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Read articles and learn more about the Cincinnati Chamber through our related news articles

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Recognize & Celebrate businesses & people

Great Living Cincinnatians: Honorees

Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.

C. Smith

Awarded In 2023

They say every picture tells a story. Well, for every picture he’s taken, C. Smith has a story. Smith takes photographs that feel alive. For more than seventy years, C. Smith has allowed people to see the world through his camera lens. He captures mood, expression, personality in a formula only he can create. His ability to understand the concepts of lighting, composition, and knowing exactly when to pull the trigger have allowed him to gain a national reputation.

Smith’s calling card has been capturing the intimacy of an instant, as signified by his tagline: “Your personal photographer.” Whether snapping a wedding or a miraculous moment in history, it was a sure bet the occasion would be told through the eyes of a master visual storyteller.

Raised in Cincinnati’s West End and Mt. Auburn neighborhoods, Smith was “raised in the Boys Club. My mother was a working mother, and when we got out of school, my sister went to the YWCA, and my brother and I went to the Boys Club.”

After attending Woodward High School for a year, he left to attend the Graphic Arts School of Photography and Printing, a trade school from which he graduated, with the initial intent of becoming a printer.

“We used to go to school for two weeks and work for two weeks,” said Smith. One of only three Black students, Smith found himself getting into scrapes with other kids. Smith channeled some of his energy at the time into boxing. His principal took him under his wing and gave him a copy of the book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ This book helped him temper his approach and to refine his conversations and relationships.

His path to photography started around the same time, in his early teens.

“I got involved in photography [through] Ed Coleman,” said Smith. “He was a freelance photographer who came to our house to take pictures for Christmas. I was really impressed with him and looking at his equipment. He asked me if I wanted a job working at his Super Speed Photographic studio.”

The studio was located in the Sterling Hotel – directly across the hall from the storied Cotton Club, Cincinnati’s only integrated nightclub at the time. Smith was tasked with sweeping up the studio and doing grunt work, but he was captivated by the dark room.

“I would look over [Coleman’s wife] shoulder in the dark room and watch the film being developed,” said Smith. “She had pictures of Duke Ellington and all the celebrities that came inside the Cotton Club.”

Smith didn’t know it then, but one day in the not-too-distant future, he would be the one taking photographs of famous people. His mother, Rosie Mae Smith, bought him his first camera, a Ricohflex. He found the camera to be his access point for visually telling stories.

He went on to create his own publication, Ghetto Magazine, and his work was featured in several national Black publications. After many years working for General Electric, taking pictures on the side, Smith opened C. Smith Studio in 1981 to pursue photography full-time.

Perhaps his greatest calling card is the photos Smith made of people from all walks of life. The list of individuals who have posed for photos, or allowed him access to take candid shots, includes politicians, clergy, sports figures, entertainers, activists, singers, and musicians. Smith photographed and chronicled the 1960s riots of the Civil Rights movement. He photographed the peacefulness of the Dalai Lama and the quiet spirit of Martin L. King, Jr.  He captured the flair of Muhammad Ali and the fire of James Brown.

“I shot three presidents!” Smith said with a laugh.

Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were all among his subjects. His photography attests to his amazing ability to view scenes at a level deep enough for the viewer, to not just see, but to feel, what is being depicted.

Smith was also engaged to take business photographs, including capturing the opening ceremony of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2003. He chronicled the building of Paul Brown Stadium (now PayCor Stadium). A recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, which includes the Greater Cincinnati Urban League recognizing Smith as one of its Glorifying the Lions award winners in 2008. The African American Chamber Greater of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky inducted him in its inaugural 2015 Black Business Hall of Fame class.

In 2017, his work was displayed in three separate exhibits, comprising over 200 images, throughout the main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Life has afforded him an abundance of blessings, he says, and Smith uses his trademark expression, “better than good”, as a shorthand for the physical, mental and emotional manifestation of his luck – and hard work. So it is, too, with being named a Great Living Cincinnatian.

“I feel very humbled; and I feel very grateful that someone would look at me, and the body of work that I’ve accumulated over the years, and see its worth and want to recognize me for it,” said Smith.

Nominate a Great Living Cincinnatian

Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization