Ethan Allen Smith

Associate Creative Director at Owen Jones

Personal Photography Project

Interview by:

Whitney Mokler 

April 28, 2020

W: Historically have you found yourself feeling the most creatively fulfilled by the work you do professionally or outside of that?

E: The most personal fulfillment I feel comes from my professional work. I can explain why too, when I was a kid I had my very first job as a designer. I was very lucky my aunt and uncle were both designers. I knew that it was a job even as a kid and that geared my professional life towards design at a really young age. Due to this my first job at 16 years old was as a graphic designer.

I gave myself a goal as a teenager of wanting to design something that a million people saw. I think I thought that would be very cool and I met that goal pretty young in my early 20s. That's very exciting and it was fun. I moved to Southern California and what I realized over the years was that it's a cool metric, but it's not actually an accurate one for the way that I want my work to be interpreted or interacted with by people. My metrics now are so ridiculous, doing work for Nike or Jordan, that if only a million people see it you have failed and so you can't measure by the number of views. That's not really a fair metric for my personal success. 

So instead, I get an immense sense of fulfillment when I've created something that other people interact with and are moved by. I can use a very real example. A friend of mine who worked at Jordan left to work in the Obama White House during its last year.He's now the CEO of Steph Curry LLC or whatever it's called in particular. It's an incredibly high level job and he was named one of the 40 under 40. It's wild, but if we saw each other we'd still be friends. He's now working on such a different level that I don't really expect to interact with him anymore because he's doing something else. Well a couple years ago he posted a photo in a Jordan experience I designed captioning that it was his favorite thing he had ever had the chance to work. We had taken over the entire Spruce Goose Airplane Hanger in Long Beach, CA and filled it with this phenomenal Jordan experience. Complete with basketball, gym, museum pieces, stadium, seats, there was a locker room, we took over the entire thing. So we did a lot of work down there and here he is from several years ago now looking very young standing in a space that I created. That moment was more meaningful to me than the number of people who may have seen it because someone who I know who is a wildly successful, super smart, and and working in circles beyond anything I'll ever work in, looks back on the things that he enjoys and it’s stuff that we did together. Those are the moments that I look for. I've had a lot of opportunities to do interactive work where people are emotionally attached to the work that I've done. There's not really a replacement for that in my personal work. 

Having said that, I give myself challenges in my personal work that I can't get in my professional work. So I have a series that I do on Instagram, I do art shows whenever I can. Those are filling in a different way because I will teach myself how to gild glass or I will teach myself to focus and use the aperture on my camera or use colors in interesting ways. I give myself these challenges so that I'm better at my job. Those are fulfilling on a creative side, but it's the personally emotionally rewarding stuff that I get from my professional work.

"I give myself these challenges so that I'm better at my job."

W: So you kind of touched on this a little bit with the end of your answer to the first question, but what types of design or art do you partake in to feel your need for Creative Outlet? 

E: I definitely lean hard on my photography. I am lucky enough that my dad was a  photographer along with being an engineer for years. We had a dark room in my basement when I was growing up. So we have very beautiful pictures of our childhood. I grew up with a love for the camera that I've deliberately nurtured through my adulthood.

A bunch of years ago I got a semi-pro DSLR and then I got a pro DSLR. In fact it sits on my desk. My favorite lens is made of garbage and its absolute trash, but the pictures that come out of it are gorgeous. It has radial blur, but not because you ran it through a filter in Photoshop, but because the glass is so bad that you can actually see the lens in the back. When you close the aperture it has a vignette and again, it's not a filter it's because you can actually see the blades that are getting in the way of the picture.

So, I got this lens with the specific purpose of teaching myself how to manually focus really quickly. So I wasn't relying on autofocus which can sometimes grab the wrong thing. I wanted to have more control over the focusing. This was due to my experience taking photos at events around Portland, like Creative Mornings and Design Week, and realizing that the autofocus just wasn't fast enough to catch those really great candid moments. 

 

Now all of my lenses are manual focus and it has led to more interesting challenges. Things like when I did a whole six months of only black and white imagery. I did one challenge for months where I set the ISO to 3200, which is ridiculous, but that would lead to these really grainy photos that during the daytime forced me to play with making the aperture very very small. Right now I am doing a color scavenger hunt and I'm out hunting for a new color everyday. It's really very interesting and fun for me. Photography is where I get my creative fulfillment. 

W: How do you find your creative drive impacted by times of high stress? Including right now as we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

I like that question and it's actually two completely different answers.This is me being really personal, but when I'm in times of high anxiety I go dark. I don't mean to, I don't like it, I don't want to, but I just stop interacting with the world. That probably comes from me being an extrovert because when things become high anxiety I cut myself off as a defensive safety mechanism. It's not healthy or good for me. I won't respond to texts and I won't respond to emails. I'm better about it now than I was when I was younger, but it's a dead silence, but that also cuts me off from my ability to do creative work. So in times of high anxiety now when I recognize that I'm cutting myself off I will deliberately contact somebody or I will deliberately draw something or design something. It doesn't have to be anything substantial, but forcing myself to do something creative is my mechanism to get out of my safety mechanism. 

