Kare Johannesburg 2021
Russell Smith - self portrait

Getting to know Russell Smith

The light-bender and mood-maker behind Instagram’s Portraits in the Pandemic and one of SA’s best commercial photographers.

It was during our hard lockdown when photographer Russell Smith began setting up portraits in his garage, using his two sons as models and whatever props he had available to him to create his shots. Without the human interaction permitted that his work relies on, (and so too his lights, studio, assistants etc) Russell chose to upskill himself, taking an online masterclass with Ukrainian photographer Dmitry Baev to learn about painterly photography techniques. The results -Portraits in the Pandemic – have been captivating with a wonderfully fictional quality to them.

Remember the Crying Boys series of paintings by Bruno Amadio (aka Giovanni Bragolin)? Their popularity has been unwavering, with originals and copies circulating to this very day. Russell’s Portraits in the Pandemic series has a similarly nostalgic feel, thanks to the softer lighting, a more formal portrait sitting and his newly gleaned post-production skills, but with less of Bragolin’s tears.

“I did the course over a period of a week and found that I needed images to practise with. I had some dress up for my boys and my camera. I used natural light in my garage and then began to shoot a new image every day to work on. I eventually made it part of my routine and it became my lifeline and connection to what I love to do. Organically it grew, as we started borrowing wardrobes and other kids started having their portraits taken when restrictions were eased.”

A scroll through his Instagram feed reveals scores of images of his boys, but from another era: one playing cricket for Sussex in the 1900s, as a gun slinging cowboy, a karate kid, a mime, a Sherpa and so it goes on.

Russell has made a name for himself in the industry shooting lifestyle content, specifically food, still lives and portraits. At that point he had left a successful career in South Africa and Paris as a creative directory in advertising. Having realised that photography was his true calling, he gleaned all the knowledge and practical skills he could on the ground. 

He has done plenty of work for brands like Le Creuset, Vida e Caffe and Nederburg and won Gold from the OneEyeland Photography Awards in 2018 for a shoot he called Pastoral Kitchen which was reminiscent of a Dutch Golden Era painting. This body of work was for his own portfolio, which makes the scrupulous attention to detail (we’re talking props, makeup, sets, lighting and wardrobe) even more remarkable. His love for period dramas was recently indulged by a friend who commissioned him to do a Peaky Blinders-inspired shoot, the images for which are available to purchase at Haas Collective.

“I like mood. I have to have a sense of where the light is coming from and the shadows. There is nothing worse than a flatly lit image in my opinion,” he says. 

Apart from his eye for detail and light, the incredible atmosphere in his images can also be put down to his use of Photoshop, which he proudly defends in the face of the purists. “We must use what we have available to make the best images we can. As long as the final result is done well, with attention to detail and lighting, be it a small bump up in contrast or colour, or a person in studio placed into a location.”

And what of the digital age, the age of sharp-shooting influencers and self-proclaimed overnight photographers? Russell welcomes the competition and the opportunity to be pushed forward, to learn more and to be better. “It won’t help to stay fixed in what was and hope that people will one day understand; we have to learn how to play the game,” he says. But he warns that with the end of the mentorship and apprentice era, the door has been opened to “a lot of mediocrity” and that quality will ultimately rise above. 

With his years on the ground (and the attitude that the learning never ends) Russell has cast his own voice as a photographer, offering an aesthetic that’s singular and an experience that his clients have come back for time and again. Having just completed shooting Hope Gin Distillery’s new packaging, Russell is dreaming of a post lockdown trip to Greece but will settle for anywhere that work might take him. 

russellsmith.co.za | @russmithphotography

WORDS: Mila Crewe-Brown
PRODUCTION: J-P de la Chaumette
Images: Russell Smith