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Harford Magazine

Sports photographer of Forest Hill catches waves during height of pandemic

Patrick Smith’s sports photographs have captured stellar moments in the lives of athletes, from quarterback Tom Brady celebrating his reflection in the Super Bowl trophy to sprinter Usain Bolt cuddling his final Olympic medal. Smith’s pictures have won numerous awards, chronicled championship events from the World Series to soccer’s World Cup, and inspired readers around the world.

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The pandemic triggered a timeout. Two years ago, the COVID-19 virus interrupted sports and idled Smith, of Forest Hill. A photographer for Getty Images — an international photo wire agency — he mulled his future.

“My work dried up. There was a real fear that things would never return and we’d lose our jobs,” he said. “I thought, what am I going to do with my career?”

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As a child, he’d loved going to the beach at Ocean City, Md. He wondered: to tide him over, why not photograph the sea?

“Swimming has always been my peace, a place to recharge my batteries,” he said. “With sports stopped, I sought an outlet, and if I could combine my love of the sea with my passion for photography. ... "

He bought a wet suit, swim fins and a $1,500 waterproof camera cover and, in July, 2020, took the plunge at OC amid seven-foot swells and surfers. For Smith, 35, it was a Kodak moment.

“My first time in the water, with a camera, I was completely in love,” he said. “I swam and drifted and shot pictures of empty waves. The adrenaline kicked in; I was instantly hooked. It was an itch that needed to be scratched.”

For days at a time, Smith hung out at the beach, buoyed by his newfound interest. He posted his pictures on social media and connected with surfers who liked them, so different from his better-known stuff.

“In my line of work, there’s a real pressure to ‘get the shot,’ whether it’s at the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500 or the final putt at the Master’s [golf tournament],” he said. “That pressure is so real and so heavy that, sometimes, it sucks the fun out of what you’re doing. But when I’m in the ocean, there’s no pressure. It’s real, it’s raw, it touches all five of my senses — and there’s no expectation to deliver a picture.”

There’s no routine to shooting the ocean, Smith said, no sameness to the craft.

“Some days I can just stand in [a bit] of water; other times I’m 30 feet offshore and neck deep,” he said. “Each wave is different. There are times when one pulls you under and you tumble about like you’re in a washing machine. Then there are days when the waves are so small that people laugh at me, saying, ‘Look at that guy shooting waves as big as my hand.’ But there’s a beauty to that, too, because the clarity of the [calmer] water changes.”

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Come winter, Smith stood pat.

“I’ve swam with my camera when the [air] temperature was in the 20s, wearing gloves and booties,” he said. “The salt water keeps your eyebrows from freezing.

“I’ve been out there before dawn, in the bitter cold, with the whole world in front of me. It’s a magical, incredible feeling to get into the frigid water and watch the sun rise on the horizon, knowing that you have the entire place to yourself with [a visage] that no one else can see the beauty of.”

No one but the dolphins cavorting around him, the seagulls and pelicans trolling for fish and a solitary fox peering out with curiosity from behind a sand dune.

The panorama, Smith said, “makes me aware of how the ocean needs to be clean — and how we might preserve it.”

He has stayed true to the shore since sports returned and his paying job beckoned.

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“Not a day goes by that I don’t check surf reports for Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach [Del.], wishing that I could escape for a day,” he said. “I’ve never stopped wanting to be in the water every single waking moment. My biggest dream is to swim with my camera when there’s snow on the beach, but my work comes first.”

Of the more than one million images Smith has taken, the one that hangs above his living room couch is that of a swirling ocean current — though it looks more like a picture of the cosmos.

“It’s an early-morning shot of a barrel wave,” he said. “It reminds me that, as tough as life can get, there is serenity.”

Danger, too. Once, bowled over by a huge wave, he felt a sharp pain in his hand. The leash on his camera, attached to his wrist, had caught and broke two of his fingers.

“I almost passed out on the way to the hospital,” he said. He wore a cast, up to his elbow, for six weeks. He still waded in:

“Nothing could stop me from chasing down the beauty of the ocean.”

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In February, he attended the Winter Games in Beijing, his third Olympics. His prior work featured offbeat pictures, like that of a runner breathing hard before her race while standing before a footwear ad. In Smith’s photo, she appeared to be exhaling a Nike swoosh.

During the 2020 Summer Games in Japan (held a year later due to COVID-19), he captured a gymnast performing a somersault in front of a banner bearing a “Tokyo” logo. Though the athlete’s body blocked the letter T, his midair twist made a perfect replica.

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“Serendipitous moments happen,” he said. “I do what I do for the rush that you get in shooting something totally unique that comes together for a split second. I’m chasing the perfect picture, but ... who knows if I’ll ever find it?”

A Towson University graduate, Smith has been honored by both Pictures of the Year International and the White House News Photographers Association, and was part of the Getty news team whose photos of Baltimore’s unrest following Freddie Gray’s death made them finalists for a 2016 Pulitzer Prize. (Smith’s entry: a picture of armored military vehicles rumbling down one side of the street in Sandtown-Winchester while, down the other, a youth on a bicycle pops a wheelie).

“My antennae are always up,” he said. “Even when I’m at home with the kids, they know that daddy’s going to have a camera in his hand.”

At the beach, that’s a given.

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“I’m always chasing that high, whether I’m at the ocean, with my family or at the world’s biggest sporting event,” he said. “That high is a picture that fills me up — and I’m not easy to please.”

Frustration, Smith said, comes with the job:

“There are days when you’re ready to slam the camera to the ground; then you come away with a picture that completely humbles you and makes you realize that you’re hopelessly in love with what you do.”


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