photographer as well?

Absolutely never. I majored in photography in college but as soon as I got out of college, I was never a photographer. I wanted to be a researcher/editor pretty quickly. I think I knew enough about myself that I didn't want to show my book around and have people tell me "no" a lot over and over. I got into the editing and research and I loved it. I've never looked back and never regretted a minute of it.

I didn't realize that the White House had photo editors as well as photographers.

There is an entire team. It's an entire unit together. The President, for the Clinton administration, I don't know how much has changed through Obama, we're talking a couple of Presidents later. For Clinton at least, there were four photographers for the President and there were two for the Vice President. Then there's a full-time librarian and an assistant librarian, and there's a photo editor and an administrative assistant. You're looking at about ten to twelve people, altogether they run the photo department. That includes cataloging and captioning. That includes getting images to people that have had the opportunity to meet the President. Perhaps they shake hands with the President and they want to get a copy of it. The White House provides that.

All of the things that go into the archives, the prints around, if you ever go into the White House there's display prints everywhere. Somebody has to hang those up and print those and mount them and all that's from the same department. There's a full-time photo editor as well. Just like a magazine or a newspaper, they do the same thing. They just work for the White House instead.

You have worked at Sports Illustrated three separate times. How did you see the industry change over that time?

I could use Sports Illustrated as an example. Just on itself, my career can show how the entire industry has worked. When I first started at Sports Illustrated, there was a magazine. There was nothing but a magazine. There wasn't even a website. I started there in 1989, the first time. There was no website. Then, when they ended up developing a website, it was actually when they were joined with Time Warner and they were part of CNN. The website was actually out of Atlanta.

There was a website but it really wasn't anything that you would notice today. It was just, they'd put the magazine up on a website. The sensibility and the skill set for it was definitely people who had newsroom values back in the day. It's not the people that would be working on it today.

I went from a magazine where we would photograph an event or a portrait or whatever, we'd get the pictures, we'd look at them, we'd show them to people on Sunday or Monday morning, we'd close the magazine Monday night and then you went home. Then on Thursday you'd come back and you would see the magazine probably for the first time under your door and you'd look through it, you'd take a breath and you'd start over again. That's all you did for fifty weeks out of the year.

We had film, we had a lab onsite, the Time-Life lab which produced for Life magazine all the way back to the amazing images from Life and Time magazines, Fortune, People, all the magazines there in the building using the same lab.

Then you fast forward to when I went back there in 2013 to be the Director of Photography for the Time Inc. Sports Group, which includes Sports Illustrated. At this point they not only have their magazines but they have tablet forms, they have mobile forms, they have the website and any number of platforms that obviously did not exist in 1989. Now there are even more opportunities for a photographer's images to be used now than ever before.

How would you personally describe the role of a photo editor or what a Director of Photography does?

First, the Director of Photography is completely different from a photo editor. A Director of Photography hopefully at some point in their life was a photo editor. The photo editor's job is to accumulate images that will then be spread throughout the universe on the various platforms that your company works for.

Their job is to gather the images. There's a lot of ways they can do that. They could call a library and have them give them archive photos. They could call somebody up and have a family send photos of themselves. They could send the photographers to someone's home or business or location and shoot portraits or feature photos with the family or a person or whoever. Or, they could go to, in Sports Illustrated's case, a game. They could cover the game and shoot any number of images which all then had to be sent back.

The editor's job not only is to assign or to put in motion the gathering of these images no matter where they're coming from but then to collect them in a timely manner, make sure they're captioned correctly, make sure that they're of a quality that can be used however they're going to be used, make sure that they fit the story that they're going with. The editing part comes into play when they receive whatever number of images from the photographer.

Certain portrait photographers for example may shoot something and maybe they send you a hundred pictures. You know they took more than that but these are the hundred they're going to send you because they have a status where you trust them to give you their hundred favorite. Then you narrow those hundred down and you show them to people, usually a creative director, an art director, usually a managing editor or an editor of a magazine or newspaper, website or whatever. Those couple of people usually weigh in collectively and decide what goes in.

