by Barbara Van Reed
I’ve known Phil Smith for more than ten years, but it wasn’t until he came over to my house one sunny summer day a couple of years ago with camera in hand to take some pictures of my flowers, that I learned he’s a photographer at heart. And not an environmental engineer, as I had thought. Later, after seeing many of his pictures, it became clear that he’s both: an environmental photographer as well as an environmental engineer.
Phil’s photographs were on exhibit at Booklovers’ Gourmet in Webster last month and he visited there one Saturday afternoon to talk about them. His themes are “pretty much anything under the sun,” he said, “literally and figuratively.” A recurring theme, though, is moving water. “It’s challenging to take an artistic shot of rivers and streams,“ he explained, pointing to a photo of sun-splashed water finding its way down the rocks in the Douglas State Forest. “It’s peaceful,” he continued. “I try to bring a little of the outside, inside. But you never know until later if you’ve captured it.”
“My dad gave me his old Minolta SRT1 camera when I was a teenager, back in 1980, and I was hooked. I still have that camera. I have to give him credit; he saw that I was interested in taking pictures, and he never asked for it back.” And Phil never stopped looking around his environment for scenes to photograph.
Phil’s childhood years were spent in Seekonk, Mass., and upstate New York. College brought him to Bridgewater State, then it was on to grad school at the University of Toledo (Ohio), where he earned his master’s degree in geology. His working career started in Chicago and moved him back to Massachusetts in 1999 and to Douglas in 2002. He worked for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection from 2006 to 2009 and today does environmental consulting in the private sector.
“I took some photography courses in Chicago, and tried to push to a career. But you know what they say about not quitting your day job. So I thought about photography as being my retirement gig.
“In the meantime, it’s been my creative outlet. I’m not really sure why I enjoy doing it. I like to create images that I can enjoy and that other people can enjoy. If I could make a living doing photography, I’d leave the consulting work in a heartbeat.”
Most of Phil’s photographs are of outside places. They include cityscapes, skylines, buildings, and harbors as well as the forests and falls. Lately he’s also been doing some studio work. as it provides a more controlled environment. A photographer in Milford gave him the studio equipment, and Phil set it up in his garage. One of the photographs on display at the bookstore was a triple picture of a flower in progression from budding to blooming to drooping, against a black background. “To do that outside would be tough,” he said.
The studio also allows him to experiment with portrait photography, something he would like to do now professionally as a sideline career.
Phil uses a Nikon digital camera ninety percent of the time. He does do some work with film, and wouldn't part with his film camera, but calls the quality of digital “awesome.”
Photography has taken up a lot of Phil’s spare time the last few years, and he’s trying to get his name out there now. I asked him how he priced his pictures. “I’m still feeling my way through that,” he said. “I look at the marketplace, for one. The price is also a function of how much work went into making the image, plus the matting and the framing.” One of the photographs on display at the store was a geranium against a black background, priced at $40.
I liked a photo he had of the John Brown house in Providence in winter because the skeletal trees around it gave it a spare but grand feel. Another was a contrast between old and new: the old Worcester City Hall with a new modern taller building behind it.
Joanne LaLiberte of Webster was also at Booklovers’ looking at the photographs. She pointed to one of a storm over Vineyard Sound, and saw in its furious clouds the face of a wild creature with hair flowing and arms extended outward. I could see it too, once she pointed it out. Phil was astonished. “I never saw that before,” he admitted, surprised by the image.
It shows that just as with painted art, photography can evoke impressions unique to the viewer.
Phil’s photos are on display and available for purchase at Fresh Air Flowers in Douglas, and you can check out some of his galleries on his website at www.philsmithimages.com.
Old meets new in Worcester, MA
John Brown House, Providence, RI