“It’s strange”, says Rodney Smith, “The 1800s was the century of the mining industry, and a time when humanity was hardly the centre of attention, but when art paid homage to beauty. Today it seems like the American and Western cultures are rooted in indifference, detachment and squalor. I want people to see the beautiful, pleasant and amusing things in life instead.”
Rodney Smith always photographs in black & white. The style is sophisticated, often with a hint of Magritte, and his compositions are built on the classical world of symmetry and balance. His foremost sources of photographic inspiration are Eugene Smith, Robert Doisneau, Dorothea Lange, Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Henri Cartier-Bresson, but he also feels drawn towards the old masters Rafael, Rembrandt and Vermeer.
To devote his life to photography was never an obvious choice of career for Smith. His father had founded the fashion company ‘Anne Klein’, and much of family life revolved around fashion. But for a long while, Smith openly rejected everything the fashion industry stood for. He sought a deeper meaning to life and philosophised constantly about existential questions. As a consequence of his searching, he started theological studies at the University of Virginia. He continued later on at Yale Divinity School where he took a degree in Theology. It was during his time at Yale that Smith took notice of photography. “I often visited the large exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and realised that photography could become my way of expressing all the feelings I had inside me.”
The famous photographer Walker Evans, who was also a professor at Yale, was the one who laid the foundations for Smith’s photographic education. “The training was classical right through. We only photographed in black & white and always with available light. I work the same way today. I even use the same type of film and same cameras.”
Smith has never really taken any notice of what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’. He strictly follows his inner convictions, but his uncompromising attitude has sometimes made life troublesome. “It was hard-going in the seventies to emphatically decline assignments because I wouldn’t photograph in color.”
Smith always works with the minimum of equipment; a tripod and some cameras (normally Hasselblad). There are rarely any lamps as he mostly only works with available light. The results are delivered as exclusive original prints, never as negatives or transparencies. “My ambition is to do a good and meaningful job, and that is something I am very particular about. I develop and print by hand following a carefully worked-out procedure, to produce the perfect result. The quality of the final print is very important to me. It is the consequence of everything I have done and I see it as a work of art.”
Smith can today include himself amongst the foremost art, advertising and fashion photographers in New York. The real breakthrough came in 1987, when Smith was asked to do the annual accounts report for Heinz. It won several graphic and photographic prizes and Smith thereby entered the commercial world. A few years later he finally allowed the fashion world to enter his life and the circle was complete.
Rodney Smith is represented by, amongst others, the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston. He has also produced two books ‘The Hat Book’ and ‘In the Land of Light’. A third book is now under production entitled ‘Sur-realisme’. A list of his commercial clients includes Merrill Lynch, Metropolitan Life, IBM, BMW, American Express, New York City Ballet, Morgan Stanley, Bergdorf, Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Ralph Lauren and Ellen Tracy.
“It perhaps sounds a little old-fashioned,” says Smith, “but my success is completely due to hard work and continual perseverance. I am very meticulous and look for beauty in the details. Some people might call this obsessive but I think it should be called normal.”