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Jessi Smith—Life Behind the Lens

"credit" Jessi SmithHOPKINS COUNTY, KY (5/2/13)—When looking at life through a camera lens, the world offers an entirely new perspective on the possibilities and treasures existence actually holds. A photographer has the ability to capture and create moments in time that can be reflected on for an eternity. These moments might conjure up thoughts of grief, delight, confusion, solitude, or brilliance—the possibilities are endless and they are brought into existence by the artist manipulating the shutter and playing with the light.

Photos inspire, and local photographer Jessi Smith, who recently joined the Sugg Street Post team, is inspired by the likes of acclaimed rock photographers Autumn de Wilde and Jo McCaughey. De Wilde’s work has been featured on the cover of Spin Magazine, and in the pages of Rolling Stone, Filter Nylon, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, and The New York Times. McCaughey is the house photographer for Third Man Records, which was founded by the eclectic White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather rocker—and now solo performer—Jack White.

You might have noticed Jessi’s photos cropping up on the Sugg Street Post recently, both in articles and as our ‘Daily Shot from the Street.’ But who is Jessi Smith and how did the Sugg Street Post come across her and her work? Allow me to enlighten you.

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Jessi Smith was born in Madisonville, KY in 1980, but grew up living in Nebo, KY surrounded warmly by immediate and extended family.

“My immediate family was just me, my brother, and my mom, but I have a massive extended family. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ with all my cousins and had a ton of aunts and uncles. It was always really hectic,” laughs Jessi, “but it was fun.”

Early in life, Jessi recognized her creative leanings and honed her skills in any way that she could. As early as second grade, she was discovering new and fascinating means to amuse herself while creating a solid artistic foundation that would serve her for many years to come. A large part of her time growing up was spent trying to expose her niche.

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“I used to make art out of crayon shavings. I would sharpen crayons and I’d make little pictures out of the shavings and sell them to my classmates,” remembers Jessi. “Anything creative, I loved to do it. I was never very good at drawing, though. I was pretty good at music. I took guitar lessons and things like that. At first, in terms of creative stuff, I was good at a lot of things, but I never really mastered any one thing. I never found that one thing that I could just latch onto and do really well at until I started taking pictures. But yeah, I loved creative things. It might have just been because everything else seemed so boring.”

Jessi took classes at Nebo Elementary School, went to West Hopkins School for a year, and then attended Hopkins County Central High School where she was among some of the first students to ever take classes.

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“I took art classes at Central, but I wasn’t able to take photography class,” says Jessi. “I tried. I remember being so jealous, because they had that brand new cool dark room and I never got to use it. I’ve never gotten an opportunity to do traditional stuff in a dark room, although, I have all the supplies I need with the exception of an enlarger. One year, for my birthday, everybody got me chemicals, photo paper, tongs, and trays. I think I could make a darkroom pretty easily. Even though there aren’t a lot of artists in my family, my support system is fantastic. All my friends and family support everything I do.”

Jessi’s family continued to support her as she strove to find her calling after high school. Once she’d graduated in 1998, Jessi, not fully knowing what direction she wanted to go in career-wise, became a full-time nanny.

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“I was babysitting every day, all day. That’s what got me started taking pictures. You get bored and just try to do something to keep your brain from turning into mush from watching kids’ shows all day,” laughs Jessi. “I just started taking pictures and I always had willing models with the kiddos. Plus, the parents loved their pictures. I took a lot of Christmas card pictures and stuff like that.”

At that time, Jessi was using an old point-and-shoot Nikon brand camera her aunt had given to her.

“That was before digital had really taken off. Digital was still really expensive,” says Jessi. “Regardless, I was spending a ton of money just developing pictures.”

It wasn’t until Jessi turned 18 that she got her first digital camera. That is when her love of photography was taken to a whole new level.

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“My first digital camera was an Epson,” says Jessi. “They didn’t even tell you how many megapixels it was. They just went by the dimensions of the pictures. I loved it so much. It was so cheap. I could take hundreds of pictures and just pick out the ones I liked. It was so much fun. It was with that camera that I started really realizing that photography was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Realizing her love of photography was an exhilarating point in Jessi’s life, but, at the same time, she felt as if her goals would be impossible to reach. The life of an artist is by no means an easy one, and the pressure society puts on you to accept regularly paying blue-collar jobs is ever-present.

