Courtesy of Dennis Quinn
As editors, we are only as good as the people we draw on to bring life to our stories. One of the best was James Smolka (above), a photographer who brought his distinctive eye to these pages over the last few years. He died on March 27 in New York City of pancreatic cancer. He was 39.
Whenever we assigned Smolka a shoot, we knew he would return with pictures that were, like him, warm and smart. But that’s not to say he didn’t surprise us. We would often try to imagine beforehand what his stories would look like, but the photos were never what we expected. No matter; they were so good that we didn’t care.
Smolka’s first pictures for Discover appeared in the May 2001 issue, with an article about a scientist who promoted the idea of eating only foods grown within 250 miles of his home. Other Discover assignments included articles on savants, artificial sight, bee research (during which Smolka endured multiple stings), and finally, in the July 2003 issue last year, an article on human pheromones.
Smolka did not start out to be a photographer. Born and raised in rural Michigan, he studied the trumpet at the Berklee College of Music in Boston for several years. Then he began doing fashion shoots. Before long he turned to portraiture and landscapes (his real passion). He’d frequently tack on a few days at either end of an assignment—no matter where it was—just to explore landscapes and photograph them. The world this photographer saw was both the same world everyone saw and a world no one else saw, a world you’d never quite see the same way again.
An editor once said, “I hope someday to write as well as the people I edit.” That’s the way we felt when opening a package of Smolka’s pictures.