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Rick Smolan: A Ton of Humility

posted at 12:54 pm
on May. 11, 2005

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Susie and I were in New York recently for Good Experience Live 2005, an excellent conference that’s diabolically hard to explain.

The day before the conference, we took part in a mini excursion with some other people who’d come into town for it.  The excursion was a walking food tour of Queens by Myra Alperson, a women who writes a newsletter called “Nosh News”.

There were about 20 of us, and we wandered around this quiet, multi-ethnic area trying food in Peruvian restaurants, Columbian fruit stands, Turkish bakeries and so on.

Along the way we mixed and mingled with each other, getting to know one another, and that brings me to the point of my story.

I had my Nikon camera out, snapping pictures of everything that moved and most things that didn’t.  One other guy on the tour also had a fairly nice camera.

I’m not expert, but his looked like something spiffy—small, nice lens, but it was a film camera.  He saw my camera and said, as many people do, “Oh, is that the new D70?”  This Nikon is like a conversation magnet.

I said yes, and we got into a conversation about photography, and a local exhibit he’d visited, and the comparative zoom of my lens versus a traditional film camera’s lens.  He asked if he could look through it, and nodded appreciatively at it after I let him.

He seemed to know what he was talking about, but he was extremely interested in my opinion, what I thought of digital, how I liked the D70, etc.  I figured he was someone who’d been doing film for a while, and was thinking about making the switch to digital. He said he’d thought about switching but just couldn’t leave film behind.

I was just about to give him the benefit of MY experience, tell him why digital was better, cheaper, etc. etc. when we arrived at another little market and the crowd shifted and I never got the chance to educate him.

But I felt bad about it because he’d seemed genuinely interested, and I really thought I could help him out.  “Ah well,” I thought, “I’ll catch up with him at the conference tomorrow.”

The next day, about half way through the conference, they introduced another speaker and who strode on stage? Rick Smolan, the “camera guy” from yesterday.  Turns out he’s actually the president of “Against All Odds,” the company that came up with and produces amazing large-scale photographic projects.  He also came up with all those “Day in the Life” photo books.  Like, “A Day in the Life of Hollywood,” “A Day in the Life of Australia.” I can’t even begin to list all the things he’s done, and how many of them involve the Internet and digital photography.

And I thought to myself, “Thank GOD I didn’t try to tell him the advantages of digital over analog film.”

But here’s what I found really amazing: There’s only one other person I’ve ever met who had that level of accomplishment, and yet was so humble.  I’ve met famous people who weren’t braggers, who downplayed or didn’t mention who they really were.  But those people still had a degree of arrogance, or a bit of, “I don’t really need to listen to those around me because I’m already successful.”

Or, perhaps they were just jaded—they’d often met other famous people, and done really interesting things, so talking to me just didn’t “move the meter,” so to speak.

But Rick was different.  He was, I’m convinced, absolutely, genuinely interested in my personal views on photography, the D70, the conference, and so on.  And he seemed interested not to validate his own views, or to give him the chance to correct or impress me, but really because he wanted to learn more.

It’s amazing what a brief encounter can sometimes show you about another person—and in the process, show you about yourself.



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