“At that point, it was kind of a pipe dream. Deciding to take an art career on is intimidating. You feel like you need to be a nurse or something—something steady,” Jessi admits.

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In the meantime, Jessi was subscribing to a variety of photography catalogs and magazines. One of her favorites was called Exposures.

“It was like a Pottery Barn for picture frames and displays,” explains Jessi. “They had a section where you could submit your pictures to the magazine. Then, they would put your pictures in the frames and displays, and they would put them in the catalogs. One day, I finally submitted about ten pictures of the kids that I’d taken. I remember wanting that so bad. That was going to be my sign. If I can just get them to pick one picture, then maybe I can actually make a living doing photography. That can be my sign. If I get one picture in, I can be a photographer.”

If one of your photos was selected to be in the magazine, Exposures would send you five dollars by mail. The photo would then be placed in an archive, and if it got used in an issue of the magazine they would then send you 50 dollars for being chosen.

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“I got an envelope one day in the mail with five dollars in it,” says Jessi. “They picked one of my pictures. A week later, they sent me a big envelope with a catalog in it and a fifty dollar check. My picture was in the magazine! I was so excited I just cried. I had only asked for one picture and they used one. That was my sign. I did it! One of my uncles told me, ‘Well, you’ve been paid for your services. You’re actually a photographer now.’ That was the first time I’d ever been paid for a picture.”

After receiving her “sign” from the great beyond, it was still a few more years before Jessi seriously looked into photography school. The kids Jessi had been watching were getting older and, for a short stint, Jessi considered going into political science at Berea College, although she now admits she isn’t certain why.

“I don’t know where that came from or where that went,” laughs Jessi. “I was going to be President or something. Maybe I’ll just be the presidential photographer. How cool would that be?”

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Eventually, in 2008, after doing plenty of research online, Jessi came across the Academy of Art University, which was founded in San Francisco, CA in 1929. It was an accredited online art school that she could work easily into her schedule.

“My main thing was that I wanted an accredited school where I could get an actual degree. I didn’t want something that was obtainable purely by profit. You have to make the grades, or else you fail and get the boot,” says Jessi. “I wanted a real school, and that was the best one that I could find. At first, the Academy of Art seemed out of reach too, because it’s fairly expensive, but they have a good financial aid program, which made it feasible.”

The Academy of Art ultimately changed Jessi’s life and photography style.

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For years, she had wanted to veer away from doing only family portraits and senior pictures. She was looking to amp up the artistic side of her style so that she could grow and flourish more as a visual artist. At that time, Jessi was taking four classes each semester so she would still have time to work her third-shift job at a local hotel chain. Each week she was challenged to complete photo assignments and weekly quizzes.

“It was the best thing ever. I loved it. I was exposed to new ideas and it completely changed my style,” says Jessi. “You would log in, get your assignments, and then you’d go take your pictures. You would submit your pictures and the instructor would look at it, critique it, and you would get audio-visual feedback. It was like watching a movie. The instructor would pull your photo up and he would point out areas that needed improvement. An area in a photo might be underexposed. Composition on one side might need to be a little less symmetrical. It was like you were getting one-on-one time with the professor. You also had to participate in discussions and interact with your classmates. You were required to critique other people’s work and I always hated that. I hated telling people what I thought about their pictures. You want to be honest, but you don’t want to discourage another photographer. That was a big aspect of the online classes. You had to critique everyone’s work because it helps you in the end. If you see what you don’t like in pictures, that, in turn, helps you with yours.”

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The Academy of Art provided Jessi with the Adobe Creative Suite, Lightroom, and Photoshop—necessary computer programs for the modern photographer.

“I was so happy to get Photoshop, because it is so expensive. The Academy of Art also requires you to get a Mac, which turned me into an Apple freak, so I appreciate that as well,” laughs Jessi.

While talking to Jessi about her experiences in school, she humorously recounted a couple stories regarding some of her first photography assignments at the University.

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“In the fundamentals class, the first thing they make you do is take pictures of strangers,” laughs Jessi. “You would have to go out and take pictures of ten strangers, and I hated that assignment. It was so embarrassing. I’m still shy now, but I was super shy then. It was awful. Half of my photographs looked like ‘stalker pics’ because they didn’t know I was photographing them—like paparazzi stuff.”

