By Scott Robertson
Larry Smith has witnessed virtually every important public event at East Tennessee State University for the last 37 years. And because Smith has watched the life of the university through the viewfinder of a camera, he has allowed thousands of others to see the university from his perspective.
Smith sat down with News & Neighbor to reflect on his time on campus after he announced his retirement from full-time work for the university last week.
Smith’s earliest interest in photography grew out of other activities, he remembered. “My involvement in athletics initially led me into photography,” Smith said. “That and travel.”
After playing baseball in high school and junior college, Smith joined the Air Force and was stationed in Turkey in 1973 and 1974. “I got a Mamiya/Sekor camera and learned how to use it,” he remembers. “If I wasn’t working or playing softball in Turkey, I was taking pictures.”
Upon returning to the States in December 1974, Smith knew he wanted to pursue a career in photography, and a friend recommended the program at ETSU.
Smith was among the top students in his class, though he remembers being just slightly ahead of several other students who could have gotten the position he’s held for more than 35 years.
“I started in 1978,” Smith said. “In March of 1979, the fellow that had followed Tom Daniel left and went back to newspaper work, so I came in on an interim basis. The timing was just right for me. I was hired full-time in July.”
Over the next three and a half decades, Smith oversaw the complete transition of photographic methodology at the university.
“Our methods are totally different now, from distribution to the way we shoot it, process it and edit it,” Smith said. “When I got here, we mainly shot black and white negatives and color slides.All our slides were sent out in little mailers to Kodak and we got them back in a week. We processed and printed our own black and white. Our standard was to print 16 5x7s for release. And from 1969 to 1985 or so, all of our archives are catalogued on index cards. It took till the mid-1990s to get the full database on computers.”
Then digital cameras came along, and by 2002, the university had entered the filmless age.
But while the technology has changed, the joy of the work has never diminished. A university as large and diverse as ETSU offers new opportunities every day, Smith said, from shooting NCAA basketball tournament games to shooting snowball fights at midnight.
“It can be anything,” he said.
“I’ve never been bored, ever. I’ve learned to enjoy things looking through a camera lens. In fact, if I’m not looking through one, I see all the shots that are in front of me. It’s hard to get away from that after doing it all this time.”
Time has given Smith the ability to see something else, too, he said. “I can see where God has been in control of my life. I can point to all these little patterns. Had it not been for that, none of this could possibly happen. God has led my life through the stages it went through. It’s worked out perfect for me.”
Smith’s retirement will take effect in a few days, and after a bit of time off with his children and grandchildren this summer, Smith will be back on campus in a part-time role in August.
He’s glad he’ll still be shooting for ETSU after his retirement, Smith said. “I’ve been blessed in this position to be able to do something I love so much for so long. I consider this the best job a photographer could have.”