Denzel Washington

Throw Back Thursday - The Lena Horne Story

Welcome to my very first throwback Thursday post, which will now be devoted to sharing stories, lessons and inspiring thoughts from past photo shoots. Today we kick off throwback Thursday with a story about the late-great actress, Lena Horne.

In the late 90’s I began working on a project that would become my first book, Sepia Dreams.  I had big dreams for the book and made a wish list of people whom I wanted to include. The list included Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Quincy Jones, Denzel Washington and more. I sent each person on my list an invitation to be a part of the project and followed up often to schedule a time to speak. Being persistent was key, and it was an all-consuming task, but thanks to two good friends, Darlene Gillard and Nicole Friday, we were able to maintain our sanity and pull the project together.

I remember getting the chance to speak on the phone with Sidney Poitier. and he said, “I liked the idea of the project but my book has just been released and I just don’t have the time,” and graciously declined. I sent a package to Lena Horne and received a very nice rejection message from her manager as well, but she stayed on my mind as I continued to work on Sepia Dreams.

Throughout the project many of my subjects, like Halle Berry and Eriq La Salle, referred to Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier as inspirations during their childhood. Lena and Sidney were mentioned so many times I felt compelled to approach them again. I sent another package with segments from interviews in which people mentioned Lena and Sidney, and I included these segments in my package to them.

One day I was at home editing images and listening to interviews when my home phone rang. I picked up the received and a voice said, “Okay sugar, I’m ready for my interview.” It was Lena Horne and I was in a state of shock. She had received my package and in that moment decided to be a part of the book. The lesson I learned that day was to always be persistent and no matter what to believe in your dreams.

Lena Horne Photographed By Matthew Jordan Smith Copyright © 1996 All Rights Reserved

Lena Horne Photographed By Matthew Jordan Smith Copyright © 1996 All Rights Reserved


I will never forget Lena’s voice as I interviewed her on the phone that day or the photo shoot, which was shot originally for Essence magazine. Both days were magical and forever etched into my mind.


Believe in your dreams and never stop working to make them a reality.


Always Dream Big


The Definition of Success

Today I did an interview and was asked a question that always seems to come up in interviews - “when did you know you’d made it?” The funny thing is, I always feel like I am still in the process of “making it.” Whenever I’m asked that question I think back to the day I spent interviewing Samuel L. Jackson for my first book Sepia Dreams.


Mr. Jackson was shooting the movie Shaft at the time and I was doing the interview in his trailer. I asked him the same question that I was asked today, “When did you know you’d made it?” Samuel responded saying, “well success is a funny thing because it has different stages at different times in your career. When I first started out I had success and I struggled, but I never worried about whether or not it was worth it. When I wasn’t acting, I was building sets and hanging lights and doing something in the theater. I was around when Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Wesley Snipes were breaking out and becoming stars. At the time, I wasn’t getting a lot of acting work. I went through a kind of depression for a while, but then it occurred to me that the work is what makes me happy. It never occurred to me to quit. From early on, it was instilled in me that it was about the work and not the result of the work. It didn’t matter if I was a big star or not, I just wanted to do great work. Everybody wants things to happen at the exact time that they want them to. But I’ve always been very accepting of what going on around me. I wasn’t trying to be a movie star, or to be famous, or to be anything way before it was supposed to happen, I was just trying to be an actor.


I remember the week Spike Lee’s, Do The Right Thing opened. I was walking down the street in New York with one of the main actors in the movie, Bill Nunn who plays Radio Raheem in the movie. People were stopping him and asking for his autograph but didn’t notice me. They just didn’t recognize me from the movie, and the first scene in the movie is my character opening the movie as the DJ.  Years later, my family was on vacation in Italy, we were walking around the Vatican with the other tourist, and a priest stopped us and said, ”Oh my God! It’s Samuel L. Jackson.” The reality of success is actually a lot bigger then the dream. Your career will lead you to all kinds of things that you can’t predict.”


Today I feel the same way Samuel Jackson felt after doing the movie, Do The Right Thing, but like he said to me that day, it’s not about the result of the work, it’s about loving the work you do. I love photography through all its ups and downs. It’s a difficult decision to decide to become an artist, but if you make that decision make sure you love the craft because it’s the love of your craft and enjoying the work that will define success for you. 


Always Dream Big