Photographer Interviews

Joseph Rodriguez on How Beuford Smith’s Photo Class Changed His Life

October 31, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Beuford Smith/Cesaire

“Flag Day Harlem, 1966” by Beuford Smith. The award-winning photographer taught for many years, and passed along to his students advice he had learned from Roy DeCarava, and some wisdom from Frederick Douglass and others.

Our profiles on great teachers and mentors reveal that giving advice or encouragement to a young photographer can sometimes have an influence that long outlasts the initial interaction. Photographer Joseph Rodriguez, who has mentored numerous photographers, says the class he took with photographer Beuford Smith in the early 1970s “opened my world to photography.” In his career, Rodriguez has immersed himself in long-term projects documenting social justice issues. Smith, a street photographer and photojournalist who began making photos during the social upheaval of the 1960s, says, “I photograph as passionately and humanely as possible.” The two photographers share many of the same passions, but when they first crossed paths, they had different goals in mind.

Rodriguez was in his early 20s and working in a shoe polish factory in Brooklyn after having spent time in Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail, and kicking a drug addiction on his own. “I’m walking home from work—this was 1971 or ’72—and I see that the Brooklyn Children’s Museum is offering a basic photography class,” he recalls, “It was cheap.” So Rodriguez decided to enroll. He became absorbed in shooting the photography assignments Smith gave the class, and in using the darkroom. “I needed to change some direction. I took this very seriously,” he says.

He was impressed that Smith “knew the streets, he knew the neighborhood” and was making work about the community. At the time, Rodriguez recalls, “I’m enamored that there’s a black man who happens to have this great platform to speak volumes—which is photography.” When the class ended, Rodriguez began processing his own E-6 film, and took a correspondence course offered by Popular Photography. Eventually, he got a scholarship to the International Center of Photography, where he learned from teachers like Fred Ritchin and Gilles Peress and began to pour his energy and his anger at injustice into documentary photography.

Smith says he began teaching at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum because, at the time, he took any teaching job he could get. “Those were desperate times for me,” he says. By the late 70s, he would be shooting assignments for corporate and commercial clients, but when he taught at the Museum, Smith says, “I was living on Rice-a-Roni, which I now refuse to eat.” During his classes, he slipped in a few life lessons. When students worked in the darkroom, he says, he liked to quote the words of Frederick Douglass: “Agitate, agitate, agitate.” He also shared some advice that Roy DeCarava gave to him: “Know your worth.” To Smith, DeCarava’s words meant that photographers should appreciate the value of their work—“not only in monetary terms,” but in their impact through books and exhibitions. Smith went on to teach at Hunter College for years, and says he always quoted DeCarava to his students.

Smith has won an Aaron Siskind Fellowship and a Light Work Artist-in-Residence fellowship to support his photographic projects, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but he has never stopped mentoring. In 1973, Smith and Joe Crawford co-founded The Black Photographers Annual, which until 1981 published the work of some of the best black art and documentary photographers of the time, including Anthony Barboza, Louis Draper, Ming Smith, Shawn Walker, Lou Jones and Eli Reed. In the late 1990s, Smith served as president of Kamoinge, the collective of African-American photographers. In 2017, the Griffin Museum gave Smith its Culture of Legacy Award.

Rodriguez re-introduced himself to his former teacher four years ago, at the opening of an exhibition of Smith’s work, and they have stayed in touch. Smith says he admires Rodriguez’s dedication and his compositions. “He has better control of space than any other photographer,” Smith says. “He can go into a room with ten or 12 people in it, and make a picture that isn’t cluttered.” The two recently met for a lunch that, according to Rodriguez, lasted four hours. “He’s a great photographer, a good talker and a good listener, too,” Smith says. “I’m proud that Joe Rodriguez was one of my students.”

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Related Articles:
The Lessons and Influence of Great Photography Teachers

The Lessons and Influence of Great Photography Teachers: Joseph Rodriguez

How Joseph Rodríguez Placed a Personal Take on Storm-Torn Puerto Rico in The New York Times

Celebrating “The Black Photographers Annual”

Give and Take: The Power of Mentorship in Photography

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