“Since graduating in May last year, I have really missed having assignments,” admits Jessi. “I don’t have someone telling me what to take pictures of. Before, it was like having a license to go take weird pictures. Otherwise, if I’m just going to take weird pictures, that’s all me. I don’t have any excuses. Nobody is making me take pictures of my friends in their underwear covered in blood,” laughs Jessi. “That’s how I actually made friends with some of the people I hang out with now. I started working at the hotel and I ended up asking one of my coworkers if I could take his picture for an assignment. I barely knew him and there he was, in his underwear, dripping in Karo syrup.”

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Throughout school, Jessi made excellent grades and did well at the Academy. She thoroughly enjoyed her theory class as well, which focused a lot on painting with light (using light to illuminate what you are photographing). Her theory class wasn’t as assignment-heavy as her fundamentals classes, but she was able to learn about the classics, the masters, and the history of photography. Street photographers, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus, were among some of her favorites, as well as the widely popular Annie Leibovitz.

“I just really like the rock photographer scene,” says Jessi. “I love Annie Leibovitz’s old, rock star, Rolling Stone stuff. I really love her old stuff. I love rock star pictures. That’s my favorite genre right now. That’s what I want to do—concert photography, album covers, band promos, and other stuff like that. But my goal right now is just to try to marry moneymaking and what I want to take pictures of, because that has been a tough one.”

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“That’s been one of the frustrating parts since graduating,” says Jessi. “You are conditioned to think you go to college, you graduate, and you get a job. That just isn’t the case with art careers.”

Right now, Jessi is simply trying to turn her passion into something that can sustain her living so that she has the time to keep doing what she loves. Thus is the plight of the artist.

Meanwhile, Jessi has been receiving recognition for her photography on multiple fronts. For one of her school assignments, she snuck her camera into a Black Keys concert and got some stunning shots of singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney that ended up going viral on the internet.

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“You’re not allowed to take professional-grade cameras to rock concerts. That whole ‘detachable lens thing’ has screwed me out of so many pictures. Up to this point, I haven’t been able to get passes as a freelancer, so I have smuggled my cameras in—in my pants,” laughs Jessi. “It’s uncomfortable, because I wait in line for a long time so I can get close to the stage if possible.”

“With the Black Keys pictures, the Black Keys were starting to get famous, but they weren’t near the level they are at now,” says Jessi. “I snuck my camera in and it was so weird, because I had bought a fast-pass and we just walked right in. We passed the whole line and just walked right in there. We stood there, right against the barrier, right in the middle. I just took pictures through the whole concert. Nobody tried to stop me. Nobody cared. Security didn’t ever try to stand in front of me or anything. It was so satisfying. You take all the pictures and then you go home and you get to look at them. I just loved them all.”

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“So, I sent some of my photos to a music blog—one of the Black Keys fan lounges that are our there—and they really liked them. They used a couple of them. They used them for their mast head and they got me in touch with another girl out of Ohio who runs some music blogs. She’s actually friends with Dan Auerbach’s uncle. She had me write a review of the concert and told me she would help me get passes at their next concert, but the next concert I saw them at was a music festival they couldn’t get passes for. At festivals, the bands don’t have as much say-so when it comes to media passes. Right after that, they blew up and got so famous that there was no way I could get passes. So, now I’ve got to start from the bottom and claw my way up. At one point, I was on Tumblr and I saw my pictures on there, but I hadn’t posted them. It was just so neat seeing my work. I screen capped it.”

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Jessi’s enthusiasm for photography and music was apparent from the first moment I met her. I actually met Jessi Smith during the interview for this article. A mutual friend and talented local painter, Travis Shanks, introduced us because he thought that she was an insanely talented artist from the area that deserved more recognition for her work. Quite frankly, the Sugg Street Post couldn’t have agreed more.

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We ended up developing a friendship and, after seeing her collection of work, asked her if she would like to help the Sugg Street Post out with a few photo shoots with the promise that we could definitely get her some rock photography opportunities in the area.

For Jessie’s first Sugg Street Post adventure, I took her with me to interview Kaitlyn Maue, a young emerging artist from Madisonville, KY.

