Dan’s Papers Cover Artist: Dinah Maxwell Smith

It’s the little things in Dinah Maxwell Smith’s art that count. Consider her cover image this week, “Edgewood.” A mother and daughter are sitting together outside on a chaise lounge. The pair seems comfortable and happy, yet the mother’s crossed legs and pointed shoes are somehow compelling: casual, subtle and a perfect example of what Maxwell Smith has a penchant for, namely gesture. According to the artist, other aesthetic qualities are also important, like stance and capturing a particular momen.

Q: This week’s cover, and in fact many of your paintings, come from vintage photographs. Where did you find this particular picture?

A: I went to the Rhode Island School of Design with the cousin of this family in the original photo. I went to their house and got a lot of pictures; this one was taken around the turn-of-the-century.

Q: You love to collect photographs and albums.

A: Yes, there’s nothing better than albums except a good painting.

Q: Where do you get your photos besides from friends and family?

A: I used to get them from a dealer who was at a Paris flea market. I have zillions of pictures. But now I am rethinking how to use them.

Q: What do you look for in a photograph that you might turn into a painting?

A: The subject: gesture, stance, universality, light.

Q: I noticed that many of your subjects are members of a family.

A: I’ve done a lot of that; sometimes they are a narrative, like a picnic series I did.

Q: How would you describe what you do?

A: What Cartier-Bresson does in photography, I’m doing that in painting.

Q: What is it about photography that attracts you?

A: There’s undeniable truth in photography.

Q: What do you mean by “truth?” Can there ever be absolute reality in a photograph or a film like Andy Warhol’s recording of a man sleeping?

A: I mean “a truth,” not “the truth.” If it’s happening, it’s truth.

Q: Have you ever had a problem with discerning truth in a photograph?

A: There’s a photograph by Weegee of a boy hit by a car. That was never real to me. It looks staged.

Q: I agree. I think a lot of his pictures look staged. Regarding your own view of photography, how has it changed today for you?

A: Today there are no more scenes where people do a pyramid on the beach. Regardless, I always have my camera with me. I look for composition and capturing a sense of timing. With these little cameras now, there’s a time lag. You can’t get motion with them.

People today also look at photography differently. I was in New York, and I took a picture of a man putting a mannequin into a car. His son said to me, “Am I going to be in a magazine?” I wasn’t even photographing him.

Q: Let’s get back to your painting. What aesthetic qualities do you concentrate on?

A: I love detail and abstraction.

Q: That’s a fascinating combination. Where did the sense of detail come from, do you think?

A: My parents were very precise. My father was a perfectionist; both my parents were in the arts.

Q: How about your brother? How has he influenced you?

A: My brother was more responsible for what I am than my parents. My current life is a result of my background.


Dinah Maxwell Smith is participating in Guild Hall’s Clothesline Sale on August 4. 158 Main Street, EH. Call 631-324-0806. 

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