Eyes Wide Shut
Gerald Kollodge, the studio manager and creative assistant at Chuck Smith Photography, remembers working on an assignment with his boss several years ago. "Chuck was shooting some jewelry for Dayton Hudson's," Kollodge recalls. "It's very close-up work, and you have to get your face in real close to the merchandise." In the middle of the shoot, however, the assistant realized that something was gravely amiss. "Every few minutes, Chuck's head would bob and he'd knock his chin against the table."
Smith was falling asleep. It was more than a simple fluttering of drowsy eyelids. He was experiencing deep, REM-level sleep. In a matter of seconds, Smith's imagination could produce dreams that seemed to have lasted for hours.
Since launching his studio in the Twin Cities in 1993, Smith has earned a widespread reputation as a tireless, top-notch photographer. The 37-year-old has cultivated a client roster that includes some of the largest companies in the Midwest -- Dayton's, Jostens, and Carmichael Lynch. Even while putting in 60- to 70-hour work weeks to get his business off the ground, the photographer still found time for private projects: photographing nudes; running the World Timecapsule Fund, a nonprofit educational organization he founded in 1986; entering (and winning) various photo competitions and showcases. Local queers know him through his work: Smith shot the guy with the unbelievable solar plexus for the Solar Party ads and photographed the divinely chiseled torso in the "You are a god" poster for the Minnesota AIDS Project. Target stores are festooned with images spun directly out of his studio. Smith never comes to a stop. He's a blond blur. And yet, the photographer confesses, "At the back of my mind there was always this same feeling: I wanted to sleep forever."
"We thought it was just a symptom of stress or overwork," says Kollodge, recalling the Dayton Hudson shoot. But two years ago, Smith realized that his struggle to stay alert was something more than the occupational hazard of building a new business. "All my life, I had been living in two worlds. Two separate realities," he says. His high-school friends in Sheboygan, Wis., dubbed him "spacey." The nickname was also related to Smith's fondness for the original Lost In Space, Star Trek, The Jetsons, and the weird, sci-fi special-effects films he created with his trusty Bell & Howell Silent Super 8. In the 11th grade, he won an award for a photo he created with himself bursting out of a giant egg, facedown in a stream of yolk, a hammer in his lifeless hand. "My mother hated it," Smith says.
After consulting with several doctors and specialists, Smith was finally diagnosed with narcolepsy. "It's not the kind where you fall asleep uncontrollably," says Smith, "while you're eating or driving a car. That's an extreme form of the sickness called catalepsy."
Smith used to experience what he calls "mini-sleeps." He explains: "The technical term is hypnagogic hallucination. I could be driving the car, blink my eyes, and remember a dream that lasted just seconds, but seemed to last an hour." At the office, Kollodge recalls Smith putting down the phone after a detailed conversation with an art director and then saying, "I don't remember a thing that was said." "That's when I started handling the calendar," the assistant says with a grin.
Smith stays awake these days with a drug used to treat Parkinson's disease called Eldapryl. "He is a totally different person," says Kollodge, who also used to be Smith's boyfriend. Smith concurs: "My memory, my speech, my alertness is all much clearer."
Bright, exuberant, bubbling over with new ideas and projects, Smith is now able to joke about his double-sided consciousness. "Waking reality is not a place where I have spent a lot of time," he quips. These days, most of his time is spent at his studio, a two-story loft space in the Kickernick Building on First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. The first floor is where the images are shot with the help of Smith's right-hand photo assistant, Mike Canfield. The second floor (reached by a metal staircase and a spiral slide salvaged from an old jungle-gym) is half office, half pied-à-terre. The spiffy kitchen came in handy when hosting a party for Homo Heights star Quentin Crisp. A work area for matting, mounting, and framing produced the array of black-and-white nudes and semi-clothed hunks that grace the rough stone walls. First-time visitors to the studio are often transfixed by the huge, masterful collage of more than 20 separate prints jigsawed together to reveal the blazing Temple of Abu Simbel, the famed architectural wonder of four gigantic seated pharaohs that was relocated brick by brick to escape a new dam and reservoir on the Nile River. "Gerald and I took a trip to Egypt several years ago," says Smith. They even spent a night in the Great Pyramid with a small tourist group interested in metaphysics: Each took a turn laying in the 4,000-year-old sarcophagus of Cheops himself, staring up at 2 million tons of limestone.
When not meeting deadlines or talking with art directors, Smith plays wallyball every Wednesday night with a group of old friends. "Chuck is a fanatic about the game," says Dave Meyer, Smith's partner of two and a half years. The two men, both wallyball devotees, share a condo in St. Louis Park. Meyer, a commercial designer and store planner with Target, is the fellow who put the 1950s gas pumps in front of Runkel Bros. at the Mall of America. "Life is busy for the two of us right now," Smith concedes. "But I definitely see a dachshund in our future."
Taking pictures is Smith's oldest love. "Showing slides and home movies was a part of family get-togethers when I was growing up," he says. "Now it's become my passion. I love both the commercial and the artistic sides. Photography is a way of not just capturing reality, but also restructuring reality." (Maybe that explains the boy facedown in the egg yolk.) Besides working on a new lifestyle-design campaign for Target and a packaging-design project for Dayton's Marketplace, Smith is busily starting up his own product line called Poof. "I like to think we've reinvented the greeting card," Smith says of the exquisite fold-outs of parchment and vellum that he calls "Conversational Greetings." Dave Meyer's musculature actually appears on one of the fold-outs.
Smith also has a line of medium-sized art books slyly named "Nocturnal Editions." For several years, he has worked on a larger book, Moments of Clarity, which has East Coast publishing houses making generous noises. The book is not your typical collection of black-and-white beefcake. "I certainly don't mind shooting beefcake," says Smith. He has been shooting nudes since 1992, about the same time he came out as gay. "I enjoy looking at a great set of pecs as much as any gay man," he says. "But the physical body is just one half of our lives. Moments is about living in two realities." Which is why many of the pictures show men half in- and out-of-focus. The suggestive blurs reveal the less tangible aspects of human nature.
"I don't think I approach nudes differently compared to a straight artist," says Smith. "Except when it comes to shooting male couples." The duos in his photos have to be real couples, not just hired models. "I want the feelings to be honest."
Smith used his same technique of off-focus, overlapping images for his lyrical short film about gay romance, Once Again, which premiered at the Walker Center's 1997 Love Bash, and has since toured festivals in Montreal, Sacramento, and Turin, Italy. "Photography as art is about connecting with people. It's a language of emotions." And not all emotions have clear-cut edges or distinct shadows. Living in two states of consciousness has given Smith a definite slant on his perception of reality. "When I was growing up, I believed I was always awake," he says. "I thought some of my narcoleptic dreams were real. Who's to say that there isn't another reality beyond our so-called waking consciousness. Maybe we all need to wake up."
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