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“Doing photo shoots for Sugg Street Post has been fun. I’ve never done that sort of photojournalism before, so it’s been really interesting. It’s new territory for me. When we did the Kaitlyn Maue shoot, I was really nervous because it was the first one, and I was going into a stranger’s house and setting up. In that kind of situation, sometimes I do really well on the spot and sometimes I blank. I don’t know what to do and I forget how to work my camera,” laughs Jessi. “But she was sweet and I could tell she was kind of shy too, so that put me at ease. Sometimes, going into a photo shoot blind messes me up, because I already have a certain vision in mind. Then I walk in and it’ll look completely different from what I thought it was going to. That’s when I have to go with a different game plan.”

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“I think that’s what happened when we did the shoot with [local musician] James Michael Harris. In my head, when you said cabin with no running water, I was thinking of an old, bluesy, wooden cabin on the river. So that’s what I had in my head. I had him all reared back in a rocking chair with his leg kicked up, you know? So I had to re-plan that whole thing when we got there and that wasn’t the case,” laughs Jessi. “The easiest one, was the second one with [local musician] J.T. Oglesby. I had actually wanted to take pictures at the Glema Mahr Center for the Arts for a while. Even with that one, I had a slightly different vision in my head. I had the spotlight, dark theatre, just him, and all the empty chairs around him. It was still fun. I enjoyed that one a lot. That was the coolest situation—the way he just sang the whole time—because that’s what I envision it would be like taking pictures of rock stars. They are just doing their thing and you get to hear them play this music, this version that nobody else gets to hear. You become part of that world and I think that’s what’s so appealing, because I just love music so much.”

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Above all, art is an escape for Jessi. Without photography, her creative outlet, she feels confined by all that is around her. For Jessi, capturing life on film opens the world up in new and exciting ways.

“I think it [art] just keeps me from feeling trapped,” explains Jessi. “We’re in a small town. We’re in a good location, potentially to be a hub. We’re so close to Nashville and all that stuff.  When you look at a picture, listen to a piece of music, or gaze at a painting, you’re there. You’re out. It’s like reading books—you just don’t feel like you’re here. Or, you make it more bearable to be wherever you are. You’re making it prettier. I hate being bored. If I’m bored, I can go take pictures. Having that escape keeps me sane. Otherwise, life would feel so routine. You have to wake up, you have to go to work, you have to clean your house, you have to do laundry, you have to go to sleep, and then you have to wake up, you have to go to work, and clean your house, and do laundry. I would absolutely go mad. I don’t do well with normal things and normal jobs. It’s been risky, especially financially. I took the insurance off my car to put insurance on my camera. As soon as I took the insurance off my car, I hit a deer with it,” laughs Jessi. “Priorities. My camera is safe, but I have to bum a ride now. That part is challenging, but I think it’s worth it because I have the potential to make a career out of something that I love. Not a lot of people get to do that, to find the job they like. That’s my goal. I just want to be happy at my job. I don’t want to have to ever feel like I want to kill myself because I’m stuck at a job just because it pays my insurance or something. I just don’t want that.”

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Why does Jessi think art is important to the community? She believes it keeps the community alive.

“Art gives life vibrancy. Otherwise, you get all these mopey people going through the motions. You’ve got to throw a little spark and a splash of color in there and just keep people alert,” says Jessi. “Art exposes you to new ideas, and I think it promotes intelligence and tolerance. You don’t get a lot of close-minded artists. It just opens you up to all these ideas and you become accepting to everybody, and I just think it makes you a better person. You don’t judge people as an artist, because you don’t want that to come back to you, that negativity. Good art can help you work through dark things inside yourself. You can use it to make you happy. If there was more art, it would be a better place, easily. In prisons, if they would teach them to paint instead of lift weights all they time, maybe they wouldn’t be so violent.”

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You can follow Jessi’s work by keeping up with her here on the Sugg Street Post.

To see some more of Jessi’s work, click the article links below:

Emerging Artist Hits the Scene

James Michael Harris – Old Songs Can Set You Free

Gear Guide—J.T. Oglesby’s Historic ‘Playtime’

Creating Community with Electric Synergy

Bowl For Kids’ Sake Fundraiser—Little Hands Give Big

Sugg Street Post
Written by Jessica Dockrey
Photos by Jessi Smith

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