Susan Smith takes the phrase "Picture this" literallyIf you could pick your perfect job, what would it be? The answer for Susan B. Smith '85 is "exactly what I'm doing now." Smith is the photography director of Outside magazine, the preeminent publication for serious outdoor enthusiasts.
An English major at Kenyon, Smith also had a strong interest in the sciences, especially biology. "I really thought my working life would combine aspects of both disciplines," she recalls. A native of Winnetka, Illinois, Smith worked briefly after graduation in the Chicago, Illinois, area for a geologist, researching and writing grant proposals, and then, for an even briefer time, for the Nature Conservancy. "I look upon this restless period of my life as 'getting the ants out of my pants,'" she says.
In 1986, Smith joined Outside magazine as an editorial intern. It was clearly a case of being in the right place at the right time. The maga-zine soon needed someone in the circulation department, and Smith was chosen for the job. "I handled public relations, wrote press releases, and generally worked on the business side of the publication," she says.
While she was developing an interest in, and love for, the magazine industry, she was dreaming of the creative end of the business. After about three and a half years in the circulation department, Smith became the photography editor. "I had always loved photography," she says, "and, of course, I had a camera and took pictures, but I was certainly no expert." Over the next three years, she went from self-confessed "know-nothing" to being at ease in the role. "I found I had a knack for the job and a passion for it as well," says Smith.
In 1990, the magazine moved its corporate offices from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the photography director elected not to make the transition. Smith was promoted to the directorship, and she eagerly took up the challenge of setting the photographic style of the magazine.
Under her direction, Outside has gradually modified its look. "We are now more often hiring photographers to shoot the story while it is in progress rather than using stock photos," she says. "It gives the stories more immediacy."
Although many of the stories are about adventuring in exotic locals (a twentieth-anniversary issue features a story on Asiatic lions photographed in northern India), Smith rarely gets to go with the photographer and crew. She is too busy putting together the next issue of the magazine. "I ge to do about two fashion shoots a year," says Smith.
Most recently, she joined the fashion editor on a trip to Alaska. "Alaska is just filled with talented athletes," says Smith. "We photographed fourteen people, and each one of them excelled in five or six very difficult activities. One man owns a rafting-tour company and fishes and skis. Also included was a woman on the national ski team, as well as Dee Dee Jonrowe, an Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race competitor. Another subject is a pilot who owns an air-taxi service that takes people to mountain-climbing base camps." On this particular shoot, the photographs are of each athlete, depicted in an appropriate setting, wearing the clothing designed for that activity.
The creative part of Smith's job comes from selecting the photos that convey the maga-zine's image and reflect its personality. "We are a young, brash, 'full of ourselves' type of publication," she says. "We definitely don't have a National Geographic look or a Martha Stewart personality."
Recognizing Smith's professional expertise, Photography Annual selected her as one of six judges for its 1996 competition. "To be asked to be one of the judges was quite an honor," says Smith. "It was an excellent group of photographic work, and there were more submissions than they had ever had before."
Outside is publishing a book of photos in the fall for which Smith is writing the intro-duction. She is especially proud of the fact that the magazine won magazine publishing's most coveted honor (given by the American Society of Magazine Editors), the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, two years in a row. "As proof of the magazine's long-standing commitment to excellence," she says, "1997 also marked the fifteenth straight year in which Outside either received or was nominated for National Magazine Awards, a distinction no other publication can match."
"The magazine is more than just a job to me," says Smith. "Photography, and the visual world in general, retains a strong hold on my life."
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