It’s not exactly Halloween in Aline Smithson’s photos, but dress-up and make-believe, masks and personas are often at the heart of her photographs. In black-and-white pictures she made at the start of her work with a camera, kids wear cheap masks that hint at adulthood and fantasy. There is a tiny Dracula on a sunny beach, a pair of wrinkled oafs sitting in the grass, bears and tigers in t-shirts and shorts, all enacting regular suburban dramas that have been elevated into archetypes, ready for a Jungian trick-or-treating expedition. “My first subjects were my children and their friends. That intimacy made me an observer participating in their childhood—they tried on different personas at the same time I was trying new ways of working—exploring composition, light and subject. In a sense, my growth as a photographer paralleled their growing up,” writes Smithson in Self & Others: Portraits as Autobiography, a collection of her work published by The Magenta Foundation this fall.
Before she took up photography, Smithson worked for ten years as a fashion editor for Vogue Knitting and Vogue Patterns. “It was an incredibly creative job and required me to conceptualize story ideas, select designs and fabrics, work with dressmakers, guide the accessory editors, hire models and hair and makeup artists, and show up at the shoots with ample ideas and a good attitude. It was a job that I was totally unprepared for, but one I loved so much,” writes Smithson in the book. After moving back to her native California to raise a family, Smithson found herself “frustrated by my lack of creative expression, coming to terms with a tethered life with small children afoot,” she writes. Although her ambition had always been to paint, she eventually turned to photography, discovering a way to combine her wide-ranging interest in visual culture with a sense of personal expression. Taking up a camera, “I felt like I had finally found an outlet that enabled me to fold my love of film stills and storytelling and [color] and noir and human and family and the pathos of simply being human into one artistic path,” she writes. Her black and white studies with masks eventually gave way to work in vibrant, sometimes hand-painted color, staged portraits steeped in fashion and art history. Part Julia Margaret Cameron, part Mario Testino (whom she worked with at Vogue), her pictures explore the grownup uses of costume and pose to create and deflect a self, letting individuals construct themselves using a rich palette of references and tools.