Student Spotlight: Amy Smithers

Amy Smithers’ work previously focused on still life and symbolism, using analogue techniques, but since she started studying photography at Manchester School of Art, she has been trying out portraiture and fashion photography. She has also made moving image pieces, including a dance film, and runs the all female digital art collective Grrrlizm, which celebrates creative women. Amy is still experimenting and exploring styles to become skilled across the board rather than specialise too soon, and wants to continue working in different forms of photography and image making. We caught up with Amy to discuss her course, her projects, and ambitions for the future.

What made you want to study Photography at Manchester School of Art? 

I studied fine art in high school then I moved to Scotland for a year studying both traditional and digital art. This is where I really got interested in photography and editing. Luckily, I did not overcomplicate what I wanted to do and had great support in my choice to continue photography. I always loved Manchester when I would visit, I thought it was such a diverse, open-minded place full of artists and musicians, so I wanted to feel that creative energy around me, which I never really felt in my home town. The photo studio and darkrooms are great and it is one of the best art schools in the country. They also have an open space to encourage collaboration between students from different courses.

How would you describe your style as a photographer? 

Before university, I would have said a fine art photographer creating both digital and experimental analogue, symbolic work with an element of design. I used to spend hours in the darkroom creating photograms and pinhole photographs. But since being at university, I have experimented with different genres of photography, such as portraiture and fashion. I really love fashion photography but it is something that is still quite new to me, so I would not say I specialise in it just yet, but I plan to keep exploring the subject. I am still experimenting with styles and techniques at this stage.

What projects have you completed on your course?

I have recently just handed in three projects that I’ve been working on throughout the year. I created a photo book, a short dance film, and expanded my fashion and portraiture portfolio. I created the dance film, ‘Need To Know,’ exploring filmmaking in more depth, as it is something I was drawn to last year. The focus of the film is the styling and technique, capturing the dancer’s body well and matching music to movement. I really enjoy working with moving image and film in post-production; every time I film I learn more about filming and photography. My photobook titled ‘Spectacle’ was inspired by my fashion theory unit, ‘Fashioning Identities.’ I had been shooting a lot of commercial fashion photoshoots in a previous project, so I wanted to explore fashion in a more experimental and avant garde style, focusing more on the concept and the simplicity of a fashion image. I collaborated with designers and exhibited their artwork onto the model’s body like sculptural garments, to explore the limitations of fashion and how we wear items. It’s a very simple concept and it was a lot of fun working on the project; it is one of my favourite photographic series from the year.

Is there a photo or series that you’re most proud of?

I am most proud of my ‘Sacred Geometry’ series that I created for my final major project at Priestley College in 2015. I wanted to challenge myself creatively, intellectually, and aesthetically by creating a series of images that communicated something so important to me in a style and technique that I had never used before. I have always been intrigued by symbolism and semiotic systems. My mum is a tarot card reader and blogger, she had hundreds of decks that we used to look through and I began learning the meanings of certain cards, which has inspired my work to this day. The series was also inspired by collage artist Sebastian Wahl and the ‘Voyager Tarot’ by James Wanless.

You also run an all female digital art collective, ‘Grrrlizm.’ Tell us about this.

I was inspired to create Grrrlizm by the Riot Grrrl movement from the 90’s and the Guerrilla Girls, who are an anonymous, feminist art group who call out the art industry on their sexism. ‘Grrrl’ means a young woman regarded as independent and strong and one of the definitions for ‘ism’ is an artistic movement. I made Grrrlizm initially to create artwork with like-minded people and to work on collaborative projects, such as zines, films and exhibitions. Whilst we are still planning projects, I decided to make a blog alongside the collective to celebrate the achievements of other creatives. So far, we have interviewed musicians, photographers, filmmakers, illustrators, and sound artists. Grrrlizm has had such a great response and there has been a lot of people keen to get involved, particularly those who are interested in writing and journalism.

“There is a lot of different jobs I would love to get involved in, I would say yes to every opportunity even if it was not my style. I believe every experience can be beneficial in our growth as photographers.”

Where do you want photography to take you, and what do you want to say with it?

I would love to display my fine art photography in exhibitions and photography festivals around the world. Similarly, it would be amazing if my fashion photography could take me to fashion events and photoshoots in beautiful places such as Europe. There is a lot of different jobs I would love to get involved in, I would say yes to every opportunity even if it was not my style. I believe every experience can be beneficial in our growth as photographers. It would be a completely different experience working on a fashion photoshoot vs concert photography; I would try it all if I could.

What has been the most valuable thing you’ve learnt at university? 

Independence. It is great getting advice from other students and tutors but ultimately, I have learnt to work alone and trust myself and my ideas. University is supposed to prepare us for the world and being a freelance photographer can be a lonely job, there will not always be someone there to ask for help. I am learning to do as much for myself as I possible can, such as networking, planning, styling, directing, shooting, editing, printing, blogging and publishing etc. Collaboration can be such an important aspect to photography, but it is always beneficial to know how to do something yourself in case somebody cancels.

How has your visual style and creative skills as a photographer developed while studying?

I have explored my visual style in a completely different way than my college work. I created fine art and experimental photography at college, focusing on symbolism and still life, so when I came to university I wanted to focus on fashion and people to expand my skills and experience. I lived in the darkroom at college, exploring a variety of analogue techniques. So when I came to university, I wanted to work more in the studio and with digital technologies. My theory work has definitely inspired my practical work too. I have such a vast array of sources at university that I did not have at college. I have borrowed books from the library that would have cost me hundreds of pounds to buy. Increasing my knowledge on subjects has also increased my creativity and skill.

What are you currently working on?

I have just handed in all my coursework but my next university project starts in a couple of weeks called ‘Exhibit in the City,’ where we put on our own exhibition in groups. Before that starts, I will be working on more fashion photoshoots exploring different styles and enhancing my Photoshop skills. Also, I have a lot of film to develop so I’ll be spending the next few weeks in the darkroom developing and printing my negatives, as I’ve not had time to go through them recently.

Do you have a dream project for the future?

I want to collaborate with some of the best designers and creatives, photographing and filming some of the most iconic women. I would love to work on fashion campaigns. I remember watching the behind the scenes videos of Dior’s 2015 ‘Secret Garden’ film with Rihanna and I thought, “Wow, I would love to create fashion films and images; I want to be a part of that team.” I know that every project I work on and every idea I take a chance on is a step closer to where I want to be.

Check out more of Amy’s work on her website or instagram