The Photographers

Francis Smith ’87

By Vassar Quarterly


Photographing for A Day in the Life of Vassar offered me a chance to sound my feelings about my current life by checking the allure of the past. Visiting Vassar had helped me do that before: by experiencing my happiest time since graduation at my fifth reunion I realized I’d been quite unhappy in the previous years. Then I just figured, well, it really doesn’t get much better than being in a beautiful place, surrounded by smart people, with all your meals cooked for you.

Through the years, I kept going back to campus—driving some hours for studies in the art library, or for tips from the Career Development Office. I often asked myself: Could I somehow work at Vassar? Is that the community for me? Even at the age of 34, a friend said to me, “You need to let go of that place.” At that time I was an intrinsically creative person struggling to find my medium. And so, as the setting of my greatest artistic growth, Vassar captivated me.

While studying art history at Vassar I learned about photography and composition, and practiced my lessons by photographing my friends around campus. I took a semester in New York City, interning with two photographers and studying deeper technical issues. A gallery was interested in my work. Yet I began dropping photography even before I graduated. I hated the darkroom for its chemical stink and obscene over-use of water. But that and others were just excuses. The real reasons lay in how my own personality met lessons learned from my family and from Vassar itself.

As a student I dutifully read the Press and Information Bulletin Board, which was so hard to miss on my way into the College Center. From these alumnae/i news clippings I learned I really should be extremely successful, or at least try to help other people live happier, healthier lives. I learned the same from my family, but with a greater emphasis on making it big, to “earn my million.” I was an impatient perfectionist with self-regard so low I craved adulation from others and wanted to be somehow special. I spent my twenties moving all over the country, heading toward dreams of being envied with Hollywood success or feeling important and needed as I helped others as a spiritual guru, or at least as a clinical psychologist.

Thankfully, my thirties were all about letting go of these false-for-me ambitions. I found some liberation after reading separate Vassar Quarterly interviews with Meryl Streep and Frances Sternhagen. They too had felt the need to do something “important” and high-minded, but soon realized they would pursue acting for the sheer joy of it. Doing something simply because it’s fun seemed revolutionary to me. I now know that I’ll help my friends with their problems, but I’m just not a professional caregiver.

I first saw my objection to the chemical darkroom obviated as I visited Vassar’s art library in the late ’90s. They were scanning the slide lecture library. I will never forget my visceral delight anticipating photography free of a smelly, wasteful workspace! And with a digital camera, all play and exploration is free. So I learned, again, about my vocation—and about my creative vision. For the last six years, while shooting interiors for publication or designer portfolios, I have followed the adage “Always make the client look good.” In my personal photographic artwork, I strive to bring out a subject’s specificity, ephemerality, and beauty—but prettiness be damned.

“Don’t treat us like a client,” I was told early in the day of the ADLOV shoot. Knowing they’d never seen my personal photography work, I sought out the details that somehow spoke to my own vision, and hoped Vassar did not suffer in the process. Days later, I realized I’d been making editorial photographs, i.e., images that comment on a larger subject from a particular vantage point, but don’t necessarily show the whole vista. For the first time, I was being paid to do work that was not for commerce but for commentary. It was fun, and I hope to do more such work.

As one who photographs some of New York’s most up-to-date interiors but who’d rather slip into something 18th-century, I delighted in Alumnae House’s archaistic, handsome rooms. And when there were eight other photographers in residence over the next two nights, it felt like a dreamy commune—but with all meals prepared for us. We talked tech, politics, culture; yes, I could get used to this. And aside from décor and commissary, this is pretty much what I have in New York City.

My ADLOV shoot made me see how happy I am with my life at the southern end of Metro-North. While on campus, I sometimes felt laugh-out-loud delight knowing that Vassar’s allure no longer captivated me. After years of wandering, New York City is home. After many false starts, photography is my work—for profit, for fun, and usually both. I’ve never had so many goals before me in any field I endeavored. The virtue of patience has been learned. I only want adulation if it allows me more time and money for creative exploration. Does my work need to be important, to help people? As a thought-filled person who really does think about the issues of the day, I strive to create works that express my thoughts and vision authentically. If this helps the people who see it, then my enjoyment of my work simply increases.


Francis Smith took his first photos at the age of two as he sat on Santa’s lap at the local Christmas barn and was soon monopolizing his family’s Kodak Instamatic. Born and raised in Westport, Connecticut, he was given his own 35mm Minolta for high school graduation. Smith quickly mastered black-and-white photography as he studied art history at Vassar. He now lives in New York City and photographs people, interiors, and other editorial subjects. He is currently developing a story on the apple as fruit and cultural nexus; he eagerly anticipates photographing the endangered apple forests of Kazakhstan and other visual manifestations of humanity’s relationship to its environment.

View additional images from Francis's "Day in the Life of Vassar" shoot.