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The Man Who Made Japan Say 'Cheese' : Smolan's Shots Seen 'Round the World

December 18, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Growing up in Cedar Grove, N. J., Rick Smolan was, by his own description, "the classic underachiever, D-minus average, totally shy. I'd sit in class and daydream about being Superman." Then he discovered photography and "with a camera in my hands I all of a sudden felt like Superman."

The same Rick Smolan, who at 35, graces the pages of the current Esquire magazine as one of 116 "Men and Women Under 40 Who Are Changing the Nation"?

Smolan winced just a bit at the accolade. "The only word I can really live with," he said, "is catalyst. I'm a bit unfocused."

Latest Coup

Perhaps, but consider the latest coup by Rick Smolan, Superman: Masterminding a $3.5-million project that brought 100 of the world's outstanding photojournalists to Japan on June 7 of last year to photograph that enigmatic country, her Kentucky Colonels and her kabukis, for "A Day in the Life of Japan," the stunning book that rolled off color presses in Tokyo only six months after Smolan and partner David Cohen said yes to what they sensed was a crazy proposal.

And they did it their way--that is to say, without investing either their money or that of Collins Publishers. The project was totally underwritten, either with cash or in-kind services, by American Express International, Kodak, Japan Air Lines, Tokyo Hilton International, Apple Computer and Olympus Cameras, all of which agreed to Smolan and Cohen's terms: No sponsor would have any editorial control or right of censorship.

'Warts and All'

Smolan, who first tested his format in 1981 with the self-published "A Day in the Life of Australia" and subsequently gathered his photographic elite together for 24 hours in Hawaii and in Canada (the only effort he views in retrospect as "boring") is adamant that the books show a country "warts and all. We're not doing a public relations effort for the country" and, he emphasized, these are not just pretty travel books.

Sending the photographers forth in the land of Mt. Fuji, geishas and kimonos, Smolan suggested that he would be pleased not to have them return with pictures of any of these, which he viewed as cliches. So what happened? Jodi Cobb of National Geographic came back with a geisha picture so compelling it wound up as the book's cover. And Smolan himself contributed a shot of Mt. Fuji, taken from a helicopter.

Smolan can live with those choices, made by a team of picture editors who sifted through 135,000 slides to select the fewer than 300 that could be included in the book. The geisha, he said, was so extraordinary that it was the unanimous cover choice. And Mt. Fuji? He reasoned that "it's a little unfair to do a book about Japan and leave that out. In Australia, I left out koala bears because most people have no contact with them. But many Japanese climb Mt. Fuji before they die."

But lest there be a thought that "A Day in the Life of Japan" is merely a 240-page, $40 picture post card, the editors' choices include too a graveyard in a coal town where 62 miners died this year in an explosion, a pair of topless female sumo wrestlers in a beer garden, a bag lady sleeping outside a fashionable Tokyo shop and the distorted bodies of victims of mercury poisoning from industrial dumping in the Bay of Minamata.

If "A Day in the Life of . . . " is a brilliant concept it is not, budding entrepreneur Rick Smolan acknowledges, an entirely original one. He and Cohen merely refined it.

Smolan, an ingratiating young man who, with his long hair, drooping mustache and steel-rimmed glasses has been described as a "sunny Manchu," was recalling over dinner on a recent rainy Los Angeles night walking into Time-Life offices one day a decade ago in hopes of being hired for Life's planned "A Day in the Life of America" photo essay.

He was then just out of college (Dickinson in Carlisle, Pa.) and, "afraid to leave the nest," was hanging around Carlisle, taking the college yearbook pictures, the football team, shots for the hometown newspaper.

"I loved the idea of the one-day thing," he said, so he summoned his courage and, "shaking," approached Life bearing his portfolio. To that time, his free-lance credits included such spectaculars as two Philadelphia policemen beside a flying saucer--an assignment from the National Enquirer. "It was so obvious that the two of them had sat around on the beat and made this mockup," he said. And that's what he told the Enquirer, by which he was subsequently let go. "I wasn't respectful enough toward all those weirdos," he concluded.

A Desperate Man

What he was told by the receptionist at Life was, essentially, "The elevator's over there." But, walking toward that elevator, the man who dreamed of being Superman remembered "whenever I saw this scene in a movie the hero always did something ." Smolan, reasoning that the receptionist was bored with her job, decided to show her his pictures. Just then a staff photographer wandered by and, impressed, summoned his picture editor.

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