Mark Smith Combines Photography and Fiction

Artspan Artist Mark Smith shares the process behind his unique blend of words and images.

I’ve been a photographer for five years, a fiction writer for forever, so it was an easy jump to “Phiction111”—one evocative photo paired with an 11-sentence story, each a custom fit for the other. As an example, here’s my first Phiction111 story, from late 2011.

Clothing Makes the Man
It was the buckle of a shoe, placed just so in the sunlight, that caught his eye from the alley. He stopped and peered into the garage. Pants, shirt, and shoes lay neatly folded barely six feet from where he stood.

Mark Smith, Image 1

From behind two large cardboard boxes, fingers twisting her yellow dress, the girl studied him. He looked younger and taller than when she’d first seen him from her window — and today, even more like her father.

The man hesitated, glancing around. Then from down the hill a church bell rang out, stirring in him a childhood memory of an Easter Sunday in happier times. He stepped to the clothing and shoes, tucked them under his arm and was gone.

When the footsteps faded, the girl stood and walked to the sunny spot of garage floor where her father’s favorite clothing and shoes had lain. A small, hopeful smile. She knew that, when the man found what she’d placed in the front pants pocket, she would be seeing him again.

An Evolution of Two Disciplines
Initially I built myArtspan website around images from various locations such as Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and others. In Artspan’s “Artwork Description” box, like most photographers I wrote just a few words about each image’s subject, or the shot itself.

Then after a 2011 trip to Yellowstone, I began writing “long captions” for the images, writing as many as 75 words as a description, and I noticed that these longer captions always enhanced the image, and vice versa. Next I began experimenting by combining ultra-short fiction with a tailored photo—and now there are about 20 of these cross-discipline Phiction111 stories on my Artspan site.

What Comes First: Photo, or Story?
I get this question a lot, and for the way I work, the answer is both. Sometimes, the story’s beating me over the head to get out, and that has to come first. “Clothing Makes the Man” was that way; I wrote the story, then shot the accompanying image (on the floor of my garage—a location that has yielded some great shots).

Likewise, with my story “Gangs of New Haven”—whose characters bear no resemblance to those in a certain Scorsese movie—the writing came first, then the photo (below) to enhance it.

This same formula worked well for me in creating “Showtime,” a story of undying brotherly love.

But having a visual to inspire me can make the writing much easier. I shot the image below in the eastern Sierra ghost town of Bodie, then a month later wrote “Twister,” in which a man caught in a tornado returns to his family.

That story fills in some—but importantly, not all—of the gaps that the imagination conjures from an image such as this. I want to leave some things unsaid and unshown.

When I took this next photo—lying flat in my living room as we put away our holiday decorations—I had no idea what the story might be, or even if there would be a story. The photo is intentionally blurred,and I liked the gold color reflecting off my hardwood floor, as if coming from a roaring holiday fire. I didn’t know it at the time, but this grinning ornament would embody the main character in my next story, “First Christmas.”

First Christmas
I awoke to the sensation of an animal licking something off my bare feet. My shirt was unbuttoned, and parts of me were stuck to the hardwood floor by a liquid that smelled flammable.

With a slushy brain I recalled a roaring fire and a room abuzz with holiday cheer at this, our CEO’s annual Christmas gig for young executives. Now from my prone position I could see a few small coals in the fireplace, and the only mammal nearby was a Chihuahua.

From these facts I deduced that perhaps there had been some political incorrectness, an unfortunate series of bad choices and juvenile behaviors that had gone far too far—and, that I was lying near the epicenter of these activities.   

Murmuring coming from nearby…no, you’re not alone, I told myself, this is your CEO’s home and there are other employees here too, undoubtedly discussing at this very moment the quickest and cheapest way to fire you.   

I was seized by an overpowering urge to vacate the premises. Sweet little Jesus, if you could just let me crawl out the front door to that beautifully manicured lawn, where my host’s Dobermans will gladly shred me like a chuck roast, I will never ask another favor of you.   

Too late. A man’s shoe appeared very near my head, a shiny lace-up wing-tip that looked very serious and CEO-like under an expertly tailored cuff, and it tapped twice.   

At that moment, this being the season for giving thanks, I reflected on what was truly important here: My beautiful wife was somewhere nearby in this house — experiencing similar circumstances, no doubt — and together we’d had a wild and memorable first Christmas.

The Relationship of Photo and Story
Whether created before or after the story, each Phiction111 photo has a meaningful relationship to the story itself. Some photos are somewhat “literal”, in that they’re images of an object that might be in the actual story—for example the shoes and clothing in “Clothing Makes the Man.” Others, such as the ornament in ”First Christmas,” are intended more to create a visual environment for the adjacent story.

But in all cases I’m trying to create an image that piques your interest, pulls you into the story, and helps to hold you there. I’ll be the first to say that some of my Phiction111 images are not great photographs on their own—but for me, the more important criterion is how well they work in tandem with the words.

Making the Stories Work on the Page
The Artspan layout options make it easy for me to properly present the Phiction111 stories. As you can see from this screen shot from my Artspan site, the story “Revelations” wraps nicely around the large image, maintaining that essential interdependency, while thumbnails of the other stories are easily selectable if the reader wants to jump three stories ahead or back.

What’s Next?
I’ll continue exploring what I can do with photography and fiction on Artspan. A current idea is to create longer-form pieces—even an entire e-book—that presents itself in installments, each with its own thumbnail image in a gallery.

Meanwhile, I encourage Artspan members to use their own amazing creations as the genesis of another, different form. The results may be new and surprising—which is all part of the creative process.

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