Beauties and Beasts
The gorgeous and grotesque visions of Carter Smith
By Chris Busby
The photographer and filmmaker Carter Smith has created some of the most alluring and some of the most appalling images you’ll ever see.
Smith, who turns 41 later this month, grew up on Bailey Island and in Bowdoinham. After graduating from Mt. Ararat High School, he moved to New York City and studied fashion design and photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).
He’d begun to build a portfolio while still in Maine, shooting friends wearing thrift store clothes — “ripped t-shirts, a vintage girdle, whatever,” Smith recalled during an interview last month at Frontier Café, Cinema and Gallery in Brunswick. “It wasn’t so much about the fashion. It was more about the person and the mood, but I was trying my best.”
In New York, Smith started working with agencies that set him up with aspiring models who were also trying to build their portfolios. “I would get green models, but at least they were better than your average person off the street,” he said. “So I had access to talent.”
Smith’s entrée into the fashion world was remarkably ballsy and naïve, but it worked. He simply looked up the addresses of the fashion magazines he’d been reading, then showed up and dropped off his portfolio. “I didn’t know any better,” he said. “I wasn’t intimidated. I just sort of decided to do it. Lucky for me, I got a couple of really great breaks.”
One of those breaks was a shoot for Sassy magazine, which he scored when he was still a teenager himself. After a year in the big city, Smith was getting enough fashion work to justify his decision to stop attending FIT and start his career.
These days, Smith photographs many of the most beautiful and recognizable people in the world, stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore, Katy Perry, Brad Pitt, Justin Timberlake and Julia Roberts. His fashion and editorial work has appeared in publications like Vogue and GQ.
Smith crossed into the realm of celebrity photography as blithely as he’d entered the fashion industry. “Strangely, I don’t find it intimidating,” he said. “Walking into a situation like that, whoever you’re shooting — whether it’s Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt or some 15-year-old girl from Russia who doesn’t speak a word of English — they want to feel comfortable and they want to trust that you’re gonna work well with them and take good pictures.
“A big part of it is making people feel comfortable, making people feel pretty, making people feel confident,” he continued. “You’d think that [celebrities] would have this built in, but I think they’re as insecure as anybody else.”
The fashion world is notoriously demanding — and full of notorious characters. “People are obsessed with the new,” Smith said. “Designers are always having to come out with new seasons, magazines are 12 times a year, so it’s always, What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? It is pretty relentless in its search for the next great thing.”
“There’s a lot of really nice people, but there’s also a lot of people that aren’t nice, as in any business,” he continued. “I think that in fashion there’s a little bit more leeway to be an eccentric character, so the evil people seem more evil and the nice, sweet people seem more few and far between.”
Then there are the divas.
“At one point I was shooting Britney Spears and she decided she would not come out of her dressing room until we had a tiger on set,” Smith recalled. “We had no plans to have a tiger, but apparently her kids were there that day and she had told her kids they would get to see a tiger. So we tracked down a tiger. Los Angeles being Los Angeles, you can get a tiger at the last minute if you need one.
“Luckily, we didn’t end up having to get the tiger,” he added. “She came out and did the shoot anyway. But that was definitely one of those moments where I was like, I can’t believe that this is what I’m doing.”
Growing up in the Mid Coast, Smith always thought he’d be a filmmaker. “I wanted to make films and tell stories before I ever even picked up a camera,” he said.
The stories Smith tells with moving pictures are strikingly different than those he tells as a professional photographer.
In 2005, Smith read a short horror story by the Canadian author and artist Scott Treleaven about a gay high school kid who falls for a bad boy with a bizarre addiction. “I just sort of happened upon it, and when I read it, it was very clear to me,” he said. “I could see it, I could hear it.”
Smith secured the rights and adapted the story into the short film Bugcrush. He financed the project himself with money from his fashion work, cast actors from New York and Maine, and filmed it in the places he’d grown up: Bowdoinham and Mt. Ararat High.
As luck would have it, Smith finished the final cut shortly before the deadline to submit work to the Sundance Film Festival. The call he got informing him that Bugcrush had been accepted was “one of the best phone calls I’ve ever, ever gotten,” he said.
Shortly after that, Smith got an even better call from the festival’s organizers: Bugcrush had won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking.
Winning at Sundance created a host of new opportunities. “We got hundreds and hundreds of requests for the film from festivals all over the world,” Smith said. “More than anything, it opened up a lot of doors in L.A., because everybody in the industry is very aware of what’s at Sundance. Everyone I meet in California, practically, has seen Bugcrush … It’s very much a calling card.”
“What’s been interesting with Bugcrush is that so many people have come up to me after seeing it and said, ‘I have such an affinity to this story. That wasn’t me, but I know exactly how he felt,’” Smith said. “It was everything from middle-aged women to straight guys … There’s something about feeling like an outsider that is pretty universal.”
One of the people who saw and loved Bugcrush was a fellow director whose enthusiasm for the film led to Smith’s next big break: Steven Spielberg.
“My plan was not to make a studio film,” said Smith. “I imagined I would make weird little indies that are dark and disturbing and scary.” Then he got a script for a movie called The Ruins, adapted by Scott Smith (no relation) from his 2006 novel of the same name.
Smith decided to take a shot at directing it, and Hollywood’s affinity for Bugcrush propelled him through a series of meetings over many months with the people who could make that happen, including the president of DreamWorks, the actor Ben Stiller (who co-produced the film) and, finally, the Big Guy himself.
