Jonathan David Smyth

I hear a definite accent in your voice but am having trouble identifying it. Where are you from?
I’m from a small town in Northern Ireland called Larne, but I left there when I was 18 to study an undergraduate degree in Edinburgh, Scotland. I also spent a couple of years in England working for a non-profit in Manchester before moving to New York for Parsons. That said, people think my accent is Australian.

I think it’ll be helpful if you explain Family Drawings, because that project has a lot to do with your childhood. Can you talk about that series?
I was adopted from birth but it was a closed adoption, which means that the adopters know little information about where the [adopted] child comes from.  The purpose of Family Drawings is to share as much information about my beginnings as possible by mapping myself using my own handwriting. That’s why I am physically in the piece as well. I’ve been obsessed with my adoption because I really don’t know anything.

Why is it important for you to incorporate your handwriting?
I used to get into trouble at school because I wrote song lyrics, doodles, and poetry on the back of my notebooks. So, this is a way for me to display my handwriting proudly. Family Drawings is currently three panels: the first is my handwriting on my recycled notebook paper. The second is me writing on a chalkboard; it’s a video still. The third is me writing on Plexiglas facing the camera, so that the viewer can see me writing. I love referencing television in my work, so here I was inspired by Clarissa Explains It All, the ’90s Nickelodeon show with Melissa Joan Hart. She writes her own name in the beginning and I wanted to pay homage to that.

Was there anything frustrating about pursuing an art degree?
I got my undergraduate degree in photography and film, and I got my masters in photography and related media. Both programs were so wide that I could make a sculpture and it would still pass the grade. Perhaps the most frustrating thing was that it was hard to convey a story you want to tell in a single image. That’s why I try to blend everything using text, image, and video all at once.  Many people have said that my work can be too personal, but I want people to relate to my work.

Tell us about Hold Out. The picture is beautiful. Where was it taken?
That was at Coney Island. I kept going back for a year to photograph the sea and myself. I was going through a very difficult time and I wanted to go to a place where I didn’t feel like anything bad could happen. I come from a coastal town in Northern Ireland, so I always felt happy by the water.  I took Hold Out because my father passed away. I wanted to see myself in a photograph; if you look at the image, you can tell that something is happening in my life through my expression. The title really enforces that idea. Things are shit, they are really bad, but they can be worse, so I am trying to hold out. I’m going to see how life goes; I’m going to stand here and not move. It’s like digging your heels into the ground and facing the tough parts of life, rather than running away from it. It’s important that I’m actually facing the camera because in most of my work, I’m usually walking away or leaving. I used medium format, as opposed to digital, because I really wanted it to be an unedited image.

You also shot Flat Line at Coney Island, so it’s clearly a very special location for you.
It is. For that series, the air mattress in that video is what I slept on for 6 months when I moved to Staten Island. It was a very lonely time because I had just moved from Britain and didn’t know anyone. It was like living in exile. With Staten Island, you have to ride the ferry too, so it’s very isolated. When things got better and I moved elsewhere and bought a nice bed, I found it depressing that the air mattress was just going to be thrown out and I didn’t want it to exist as something that was sad. By taking it to Coney Island, I was – for lack of a better word – playing with the mattress. I was trying to make a better use of it. I thought Coney was the appropriate and fun place to film this, and jumping on this awful and cold mattress now makes it a humorous item. I called it Flat Line because I was looking for a flat and I like double entendres, so it’s like you are metaphorically flat lining; things aren’t great but you’ll be okay.

In your film work, like Work Out, I found myself thinking about Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The colors are beautiful and I found that the silence added to that beauty. Can you talk about this one?
The subjects are me and my husband. We weren’t married at the time, but we were together for six months at that stage and talking about moving in together. I started jumping on the trampoline because I like the notion of the body moving up-and-down. In my life, there’s a lot of that: going from A to B, subway to street, Ireland to America. It’s really about the wavelength in a relationship. The reason why we are jumping against the New York skyline is simply because that’s where we live. We’re gay and the law to legalize gay marriage had just passed, so in that way, Work Out is about every relationship I’ve ever had. I thought it was a lovely and simple way to show the fluctuations of relationships. It’s about how it can be very difficult to get along with people, live with people, and talk to people, but you always balance the good with the bad. I wanted things to ‘work out’ with my husband because I love him.

What’s your favorite movie?
The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock.

Do you have a favorite book?
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

What about a photobook?
Pictures from Home by Larry Sultan.

What artist’s work do you enjoy reviewing?
I love Woody Allen. I love his films about New York. I’ve also been a huge fan of the Spice Girls since I was 10-years-old. Even though their music was fantastic, it was more about them doing what they wanted to do that I loved. I’m a big fan of strong women; after all, I had three sisters. I love Cyndi Lauper. I’m inspired by people that are fearless.

Who’s your favorite Spice Girl?
Scary.

Where do you want to travel next?
San Francisco.

What’s your favorite food?
Pizza.

Do you have a favorite drink?
I don’t drink alcohol that much, but I do like Dr. Pepper. It tastes like American Summer to me. I also drink a lot of tea. I enjoy British black tea with milk. It’s very common in the UK and I miss that sort of tea culture.

What’s your favorite form of exercise?
I don’t exercise. That’s one of the reasons that it’s ironic that in my work, like Work Out,  I’m sort-of exercising. During PE in high school, I used to sit on the benches and read horror books for exercise. That said, I live in New York so I walk everywhere.

And lastly, how do you define beauty?
 This might sound odd, but I see beauty in watching other people having a good time.  Like when you go to a club and people are dancing and they’re totally lost in the song; there’s a freedom surrounding them that it really uplifting to watch.  Maybe I’m thinking more about freedom without judgement.  I love supportive people; there is a real beauty in knowing that someone will stand by you, even if you’re a weird dancer.

 

For more of Jonathan’s work, check out his website.