LAWRENCE — Internationally renowned street photographer Gary Mark Smith — who has shot photos of wars, revolution, peace, volcanic eruptions and most importantly, everyday people — has donated his collection to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.
Smith, a KU alum, has made a career of shooting photos of candid moments on the streets of 66 countries on six continents since 1978. His photos have been displayed in museums and galleries, been featured in books and now will be part of Spencer’s Kansas Collection. The donation includes everything from shots of the 1982-84 civil war in El Salvador to a 1997 volcanic eruption in the tiny Caribbean island nation of Montserrat and photos of street sweepers, police and poverty from around the world.
“It’s Gary’s life work. He’s given us his whole life story,” Sherry Williams, curator of collections at Spencer Research Library, said of the gift. “I think it’s a very compelling story, and he’s a great role model for students and researchers. I’m very, very happy to have this here in Spencer.”
The gift contains thousands of photos and then some. Smith also donated articles both authored by him and about him, his research notes from international photographic excursions and personal items such as his baby book and high school yearbook.
Smith began his career as a street photographer in 1978. While hitching a ride with a truck driver in Scottsbluff, Neb., he read an article about airline deregulation. The article said anyone would be able to fly internationally at an affordable price. He decided then to take his camera, get on a plane and start shooting. In 1979, he made Lawrence his home base.
He attended KU and got a bachelor’s degree in journalism, working for the University Daily Kansan for three years. He knew right away that he did not want to be a traditional photojournalist.
“I was trying to make journalism part of art,” Smith said. “I want to tell the whole story, not just what they give me in column inches.”
Even though he took a somewhat nontraditional approach to his career, Smith has received plenty of honors from the academic and photographic fields along the way. He was nominated for a William Randolph Hearst Award in 1983, donated work for the George Eastman House 2011 and 2012 History of Photography auctions in New York, and earned a master’s degree at Purdue University through a teaching fellowship.
“I’m not an academic, but I’ve always said I work with academic purpose,” Smith said.
Smith has worked with film and digital photography, shooting both black and white and color images. His work has covered daily moments in the lives of numerous cultures and historical moments such as the Russian revolution, fall of the Berlin Wall and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His artist’s statement in part describes street photography as a form in which “predominantly urban people can be studied and photographed in the wild going about the task of living out the commerce and leisure and bustle and sometimes grind of their everyday public lives.”
The collection will be cataloged at Spencer and available for research purposes.
Smith plans to continue shooting photos of people on the streets of the world. He also enjoys mentoring young photographers and filmmakers. Along with KU students Sarah Stern and Carlos P. Beltran, he recently spent three weeks in Rocinha, a favela, or slum, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They shot photos of people living their everyday lives in the gang-controlled slum, several of which will eventually be included in his donation. He plans to return to Rio for the World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016.
A separate collection of 27 of Smith’s photos from his 33-year Streetphotos in Time/Historical Circumstance series, will be displayed at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications throughout the fall. A portfolio of 12 signed prints will then be donated to KU’s Spencer Museum of Art.
Regardless of where he travels and what streets he photographs, Smith said having his collection archived at Spencer is something he will cherish.
“I’m really humbled by all of this,” he said. “I’m not going to get used to the fact that I have a collection here at Spencer.”
Spencer Research Library (http://spencer.lib.ku.edu) and its staff are dedicated to the preservation of diverse collections ranging from medieval manuscripts and other rare books to Kansas historical records to national political documents.