“The very last round was with Steven, the very last meeting,” Smith recalled. “That was amazing because we walked in the room and the first thing he did was tell me how much he loved Bugcrush, and he proceeded to talk about it for 25 minutes … That immediately put me at ease, and then I was able to go through the rest of the meeting without being overwhelmed and freaked out.”
Filmed in Australia, the movie is about four college students on spring break in Mexico who follow a German guy they meet to a Mayan ruin. A series of extremely unfortunate events then unfolds involving hostile natives, fraying rope, and a malevolent vine that makes the potted plant in Little Shop of Horrors seem kittenish.
Released nationwide in 2008, The Ruins got mixed reviews from critics, but covered its $8 million budget during opening weekend, and has gone on to gross (pardon the pun) many times that figure. The Ruins has gore galore, including an amputation scene you won’t want to watch after a meal (the unrated version Videoport stocks is strictly 18+), but most of the blood and guts are the result of the characters trying to help one another.
“I’m not interested in violence for violence’s sake,” Smith said. “I’m more interested in the emotional triggers, what emotions those violent moments trigger and how palpable they are, how easy it is to connect with an image that captures something that feels raw.”
That sensibility is powerfully, and disturbingly, expressed in one of the projects Smith has undertaken since The Ruins. Called “All the Dead Boys,” it’s a series of photographs Smith began shooting a few years ago, working one-on-one with male models and enough fake blood and stitches to stock Leatherface’s dressing room.
Most of the photos posted on the “Dead Boys” blogspot site capture young men shortly before and after they’ve suffered what appears to be another sadistic beating. Interspersed are some equally unsettling images of attackers — a fanged man lustily licking blood from his fingers, a naked caveman thrusting a bloody stick. Smith said a lot of the shots are of characters in a script he’s working on, but the final shape of the project is still up in the air.
“Part of the fun of making the images is that there wasn’t a plan for them,” he said. “They were done purely as an expression of artistic or creative freedom.”
On commercial fashion shoots, there are usually dozens of people literally standing over Smith’s shoulder while he works. The “Dead Boys” project gave him an opportunity to relate to his subjects on a deeper level, one seldom reached during shoots for the new fall line.
“There was an intimacy and a real sense that you were connecting and capturing something personal and intimate,” said Smith. While editing through the many “Dead Boys” shots, Smith said he’d happen upon “those single frames where the emotion feels real, and it’s either fear or anger or violence or whatever it is, but it feels very palpable and very immediate. Those are the images that I end up choosing and using.”
Where does this dark material come from? It’s not like Smith’s Mt. Ararat days were as sinister as those depicted in Bugcrush. (“I had a great group of friends in high school, actually,” Smith said. “We weren’t getting ourselves bitten by bugs, so it wasn’t quite as dramatic as you might think from watching the film.”)
“I’ve always loved stories that are frightening and scary and unsettling. I think part of it was being obsessed with Stephen King when I was little and thinking, ‘OK, he’s from Maine, I’m from Maine, there’s something there,’” Smith said with a laugh. “Also, the commercial work that I do is so pretty and peaceful and beautiful that it’s sort of natural for me to swing in the other direction when working on more personal stuff.”
Not all of Smith’s film work is frightening. Some of it’s just plain freaky.
He also directed “Yearbook,” a 10-minute short that screened at Sundance last year. Set in the 1970s, it’s “a high school yearbook photo shoot come to life, where all of them talk directly to the camera and tell a little bit of their stories,” Smith said. “As the film progresses you realize that all these stories are connected and there’s something going on at the school that is not immediately apparent.”
The short was inspired by the Black Hole comic series of graphic artist Charles Burns, in which teens are bizarrely mutated by an STD known as “the Bug.”
Another project Smith is developing involves sea bugs. It’s about a lobsterman in Maine. “There’s nothing scary about it, but there is an element to it that is a little unsettling,” he conceded.
Smith’s second feature-length film is an indie called Jamie Marks Is Dead. Based on Christopher Barzak’s novel One for Sorrow, Marks is “actually very similar to Bugcrush in tone,” said Smith. “It’s a high school ghost story about a murdered high school boy who comes back as a ghost looking for the love and the friendship that he never had when he was alive. It’s not a scary ghost story, it’s more of a sad ghost story.”
Smith is gearing up to start production on Marks this November. Meanwhile, he continues to take photo assignments that commonly take him halfway around the world. “Juggling is one of the trickiest things, trying to figure out how to keep the clients happy but then take the time off to do the stuff that I need to do to keep myself happy,” he said.
Smith lives in the South Street Seaport neighborhood of Manhattan, and also has a place on Bailey Island. He said he gets up to Maine fairly often for long weekends and to visit family.
Smith’s work has been on exhibit this summer at the Merrymeeting Arts Center in Bowdoinham, along with art by sculptor Bryce Muir and painter Carlo Pittore, both of whom lived in the town before they passed away in 2005. Three walls are almost entirely covered with Smith’s fashion and celebrity shots; the fourth is covered in Yearbook photos.
The exhibit, Three Town Artists, is on view through Sept. 29. On Sept. 28 and 29, Bugcrush, Yearbook and The Ruins will be screened at the arts center (see the center’s Web site for details).
As the interview drew to a close, I couldn’t resist asking Smith for his take on fashion in Maine. What is Maine fashion?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maine fashion seems to be about not really caring what anyone else thinks. It’s function over fashion, which is fine by me.”