Kaitlyn Jo Smith didn’t believe the email when she saw it. There it was, a message congratulating her as a grand-prize winner in the annual PDNedu Student Photo Contest. The contest, in its 13th year, was open to high school and college student photographers; judges included Michelle Bogre of Parsons School of Design, Emily Keegin of The Fader magazine and Everard Williams of Acuity Press.
Smith, 21, a senior photography major with a minor in fine arts, was familiar with the magazine — she’d picked up copies at school — and had decided to submit her work the day before the contest deadline. As the months passed, she forgot she’d entered.
So when Smith received the surprise email in March, it took a moment for the Sycamore, Ohio, native to process the news. “I didn’t want to let myself think it was real,” Smith says. “So I went into class and asked my professor to read the email and tell me if I was allowed to be excited or not. And she was like, ‘no, this has happened!’ — then I believed it.”
Smith’s submission, In Green Pastures, won the Travel/Landscape category and features photographs taken last spring during a trip to Ireland. Her stay in the Emerald Isle came as part of “The Mythic Irish Landscape,” a semester-long class taught by Jeannine Kraft that had Smith and CCAD classmates studying Ireland, its history and the visual art it has inspired. On arriving, the students explored its countryside, its architecture and breathtaking geographic features — plus access to studios and space at the Burren College of Art.
“Those two weeks in-country were 110% just making and exploring. I didn’t have to spend time in the classroom, I could be outside — which is why I was so drawn to that program, anyway, because I’m not a city person,” Smith says. “I was so excited that CCAD offered something a lot more rural that allowed me to be outside, exploring my surroundings.”
Smith shot and shot and shot, taking photos of everything she saw. “I was so overwhelmed by this place I’d never been, and I just shot continuously,” she says. In late summer, she started sorting through the images. “I credit that trip to being the start of me figuring out what my style as a photographer is,” Smith says. “From that, on through this year, my work has changed so drastically.” The experience in Ireland helped her develop an approach that sees her decluttering the frame, honing in on the subject and creating an image that is minimal and graphic, but soft.
“Everything I’ve done this year really does start with that trip to Ireland,” says Smith, whose senior thesis work, The Seventh Day, will be on view in the Byers Gallery in Design Studios on Broad starting Monday, April 25.
In the meantime, there’s the future to think of. Smith’s PDNedu prize package includes a portfolio consultation with a photography expert. “Winning this came at a good time for me,” she says. “It’s not that I’m super confident with everything now, but with graduation coming up, it’s nice to feel like I have a little bit of a foot in the door.”
After graduation, Smith, who also teaches dance, says she plans on staying in Columbus, working and pursuing her interest in fine art photography. She hopes to go to grad school, and would like to support her artmaking with a position teaching college students. Says Smith, “I like the idea of people coming with raw passion and just being able to help them achieve their goals. I had such a good experience with pretty much all of my professors in undergrad, especially in the photography department, and I would love to be that for someone else.”