Transcript from an interview with Charles Smith

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Charles Smith. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Getting Started

Well, I was actually a writer before I was a photographer. I started taking pictures when I joined my high school yearbook staff as a writer. We only had a few people on our staff, so everybody had to do everything. So the writers had to learn how to take pictures and I participated in a photo workshop and I enjoyed it so much, they wanted me to take pictures. I focused on sports since I played a lot of sports.

I got really good really fast I enjoyed it so much. I said "You know this is what I want to do for a living, become a professional photographer." So I pursued that as a career, but I continued to write stories, write poems, and things like that. When my very first children's book happened, Rim Shots, it actually came out of me looking for work as a photographer.

So I was able to come full circle. The writing was what was first, but I got my degree in photography.

I got into children's books, I always say I kind slipped in through the back door because I never planned on doing children's books. I had a collection of photographs that I had done, guys playing street basketball in New York City. And I had done this series for two years just of my own personal project. I was getting these great shots and I decided to them in a portfolio.

So I was showing that portfolio in addition to my regular portfolio of images that I used to get and I approached a children's book publisher about doing photographic book covers for them. But the art director who hires photographers saw these black and white basketball pictures after my previous portfolio, and said "These pictures should be their own book."

That's how my very first book Rim Shots, came about. I mentioned that I was also a writer, so it was filled with stories, poems, little you know snippets of dialogue. It was a really different kind of a book. I enjoyed it so much, and more importantly I enjoyed seeing it out for so long because when you're a commercial photographer you do picture for a magazine and a month later it's gone.

So, it was fun to see the book out for a longer period, and I said "Oh let me try it again." And so now it's 10 years and 28 books later. And I'm still here.

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Time Magazine and the Dictionary

Oh, books were very important to me as a child, but mostly because they represented educational and knowledge. So anything in the household that represented education and knowledge was important to my parents, which was important to me. So, their whole thing was education will take you wherever you want to go, and allow you to call your own shots, and you know, do what you want to do. So if you want to read comic books, that's fine. If you want to read magazines, that's fine. If you want to, you know there were certain things they wanted me to read more than others.

One that stands out was Time magazine. My mom, as a kid, wanted me to really read Time magazine. She wanted me to be aware of the world, you know, I always got a kick out of looking at the images in National Geographic. You know, like I said, I always loved comic books. We actually had a very large dictionary in our house, one of those big, big monster dictionaries. We had one of those. So, whenever I asked her how to spell a word, she would just point to the dictionary.

That increased you know my love for language because you'd be looking up one word and inevitably you come across 50 to 100 other words. So when it came time to reading books, my vocabulary was a lot more expansive so I was able to go through books faster. I was able to read books, you know, a little higher level. And to me it was… I know a lot of authors talk about the magic and the wonder and things.

To me it wasn't really about that per se, it was just, I just loved the storytelling, I just loved the everything about the book itself. And the education I was getting that was taking me beyond the place I currently was. And that was a really big important part to me.

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An Organic Process

You know, it's really just an organic process. It's not like I sit down and think about. Usually things happen on a day-to-day basis that will you know trip something, then something leads to something else. And usually when I'm coming up for an idea, I write things down. And the ideas that stick a little more than other I'll flesh those out a lot more. And then begin to do research on them and things of that sort. But in the beginning it all just really starts about my reception to the world and what's going on in my life.

Whether it be personal or professional, you know for fun. I'm just really in tune with what's going on. You know, I have three kids myself also so sometimes they just say things. You know, "Why don't you do a book on this?" or I'll see things that they're into. Or when I speak at schools I see things kids are into. So, it's really just about being open and receptive to what's going on around you that dictate what I'm going to write about.

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My People

I decided to illustrate Langston Hughes' poems because it was a poem I was very interested in for years. And the fact that it's the first photographic book to win the Coretta Scott King award made me all the more proud, not just for myself but because of all of the photographers that will come later. One of things I mentioned in my speech is about how I learned of the award and I had to think about it for a minute, because I said "well, I only have one book and it was a photographic book and they wouldn't give it to that."

So, it really shocked me that, you know, they gave the award the way they did. In talking to many of the people who voted for it or saw it, many of my illustrator friends said "Oh man, you knocked it out of the park on that one. So you shouldn't be surprised." So I was very humbled in that regard. The poem itself, it's only 33 words in total, and a children's picture book is 32 pages usually, so that's basically a word per page.

