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Herberto Smith - Telling People’s Stories

Words:

Edd Norval

Photos:

Bruno Reis, Nash Does Work and Ivo Lazaro
September 29, 2021

It might initially come as a surprise to find out that Herberto Smith is a commercial photographer, given his penchant for telling unique photographic stories of those that are a part of marginal groups in Portugal. But then you take a look through his ‘commercial’ work to discover that these images thrive precisely because of his predisposition for narrative and storytelling - fully unleashed in his personal projects.

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Often there is a subtly simmering antagonism between the commercial - usually seen as appealing to mainstream sensibilities - and the artistic, free to cater to all tastes. The truth is though, that the two aren’t dichotomous and can co-exist harmoniously and, if anything, enhance the other.


Commercial photography should be immediate. Its impact lies not in ambiguity or interpretation, but in how clearly and precisely it tells a story. ‘Artistic’ photography, on the other hand, is a lot more hazy. Directness isn’t seen as much a strength as it is a lack of artistry. 


The stories told in these 'artistic' photographs take time to emerge. They’re to be contemplated in a book or gallery, more so than commercial images that fly by us on the side of a bus or billboard. Still, these distinctions exist purely in the mind of onlookers. There’s a lot of truth to their distinctions, however, that truth can easily mislead us into thinking that one must be entirely devoid of the other.

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Most artists working commercially see it as a means to an end, the path to full-time artistic endeavour. It needn’t be, however. When Nike motivated us to ‘Just Do It’ or the U.S. Army told us to ‘Be all you can be’, or that Red Bull would ‘Give you wings’ or eating Skittles could help us ‘Taste The Rainbow’, we were given timeless pieces of writing. In these short succinct phrases, some of the greatest and most effective writers of all time were busy at work. Yet, you will probably never see them in a list of creating the greatest novels of all time - despite their influence and impact on our culture.


Why? Because they write commercial things and novelists write arty things. The best, though, know that there is no difference. Writing is writing. That’s why, when Ernest Hemingway wrote the short, yet gut-wrenching six word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, he looked to the instant impact of commercial writing to create impactful art. Photography is the same. To most, the two styles are different. To the very best, they’re one and of the same.

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That’s why, when you see Smith’s art, you’ll feel that there is an immediacy, a punch-in-the-guy impact. But there’s also slow-burning narratives unfolding around the edges. With his commercial work, the same thing happens. Only, when its for a commercial client, there’s more obvious impact, less subtlety. It’s all a matter of scale. Good photography is good photography.


And good photography is something Smith happens to know a bit about. Enthused by capturing stories in his images, he gravitates towards stories that haven’t yet been told, the books that aren’t yet on shelves. In these tales, he uses his eye for impact and spreads it out evenly across multiple layers of meaning. That's why, whatever he does, he does well, because really, quality knows no difference.

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