Dan Tobin Smith has a knack of photographing the everyday and turning it into something epic. In his hands, dried leaves become X-rayed Rorschach tests, dead butterflies are transformed into a delicately abstract work of art, and guns appear unnervingly beautiful, almost sculptural. He also creates elaborate set pieces, lit bewitchingly, that conjure up recognisable yet elegantly quirky worlds. Many of these will feel familiar, as he photographs regularly for Wallpaper magazine and was also Best in Book in this year’s Annual awards (CR May), with his record sleeve for Athlete’s Tourist album, a shot of sculptural rubble constructed from escalator rails, petrol pumps and airplane seats, alongside numerous other bits of junk.
“He’s very good at taking something really mundane and really creating such dramatic imagery from it,” says Tony Chambers, creative director at Wallpaper*, who has worked with Tobin Smith since 2003. “He can do theatrical drama, although always manages to stop it being overcooked, but he’s also good at the stark simplicity that’s the staple of a still life photographer.”
Still only 30, Tobin Smith admits that he’s been “dabbling in photography since I was quite young”, after first being inspired to have a go at it by his father, who teaches at the LCC. He completed a foundation course at St Martins, before going on to study for a degree at LCC (then the London College of Printing), which he graduated from in 1999. Only then did he decide to actually take up photography as a career; “I don’t really think I thought about doing it until I left and I thought, ‘fuck, what will I do now?’” He eschewed the usual route into professional photography however, and instead of assisting took up by himself, landing a commission from Wallpaper* and then regular work for design agency Wink, doing location reports and interior shots. This offered a perfect learning ground in which he largely taught himself, though eventually it led to a desire to shoot more elaborate and unusual work. “I wanted to do more dramatic interiors,” he explains. “I got a bit bored of it because there’s only so much you could really do, a house is a house. Creatively it didn’t go very far for me.”
To compensate, alongside the paid work Tobin Smith began producing still life images on his own, a practice he continues today and which often results in his most imaginative and interesting photographs. These works can appear more like artworks than commercial photographs, and he is beginning to sell them as such. But this artistic touch also feeds his advertising work, and he has shot print campaigns for brands as diverse as Orange and Bird’s Eye, always injecting them with his particular style. He also photographed the print campaign to accompany the acclaimed Sony Bravia Balls spot, and has recently been working on a paint-splattered follow-up, which will be shown alongside the TV spot shot by Jonathan Glazer last month in Glasgow. “He’s extremely meticulous in setting everything up to capture chaos in an elegant way,” says Fallon creative director Juan Cabral, who has worked with him on both Sony Bravia campaigns.
Tobin Smith’s influences are disparate, and while he cites black-and-white photography masters Abelardo Morell and Hiroshi Sugimoto as key, he is as much inspired by the novels of Philip K Dick or New Scientist magazine as by other photographers or artists. The stillness and enigmatic lighting of Morell and Sugimoto’s work is the most obvious connection to Tobin Smith’s own practice, and a key aspect of his work is his ability to somehow magically freeze a moment of action so it becomes an elaborate still life. This is most apparent in a series of images he has shot for Kilimanjaro magazine over the last three years. The first, shot in 2003, captures a fussy, traditional wedding cake as it tumbles to the ground, firing icing and cake ornaments into the air. Tobin Smith then revisited the food theme for the magazine in 2005, photographing a fridge that appears to have been cannoned upwards, spilling groceries in its wake (CR April 05).
As with most of his work, both are shot without any evidence of people, yet this seems only to add to the grandeur.
His most recent, black-and-white image for the magazine is even more elaborate, revealing a teenage boy’s bedroom in the grip of a wind vortex, with books and papers caught in mid-flight. “I wanted to create an action shot, with some elegance and weirdness to it,” he explains. Largely self-funded, capturing the shot involved creating a hexagon-shaped set to contain the bedroom, with a wind machine used to create the chaos. Despite the considerable expense, it only served to fuel Tobin Smith’s desire to create such grandiose experiences. “I do have some epic ideas that I have to batter out of my head,” he admits, hinting that what we’ve seen so far is only the beginning.