Toni Smailagic

4 years ago when I was beginning my modeling career I came across the work of a small up and coming photographer from Jacksonville, Florida who managed to make the city I hated most seem so much more appealing with his nostalgic and invigorating photographs. 4 years later and he has now traveled from New York to Miami and now to LA photographing models for every top agency, editorials that put meaning back into fashion and a body of personal work that will make you wish you were a part of his family just so you could have a picture that damn good in your life. This incredible photographer goes by the name of Toni Smailagic and if you haven't heard of him before you'll never forget him now. As a photographer who truly has an artists heart, mind and soul and someone who I see creating work beyond just a pretty picture I luckily got him to agree to sit down and answer a few questions for me.

What first sparked your interest in photography?

There was never an incident that sparked my interest but just a love for people & travel and a family that allowed me to dabble in the creative field; capturing the essence of a location or person and allowing someone else to experience it with you.  I was always that friend in the group with the camera. Even recently I had lunch with an old friend that was reminding me of high school and how she didn’t bother taking pictures because she was sure I always was.

I have been following your photography for quite a few years now and have noticed a shift from you shooting in color to mostly black and white now. Do you feel like working more with modeling agencies has led to this change or are there other reasons?

I don’t think modeling agencies have much influence on that at all. My interest was always more in black and white photography (especially for portraits) as it evokes emotion, or at least for me it does. I’m much more conscious now, opposed to 3 or 4 years ago of when to use color or black and white. Being in Miami for a few months this past year allowed me to take in the dynamics of color and I can’t really imagine shooting a spread in Miami in black and white. Why waste the beautiful colors? (I think DVF said in one interview “just imagine a garden in black and white, and how depressing it would be”). If you have an electric blue jumpsuit, why would you photograph it in black and white? I guess it just depends on the environment, model, & clothes.

All of your images display the model or subject in a light of empowerment, strength and confident convictions. Would you say this is a reflection of yourself?

I think it’s my “secret” self. I’m more of an introvert and I don’t view myself as a necessarily “strong” person but being behind the camera allows me to illustrate that vision. I love people who demand attention & even if the model isn’t the most confident it’s my job to make the audience believe they are.  Confidence sells clothes.

Your photography career has had you travel to quite a few places like Miami, NYC, Dominican Republic and now LA. Do you feel like each place you visit effects you in ways that can be seen in your images?

I definitely notice the change between each city, as each city offers something else that the previous city didn’t. Capturing the environment so that the city is still alive in the picture is important. I touched on that in the previous question when it comes to color. I think traveling is very important for a photographer. If I stay in a place too long, I begin to take it for granted (sometimes). You don’t realize what makes it special because you’re around it daily and it hits you the second you touch down in a different city and begin to reminisce on areas that could never exist in a different part of the world. If I’m not incorporating the city landscape in the picture I will try to make the model reflect the energy of the city.

You are now about to move to LA to start working there. What do you hope to experience or get out of LA that you haven’t gotten anywhere else?

I hope LA brings a mixture of Miami and NY to the table. Fashion & commercial. I shoot on-location and with the different landscapes that Cali offers, I’m sure I’ll have a new playground to work with. I’m definitely excited to see the street style in LA as well and the transitioning of “seasons” there and if it’s as entertaining as Miami in the “winter”.

What artists  are currently inspiring you?

Christopher Anderson (photo-journalist), Henri Cartier-Bresson (photographer), Peter Lindbergh (photographer) ,Yukimi Nagano (musician), Pharrell Williams (musician), Pedro Almodovar (director), Larry Clark (photographer/director) & Haider Ackermann (designer). Those are the first ones that pop in my head, although I’m inspired by many more.

Music seems to have a huge influence on you. How would you describe the effects that music has on your photography?

HUGE. I love discovering new music artist and treasure the people around me that are able to bring a new artist to the table whether it’s traditional music from Ecuador, or an underground scat singer in Seattle. I look for locations (with music in my ears) and the music can completely transform the environment that you’re in and you might see something you haven’t noticed before just because you allow the music to lead your thoughts.  I have a pretty extensive music collection and on shoots I’ll always feel out the model to see if the music is something they like or puts them at ease and then change up the playlist once I see a positive reaction to an artist. The model has to be comfortable (at least for me). No easier way to do that than with music. I use music while I’m editing and have a ton of editing playlist depending on the story that I’m editing at the time (whether it’s moody, or happy/commercial, etc). Challenge – Listen to : East of the Sun – Billie Holiday and walk through a park by yourself. Then do the same thing but walk through a busy street or sit and observe people as they pass by (I guess it’s a little easier in NYC than most places). See if you pick up on details you haven’t before or if your mood changes to reflect the music.

Unlike many up and coming fashion photographers I see who generally shoot most of their portfolio's in studio, you only shoot on location. What are your reasons for doing this and have you felt that by shooting only on location it has changed the course of your career in some way or another?

I started as an on-location photographer because I thought I would transition into film a lot sooner. I've only been shooting with a 16-35mm lens for the past 2 or 3 years - with an occasional 100mm when I borrowed it from a friend. I bought the 16 because of the cinematic effect it gives and it was a waste to me to even try to use that lens inside a studio when you can capture so much light and the essence of the location with it. On top of that, I LOVE to travel and explore new locations. I can't see myself going to Singapore and shooting inside a studio.

I don't have anything against studios, as there are a lot of photographers who do phenomenal studio work and I understand it's more controlled and a lot of bigger clients prefer it, which is what sets me back. But at the same time, a lot of the studio photographers can't shoot on-location, which is when I have the upper hand. 
I'm sure I'll learn the studio side soon to be able to use it when I need to, but my preference will always be on-location. Eventually I'll transition over to film when I have the equipment needed and then I'll be as hard headed then as I am now, by avoiding big studios lol. Indie artist at heart.

You just started a blog to feature your personal work outside of fashion editorials. How do you feel your personal work is different than your commissioned work in aesthetics and composition?

There are no boundaries there. If I’m shooting an editorial or anything that’s not solely for me, I have to think about everyone else. I try to make sure the hair & makeup artist get a beauty shot, the stylist gets a full body shot, the agency gets what they’re looking for, the spread embodies what the magazine usually features, etc etc. When it’s for me, I’m only shooting to please myself & to challenge myself with different settings / angles / emotions that I could care less whether someone else likes or doesn’t like. It’ll also feature a lot more artist portraits and my friends in different settings. They’re the ones who I’ve been photographing the longest and am so thankful that they drop their guards down and allow me to capture them in settings no one would be able to experience otherwise. Sometimes I’ll be able to wonder off and shoot my friends from a distance and be able to capture the environment that they’re in and just observe them and wait for that shot, that otherwise with models you can’t really just leave a set and watch the model roam around. 

All photographs property of Toni Smailagic. To see more visit his site here.