Photographer Parker Smith slows down to capture the quiet of the rodeo on film.
Atlanta-based commercial photographer Parker Smith spends most of his time taking photographs for the marketing and public relations departments of some of the country’s biggest corporations, Coca-Cola and Chick-fil-A among them. He shoots fast, click-click-clicking digital images as quickly as possible, until he and his client are satisfied they’ve got what they want.
Three or four times a year, Smith enters a completely different world. He drives to a rodeo in a small town somewhere in Georgia — sometimes a professional one, sometimes a high school event — and takes portraits of the people he finds there. They might be spectators or athletes participating in the events — he doesn’t have a specific type of shot or person in mind beforehand.
“When I go to a rodeo, I don’t know what I’m going to get,” Smith says. “Sometimes I go and I don’t get anything. Or I get pictures that aren’t quite what I want. You have to cultivate that sort of randomness. I might get nothing, I might get something, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
Part of the not knowing has to do with a particular rodeo or the people in attendance that night. But it also speaks to how he’s taking his pictures. Instead of pressing the digital button and letting the shutter fire in rapid succession like a sports photojournalist, Smith uses a medium-format camera with film and a tripod. “It’s a very serious piece of equipment and it has a different look — it changes the way people react to you. There’s always this period of time between when I say I want to take a portrait [of someone] and when I take it. A quietness develops. I allow that to happen.”
The deliberate slowing down is part of Smith’s artistry and technique, but it’s also driven by the camera itself. “Every time you fire the shutter, you have to stop and cock the camera, and it’s several seconds between frames. And I only get 10 frames per roll. It’s so much slower and so much more methodical. I’ll make two or three frames and that’s it. Sometimes I’ll expose one frame of film and I know I have the picture.”
He shoots in black-and-white, develops film in a darkroom in his basement, and makes his own 11-by-14 prints, just like he did when he started working as a photographer 25 years ago. “I don’t think the magic has ever worn off for me when you expose a white sheet of paper and stick it in the developer, and 30 seconds later an image pops up. That still excites me so much.”
Five years ago on a Saturday night in Perry, Georgia, Smith started taking the rodeo portraits that he’d been thinking about for a while. He stayed back, as he still does, looking at everything around him, waiting for someone to catch his eye. “Sometimes I’ll see people and they’re already in the scenario, and I’ll gently guide them, like the four boys hanging around their car. One is sitting in the seat and the other one has his arms on the door. You almost can’t arrange that — they were already there.”
The shot of the teenage boys, a Japanese woman in Westernwear, two teenage girls with candy apples — they’re all very different images, but similar in their shared humanity. “I’m so interested in [shooting] specific people, and when I find that person, I’m hoping that person stands for many, many people.”
Beyond that universality of his rodeo images, Smith says he also hopes his photographs help to close a cultural gap between people who’ve chosen an urban lifestyle and those who live in the country. “I think most people that live in cities have a bit of contempt for rural people. I don’t think they understand them at all. I hope that these [pictures] help change some of these perceptions. Because I think that’s the thing we need to do more than anything else: to try and understand other people. It brings out the humanity in you, and you realize we’re not all that different.”