For 35 years, Mike Smith has dedicated his time to teaching photography in the ETSU Department of Art and Design, while receiving prestigious awards and honors in the industry.
Smith first discovered his passion for photography while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“I stumbled into the recreation center in Germany that had a darkroom,” Smith said. “I bought a camera in Vietnam and started taking pictures of my friends, the landscape and Vietnamese people.”
Smith took advantage of his access to the darkroom and fell in love with photography.
“I fell into it [photography] and never came out of it really,” he said. “I knew it was something that I wanted to do.”After the military, Smith earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Massachusetts College of Art and attended Yale University’s School of Art for his master’s.
Soon after he graduated from Yale, Smith accepted a position at ETSU and immediately became infatuated with the region.
“I would say I’m an observer of the world around me, in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia,” Smith said. “I try to absorb and make photographs that are descriptive of the place. I don’t bring my camera when I go elsewhere. My work is here.”
Since he began photographing this region, Smith’s photos have been featured and collected in dozens of museums and shows in America.
His work can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum all in New York City. He has also had work published in the New York Times, “New York Magazine” and various other publications.
One of Smith’s lifetime dreams became a reality in 2001 when he was awarded one out of 220 John Smith Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships, from a pool of over 3,500 applicants.
When it comes to his career in teaching, Smith said his students are what have made it worthwhile.
“They [the students] are my entire focus,” Smith said. “Collectively, I think of my students’ achievements, and the fact that they have gotten in Ivy League schools, that they have won awards and have gone on to teach at prestigious schools and programs around the country.”
Smith has formed bonds with some of his students through his photography.
“I’ve photographed, unknowingly, people’s land and homes before they become my students,” he said.
“Teaching has taught me how to be more articulate about art and my understanding of it,” Smith said, reflecting on his overall teaching experience.
Smith plans to retire in May 2017. As for advice, he encourages his students to be passionate and have a strong work ethic.
“Nobody cares whether they ever take a picture again in their lives,” Smith said. “They have to be self-motivated.”