To answer the second part of the question, I have learned about myself that in times of public crisis my coping mechanism is to get hyper focused and I did not know that about myself previously. I'm way more engaged in my job. I love having the meetings and these types of interview interactions. It might even be because I do need human interaction and this is the only substitute I get for now. My worst days are the ones where I don't have meetings so to deal I look for excuses to work. As a creative director I can take on whatever projects I want, so recently I did this logo I was not assigned because I needed to continue moving forward. 

I have a fear about going back that I didn't realize I would have. I need to go back. I need human interaction, but so much of what I'm doing working from home has been so effective for my workflow that I have a fear about going back. It's crazy because normally when I work from home I'm incredibly bad at it. So, my response of hyper focused productivity is the opposite of what I was expecting.

"No matter what,

reach out to another human being."

W: What are 3 tips you have for finding creative inspiration/outlet when in isolation or a high stress environment?

    No matter what, reach out to another human being. That is especially important for people who feel like they can't. Maybe you are an introvert who's in the middle of a creative or emotional crisis or whatever even saying that out loud to another person can be helpful. Whether it is a therapist or a friend or your parent or whatever saying, "I don't know what to do." Just say it to someone who will hear you say it out loud that you trust because that moment when we force ourselves to recognize that we're stuck is the only way we get unstuck. You have to come to grips with that and sometimes it's really hard, but can be incredibly helpful.

    Give yourself a responsibility or have someone else give you a responsibility, life timelines or deadlines. I wouldn't say promises because that makes it a little too emotionally personal. It's much more about if you are an illustrator if you're a photographer, if you're a designer, if you make buttons or shirts, I don't care what you do, but do it for someone. Create even even if it's an imaginary timeline. I'm gonna make you a shirt by next Friday.

That's forcing yourself to be responsible to another person, especially if it's also the person that you trust, is a great braking mechanism for two reasons. First, because you now have given yourself a good reason to do creative work because someone else is relying on you. The second reason that's important is because if you miss that timeline with someone that you trust, not only will they understand, but it opens up a conversation about what's not working and how do we get you unstuck. You have someone else there that you can emotionally rely on. So, that reliance goes both ways.

    The third one, without sounding cheesy, is that there's a power in just starting. There's a power in putting pen to paper or taking a photograph. It doesn't matter what it is you just need to do a thing. It really is one of the hardest things to remember. There are days when just getting out of bed is a success and that's great. Every person's struggle is equally valid so we must measure our success against ourselves rather than other people. That's the thing about just doing it or just staring at a thing, sometimes those small daily achievements are doing it and that is completely ok, you win. 

W: If you could create any project right now with unlimited time, energy, and resources, what would it be?

There's an unfair answer to this question and if it's unlimited time, energy and resources then everything is possible. I would design a vaccine for Coronavirus. That's the design I want to be working on. Now, that is the imaginary answer.  

The fair answer would have been different six months ago because we can't do this now. Knowing that I now can't do this for years, it would be an art show in celebration of, I don't know how to word this out loud because I've only spoken to one friend, but I guess counter culture. It would be a celebration of punk rock in the 80s, hip-hop in the 80s, and 90s counterculture metal, politics, Henry Rollins, Public Enemy, that whole vibe. The title of the show would be "We were Right!" 

All of us who got beat up for saying that Nazis were on the rise, the environments getting fucked. There's a literal line in Operation Ivy song that says, "there's a bad generation on the rise" and they were right. We knew, we saw it coming. We were literally getting beat up in the 80s and 90s because we knew that politics was being controlled by money. 

We were saying things like, we can't  have unsustainable wars, we can't fill in the blank. We were right and we were proven right over and over again. The Iraq War was wrong, we were right to say that and we got beat up. We got beat up literally and figuratively in every way when Public Enemy said 911's a joke, they were right. When Minor Flag said that Nazis were coming, they were right. We were right about all of it. It would be an art show, it would be a concert with everything from folk to hip-hop, metal and rap, you fill in the blank. It would be a celebration of those things. The whole point would be to say, "please listen to us." We were not stupid then and we are not stupid now. The kids who are now saying here's what we can do to fix it. Listen to them because they are right. We were right back then please don't ignore us for another generation. 

W: Let me know when you're putting this together...I'm down for the cause.

"We were saying things like, we can't have unsustainable wars, we can't fill in the blank. We were right and we were proven right over and

over again."

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