The editing process is the most difficult when you look at what's called a raw take. That is you looking at every photo the photographer took. A lot of photographers wish that never happened because there's a lot of bad photos in there. Photo editors know enough not to judge somebody on the bad photos. They only judge among the good ones because everybody takes bad photos.

You look at the entire take. In a football game, for instance, a photographer could shoot anywhere from 2,000 - 5,000 photos easily during a football game. Somebody has to look through every one of those pictures and make sense of it and tell a story from the game. Find certain players, find certain plays, make sure they're captioned, may sure it actually happened the way you say it happened. You edit all those images. You're editing for the story going into your publication whether it's a magazine or not. You're editing for that. The best sports photos don't need a caption.

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Photograph used with permission from Brad Smith and Robert Caplin

For example, I want this guy because he threw touchdowns. I want this woman because she had a 70 in the golf tournament that you're covering. You know what you're looking for. The difference between back in the day when I first started at Sports Illustrated was we would edit those images and that's all we were doing, it's really for the magazine and maybe some resale stock and you might use some later down the road. It was a pretty limited group. Now an editor really needs to have in mind all these multiple platforms and they have to edit for an Instagram account. They have to edit for somebody to be able to put on to an already composed template for a gallery which everything is square. You have to keep that in mind plus the magazine and all its uses and so forth.

To look at a raw take and go over with the photographer and figure out what their vision was and work with them on pulling the right images and seeing these diamonds in the rough and so forth and pulling them out. That's the skill for an editor. A really good editor will never leave anything good behind. They may keep something that doesn't really work but they'll never leave anything good behind.

Back in they day when you just had the print magazine and it came out weekly, you had some time. Nowadays, photographers shoot images at a sporting event and they are online on a major news website almost instantaneously. That must make the role of a photo editor more difficult.

Yeah, it does. It certainly makes you look at things a little quicker and you're picking more for time rather than the other parameters you were using before. You have certain quality parameters you wanted to fulfill and certain ideals and stuff that you wanted for your photos to live under and now you're almost picking for speed. This one will work and I have 35 seconds, let me pick it and move on. It's just one of the residuals of the world that we live where time is of the essence for a lot of these images.

What is the most memorable part of your career, whether it's a particular photograph or a particular person that you worked with?

I would say that I have been blessed beyond any semblance of reason whatsoever. I've been very lucky. I grew up in North Florida, went to college and then moved to New York. I'm the only person in my family that ever really moved away a great distance for the most part. I ended up in New York and I've literally traveled around the world, all due to photography, and all due to being an editor and a Director of Photography, never as a photographer.

I worked for the President of the United States, that's got to be up there. I met Nelson Mandela and gave him a gift on behalf of the President. That's ridiculous.

I met the women's soccer championship team - the Mia Hamm team - which still to this day is my favorite team of all time because I love those women. They were terrific, inspirational and great.

I've been to the Olympics and I've seen Carl Lewis run. I've seen Michael Phelps swim. I've seen a peace treaty literally with Arafat in the back of the White House being signed. I was like, "What am I doing here?"

I've been really lucky with all those things. There's a lot of them that have been pretty significant and I felt pretty fortunate about being involved in all of them. I would have to say finding myself in a position where in an official capacity I met Nelson Mandela on behalf of the President of the United States has got to be up there. I still can't fathom how that happened. I look at that photo about every 6 months just to make sure it was real.

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Photograph used with permission from Brad Smith

Was that meeting in Washington, DC or in South Africa?

It was in Washington, DC. He came to DC and visited the White House. Once an official guest leaves the White House, the President says goodbye and that's it, even if the person stays in DC for six weeks. He probably doesn't see him again, that's it. But there's a big official goodbye and all this stuff, so he left. Then we created a photo album of Nelson Mandela's state visit to the White House.

After the prints were made I put together the album and had the President and the First Lady sign the page. Then I was asked to go in a receiving line with about six other people like Andrew Young and all of these incredibly accomplished people in the United States. We're all in this line to say goodbye to Mandela. I was in the line representing the President. I handed him the book and we chatted for a second and he said thank you and that was kind of this little exchange that lasted about 20 seconds but still to this day it was like, "Wow! I met Nelson Mandela."