If there was the time when the world needed Rodney Smith and his imagery, it would be now. Where else could we find such an exquisite balance of beauty and elegance, humour and wit. In Rodney’s work “things are not always what they seem” as if we were looking at a mirror of our own existence, a life of laughter and sadness, deep contemplation and magic.
With the kind help of his creative director and wife Leslie Smolan and archivist Patricia Barrett, we would like to showcase the incredible life work of Rodney Smith and tell the story of this remarkable man.
You can find the entire interview in the September edition of the Medium Format Magazine. Below please find some excerpts from this fascinating interview.
Where did he find his inspiration? What was one thing that motivated him the most?
Patricia: Rodney found his inspiration from a location. That was the most important thing to him. If he found a place that appealed to him, that was motivation enough. He could rest eas- ily, knowing he could make photographs.
Leslie: The other thing that motivated Rodney was light. He felt that light was what illumi- nated the world and made each moment different from the next. He’d say, “Even if you were standing in the same spot that Ansel Adams made one of his famous photographs, you could never take the same picture again, as the light, clouds, sky and wind would all be different.”
When scouting a location, he was searching for a place that would inspire him, a place where he knew he could make good pictures. It would need the right light and the right structural elements. Then he’d literally run away, not wanting to spoil the experience of the actual day of shooting. He never took Polaroids. He wasn’t mapping out the photograph beforehand. For him, there was nothing as exciting as the experience of making the photograph, being in the moment with his “actors” and assistants, playing and creating.
What is reflected in all his work is elegance and class. There is no retouching or any sort of digital manipulation. Why do you think it was so important to Rodney?
Patricia: Rodney mentioned to me several times that he didn’t become a photographer to be tethered to a computer or a studio. He wanted to interact with the world around him. To get close to people, to tell a story – these were things that got him excited. Retouching and manip- ulating an image felt artificial to him. That felt more like illustration and creating something a different way with different tools.
Even though Rodney’s imagery appears to be playful, his images ask much deeper questions about the human psyche including anxiety, fear and loneliness. Many of his beautifully crafted frames depict people with their faces covered or invisible as if he wanted to point us away from what’s outside and reveal more of what’s inside us. His visually rich and elegant imagery may well be the cleverest artistic endeavour concerning our human condition. Did Rodney ever talk about it with you?
Leslie: Rodney wanted to know if his anxiety was unique to him or just part of being human. So in order to know himself, he looked at others to help solve that mystery. When he met you, he wanted to know what made you tick. He’d ask about your daily rituals. How do you feel about yourself and, in particular, how do you feel about your mother and father? Rodney didn’t want to be polite or superficial. To him, the only conversation worth having was about the human psyche. He’d often quote Socrates, saying, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
I don’t know if it was intentional or just instinct to hide the face. He loved hats, as he felt they balanced out the figure. People just looked more balanced with a hat on their head. And with the prop, he could fool around. In some instances, the fashion client wanted to hide the mod- el’s face, because it was associated with a different clothing line. Putting a hat or a canoe over the face made the image funny. It also shows an evolution of the work. In the beginning, the models were shot as portraits, as pictures of a specific person. Later on, the models become more of the narrative, and their individual features were less important than the whole tab- leau.
Could you please describe Rodney’s most memorable and prominent photographic assignments?
SAORI ON SEAPLANE WING
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, 2010
This was an assignment for Leslie Smolan and Carbone Smolan Agency. She was creating a new resort brand for a client in the Dominican Republic. The photographs captured the spirit of the place before anything was built.
We got helicoptered into this remote beach for this photograph. We had two men manning a wind machine so we could have the wind blowing her dress. One had the wind machine strapped to his back and the other was holding him so he wouldn’t tip over. This image was shot moments before a heavy rainfall. You can see the contact sheet. One roll of film for this capture. That’s how Rodney shot. He knew when the picture felt right and didn’t waste film or time. He didn’t click the shutter unless it was how he wanted it.
How did Rodney interact with his corporate clients?
Leslie: My favourite story is when Rodney was hired to shoot a portrait of John Mack, the CEO of Morgan Stanley, for their annual report. Despite Rodney’s efforts, John insisted on being shot in the boardroom. So on the day of the shoot, they set up a chair for him near a window. There were 25 people on set, communications people, marketing people, PR people, secretaries, photo assistants, all gathered in anticipation. John Mack showed up an hour late, and was clearly annoyed. He looked at his watch and said to Roddy, “How long is this going to take?”
Rodney picked up his camera, pushed the shut- ter once, and said, “You’re done.” John Mack said, “What do you mean I’m done?”
“Well,” said Roddy, “you get out of it what you put into it. I took an adequate picture, which is fine for your annual report. You’re done.”
“OK,” said John Mack and got up and left. You can just imagine the silence. Crickets. Rodney packed up his gear and was standing near the elevator when John Mack’s secretary came running out and said, “Mr. Mack would like a word with you.”
They went back into his office and John Mack said, “I have a house, here, here and here. “Where do you want to take my picture?”
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Rodney Smith Photographs is being re-issued in soft cover on October 13th, 2020 and it includes a frameable fine art print. You can pre-order the book on Amazon.