An Imagined World

The magic of the photographic medium truly comes alive when the photographer lets the viewer into his imagined world. One of the few names who balance the act of storytelling and technical perfection is no other than Rodney Smith, whose highly successful career has lasted more than 45 years. His carefully crafted yet spontaneous, whimsical compositions are often seen as a nod to Surrealism, while combining humor and elegance in the most timeless manner.

Rodney Smith, Woman With Chihuahua On Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, CA, 1998
Rodney Smith, Woman with Chihuahua on Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, CA, 1998

An Education

Rodney Smith was born in New York in 1947 to a wealthy New York fashion executive. He first received his Bachelor degree in Divinity of Theology from University of Virginia, and later studied Photography at Yale University, under esteemed Walker Evans. A true devotee of film photography, his work reflects a keen understanding of the relationship between film and natural light. Seldom shooting in color, Smith’s black and white photography offers sharp highlights and deep shadows, and features playful models in graceful locations. Throughout his career, Smith’s photographs have been featured in numerous magazines including TIME, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In addition to personal work, he has also produced commercial work for for BMW, Ralph Lauren, American Express, IBM and Heinz.

Rodney Smith, Man With Canoe On Head, Saranac, New York, 1994
Rodney Smith, Man with Canoe on Head, Saranac, New York, 1994

A Perfectionist

Rodney Smith is certainly a perfectionist. Although he would let himself be spontaneous during the actual shoot, the preparation and location scouting leading up to the shoot as well as his times spent in the darkroom were critical to the photographer. While commenting on the influence of landscape and locations in his images, Smith said.

“I do not have preconceived or preordained ideas. The location is the key in which I compose in. Once I find the location, everything sort of falls into place for me. It’s the location that drives all the pictures.”

Rodney Smith, Zoe Balancing Teapot on Head, Burden Mansion, New York, NY, 2006
Rodney Smith, Zoe Balancing Teapot on Head, Burden Mansion, New York, NY, 2006

A Surrealist

The images often feature minimal props, yet the location and composition give them a sort of Alice in Wonderland aura, reflecting Smith’s whimsical, imagined, gracefully humorous and elegant world. He was known to never preview the shot with a polaroid, allowing his instinct and spontaneity to take lead during the actual shoot. Smith often achieves his signature, gentle, and surely unmistakable nod to surrealism with an exceptional play on perspective and scale.

Rodney Smith, Viktoria through Clock, Rhinebeck, New York, 2011
Rodney Smith, Viktoria through Clock, Rhinebeck, New York, 2011

Careful Compositions

In his photograph, Victoria Through Clock, Rheinbeck, New York, for example, the model is through a clock as if she is a miniature doll living inside the imaginary world of that very clock, with arms as the hour and minute hands. The design and symmetry are central to the shot, complimenting Smith’s razor sharp eye. He would say,

“Composition in photography is like rhythm is in music.”

Rodney Smith, Don Jumping Over Hay Roll, No. 1, Monkton, MD, 1999
Rodney Smith, Don Jumping Over Hay Roll, No. 1, Monkton, MD, 1999

Another example of his emphasis on composition is Don Jumpin Over Hay Roll No.1, Monkton, MD.  Don, his subject is pictured up in the air, jumping on a hay roll in a field, as if hanging in the air, and time has stood still at that very moment. It is one of photography’s great challenges to perfectly capture a moment in motion, yet Smith’s photograph creates a timeless feel as if his character is suspended in a moment.

An Optimist

As much as he is a perfectionist, Rodney Smith is also an optimist. His images reveal and build characters, inviting the viewer to a world far from ordinary, one that is filled with curiosity and humor. Speaking of the overall feel in his photography, Smith says;

“Today, a great deal of Western culture seems rooted in remoteness, anger, alienation and squalor. I want people to see the beauty and whimsy in life, not its ugliness. I feel the need to reach out for its soul, its depth, and its underlying beauty. I represent a world that is possible if people act their best. It’s a world that’s slightly beyond reach, beyond everyday experience, but it’s definitely not possible.”

Rodney Smith, Saori and Jimmy Drinking from a Coconut, Dominican Republic, 2010, Archival Pigment Photograph
Rodney Smith, Saori and Jimmy Drinking from a Coconut, Dominican Republic, 2010, Archival Pigment Photograph

Photographs such as Edyth and Andrew Kissing on Top of Taxis, New York, NY or Saori and Jimmy Drinking From a Coconut, Dominican Republic surely have an instant uplifting spirit of the viewer, with bright colors and locations that celebrate life. Writer and curator, Jonathan Stuhlman says,

“In Smith’s enchanted world, balance produces beauty, laughter and capricious dances of the hand, and things are not always what they seem. The photographs offer a perfect blend of dream and reality.”

The Epitome of Whimsy

Perhaps the epitome of whimsy, the photography of Rodney Smith, often referencing the school of Surrealism, offers the viewer fantastical stories and narratives that find order within chaos. His sharp eye, illuminating the subjects with natural light in wondrous locations, offers a glimpse to his own world of spontaneity and discovery. The element of surprise was always present in his images, in ways that any other photographer perhaps could not have created. Never retouched, Smith paid additional importance to the process of creating a photograph in the darkroom. His work continues to be a strong reference for image makers and is shown in major international museums and galleries.