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About the Photographer
Mike Smith moved to East Tennessee in 1981 to begin a teaching position at one of the state's universities. For three decades since then, he has been photographing the area's rural landscape and inhabitants. This long-term study provides a nuanced view of life in the mountains of Southern Appalachia, a part of the country that is rarely brought to outsiders' attention and which has resisted external influences to a surprising degree.
With a keen eye for compelling details and chromatic subtleties, Smith portrays places such as wooded hollows, fields in faded hues of brown and green, and deteriorating buildings that are slowly merging with the landscape. Meanwhile, an often dark sense of humor emerges quietly in certain pictures, particularly those of the unnerving objects, such as animal skulls and discarded baby dolls, that certain residents use to decorate their yards and surroundings.
Smith works in the tradition of photographers of the American South like William Christenberry and William Eggleston, yet the vision he offers of the Appalachian hills is all its own, differing from their depictions of say, the city of Memphis or Hale County, Alabama. Smith notes that when he moved to East Tennessee his own preconceptions turned out to be entirely wrong. "The mountain culture is distinct from the Deep South, with a different set of endeavors," he remarks. "There’s nothing large, no agribusiness. It’s family farming, small crops. The mountains have always been a haven for people who wanted to get away. They have an independence in their thinking."
Smith's first monograph, "You're Not From Around Here," borrows its title from a comment he frequently received, and it suggests a certain wariness in the people he encountered. His photographic project is shaped as such by his perspective as both an outsider and insider of sorts. Smith moved to the area from elsewhere and is thus considered to be a foreigner, but he has come to know his adopted home well over the span of twenty-five years. While feeling a deep appreciation and a measure of familiarity, he brings to the task of photographing this geographical and social environment the continued curiosity and sharpened awareness of a stranger.
Born in Germany to a military family, Smith grew up in Boston and completed a BFA at Massachussetts College of Art (1977). He went on to complete an MFA at Yale University (1981). Since 1981 he has taught at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, where he now directs the photography program.