Smith was educated at at Metairie Park Country day school, where he was a star athlete. Smith earned a BA in English (1968) and did graduate studies (1968-70) at Tulane University, New Orleans.
In 1969 he covered the jazz funeral of the drummer Paul Barbarin - this event, he said, inspired him to focus on documenting black New Orleans culture. From then on until his retirement in 2004, Smith dedicated his life to photographing the music, funerals, parades, clubs, churches, bars, brothels and festivals of the city's working-class black communities. Since 1974 he has been a staff photographer for Black Star Publishing Company.
Although Smith focused on black New Orleans, he undertook all manner of commercial photography to help pay the bills. In 1977 he was a co-founder of Tipitina's, a now legendary New Orleans music venue.
Smith published five books including A Joyful Noise: A Celebration of New Orleans Music (1990), New Orleans Jazz Fest: A Pictorial History (1991), and Mardi Gras Indians (1994).
He had two daughters, Jan and Leslie.