So that's the first challenge was figuring how to divide it out over 32 pages. Once I figured that out then I started seeing the phrases and then the phrases dictated how I was gonna shoot it. So that made it easy and I think in this day and age of so much white noise and so much going and so much technology and so many things bombarding you at one time, I think it's good to just take a breath and just kind of step back and be able to look at something that really wastes no words. And allows you know the imagery to shine through it's just simple language. So I wanted the photographs to shine through in a very simple way.

The people in the book are just my people, regular people. My kids are in there. I work out at a gym and a number of the people work out at the gym with me. The older people that are in there work out in the gym. And they have a vitality to them that I wanted to show. And it was important to me to show you know newborn skin as well wrinkled skin. Because I wanted to show the range, in between the two, I wanted to show the wisdom that's acquired. I wanted to show the innocence in a newborn smile. I wanted to show skin dark as night. I wanted to show skin bright as honey. You know, I wanted to show the range that is in my people

That old photograph at the end of My People is my father. Mr. Charles R. Smith, Sr., the original. My father unfortunately passed back in 1999, and this was one of my favorite pictures of him because he looks so good. But he was in the Navy, it was his first or second year in the Navy, he was very proud to serve. You know, his friends and everything, so it was my editor who actually said "do you have any old photographs of any old family members that you might want to put in?" And at the time, I didn't really have any old like quote unquote old photographs. I had regular pictures of older family members and such. But that was one of the few old photographs I had and I always loved looking at it, so I says "Let's put dad in there. Let's immortalize him."

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Well the book If by Rudyard Kipling came about — actually this is where I talk about being in the moment and creating it based on things going on in your life. And what happened was there was one day I happened to be taking some pictures outside of a basketball game. And for whatever reason, when I got home that night I decided to go through my bookshelf and just look through some poems and just kind of get the juices flowing.

And I came across the poem "If". As I was reading each line, the photographs I had taken that day started popping into my head as paring up with the words perfectly to visually illustrate what the words meant. And I said "Oh I should do this as a book, and that I could photograph different sports." And the moment that I sat and wrote it down. It was in a book so I had to write it down to see it all out.

The brain started clicking things and the motion, gears just started dropping. And before I knew it, I had it figured out how I would actually shoot it. And when I did shoot it, the parameters were since it was written by a man in the voice of a father to his son that I only focused on boys playing these sports showing them at their best, at their most challenging, at their most difficult. You know things.

We actually happened to where I lived at the time, happened to have a, kind of like the Olympic Games, it's called the Empire State Games. In New York State. And they happened to be where we lived that year so our local high school held many of the events. Then some of the other events were local colleges and things like that. So basically it was like getting to shoot at the Olympics.

It was very serendipitous that I happened to be photographing that project at that time. Because many of the sports that I photographed I would never get to photograph on a regular basis. Like archery, you know, you know that was one in particular that stood out. So I got to get a variety of images just because of that.

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Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson

The back story of Black Jack, it's a funny story. I think it's a funny story but it's a unique story because it actually came about through research that I was doing for a book a number of years that just came out a few years ago on Muhammad Ali called Twelve Rounds to Glory. I had done a lot of research on that book and in the midst of doing research you come across interesting characters and such. And one of the names that I came across was Jack Johnson who was the first black heavyweight champion.

And a lot of people equated Muhammad Ali's style and personality and related it to his time to Jack Johnson and his time, which was the turn of the century. Early 1900s. So as I was doing research his name kind of jumped and I just wrote it down. Probably a few months after that, Ken Burns did a PBS special about him called "Unforgiveable Blackness." I decided to watch it and I was just completely fascinated because you know Ken Burns always does a great job in his storytelling.

He's very thorough. And going from you know in this case going from very young to the end of his career. And his life ultimately. So I got to really see every single part of him and I says man when you're considering somebody to write about for a biography, the appeal for kids, the appeal has to be what were they like as a child, it's one thing to focus on them being an adult but for kid's biographies we want to see how they got to the finished part.

So we focus a lot on the earlier part, and he was very interested in reading even though he never finished the 6th grade. He wanted to be a great man and he tried to figure out the best way to do it. And it was his idea actually to box, it was actually his mom's idea so when she got tired of seeing her boy pushed around. And she just said fight back. And he did and the rest as they is history. And so the focus of it became the fight between him and Jim Jeffries.

For the heavyweight championship of the world. And at that time what made it all that more special was it was the first time a black man was contending for the heavyweight championship, and he constantly wanted that fight but Jim Jeffries would constantly say "no." He wouldn't fight a black man. But yet on the same token he kept calling Jack Johnson yellow.

Meaning you know a coward. And so everybody kind of laughed. And the people got fed up to a point where they said "Look you guys are the two best boxers you should be fighting." And so I thought it set the stage for an interesting book. Not only his life but the fact the fight for him to become the heavyweight champion would be become the ultimate finished centerpiece.

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What's Next?

What is next? I actually just completed a biography on Jimi Hendrix, that's written in verse. It's written as a song. It's done for Roaring Brook Press. And I had a blast writing I don't know when you'll see it, because I just turned it in very recently. Next year I have a project coming up called Pick-up Game, that I edited with Mark Aaronson. And that is a very unique project because it's a number of authors including Walter Dean Myers, Bruce Brooks, Joe Bruchac, Sharon Flake, Robert Lipsyte. We have Robert Burleigh. A lot of these names and I got to edit them and I'm probably the novice of the group.

But the idea is that it takes place at a basketball court in New York City, West 4th St., which is actually where I took my very first images that got me into children's books. And one team starts off playing, and as teams lose, the other author picks up the thread. So they become the next team on the court, I filled in, I didn't write any stories myself, but I filled in the gaps with poems and photographs.

To tie it all together. So even though it's an anthology it's all connected. It reads as one story because characters that are in the very first game still appear later but there's a new take on them because there's another author writing about them. So I just got a chance to see it in book form, it's not completely, completely done. It'll be out in Spring 2011.

But it looked great. It's a completely different kind of project. After that I am working on other new projects, getting some things out of my head onto paper that I'm choosing to flesh out. But there's still plenty of irons in the fire.

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Reading From Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson

So basically I divide Black Jack into two parts. There's what I've called the more kid-friendly and the little more older reader part because the beginning part focuses on his life and the second part focuses on his battle for the championship. So I'm going to pick up with the battle for the championship because that's where we really get to learn what it is he really wants to do.

"Now Jack was a mighty man and Jack was a fightin' man and Jack was a mighty fightin' man. But what Jack wanted most was to be a great man, so he challenged the times. But it was Jack who was challenged he faced the color line. Black only fought white and that kept Jack out of the ring to fight the champ in a championship bout. I will never fight a negro Jim Jeffries heavyweight champ. So Jack chased the champ from fight to fight.

Challenging Jim Jeffries to prove his might. Jack wanted to prove he was the best fighter, but instead of fighting Jack, Jim Jeffries retired. With the title up for grabs Jack now had a chance to break the color line with his mighty fightin' hands. The new champ Tommy Burns also declined to fight black Jack because of the color line. So Jack [unint] Jim Jeffries, Jack chased his down from city to city to contend for the crown.

From San Fran to New York to Paris to London for two years Jack was a man on a mission. At long last Tommy stepped into the ring to battle black Jack for a mountain green, Rushcutters Bay Australia was the scene for the black and white battle to crown boxing's biggest king. Thousands filled the stadium as well the surrounding trees, hoping Tommy Boy would knock Jack to his knees. When Jack rose in the ring a sea of white faces turned the battle of men to a battle of races.

But Jack just smiled and waited for the sound of the bell to "ding" and knocked the champ down not once, not twice, but again and again through 14 rounds on a way to the win. Fans in the stand sat wide-eyed in surprise but black Jack faces back home beamed with pride.

Jack was now champ, but in less than a day voices world wide spoke up to say "Burns wasn't the real champ anyway. Burns was just a newspaper champ. Burns never fought Jim Jeffries. Jeffries retired undefeated so until somebody beats him, he's still champ. Jim come out of retirement and wipe that smile off of Johnson's face. Your only hope." Now quick little side note the phrase "The Great White Hope" came from that moment, this fight.

Their only hope. But Jim wouldn't budge until 18 months later. When he and Jack stood surrounded by spectators in a ring in Reno, Nevada to see who was the champ in the battle of the century. On the Fourth of July in 1910 on a clear desert day stood two mighty men. Jack versus Jim.

One black. One white. Two mighty fightin' men. Ready to fight. The 45 round bout only lasted 15, when Jack made history with his breath taking swing. Upper cuts to the chin laid Jim on the ropes. And smashed the color line, raising black people's hopes. A golden smile flashed bright as the sun and the ring on the face of Jack Johnson, the world's first black heavyweight champion.

Black Jack.

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser