Rodney Smith

Profile Rodney Smith

© Rodney Smith

“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 impossible.” – Rodney Smith

─── by Josh Bright, March 29, 2024
  • One of the most uniquely creative photographers of the 20th century, Rodney Smith dedicated himself to crafting beautiful, surreal images that transport viewers into another realm.

    black and white fine art photo by Rodney Smith

    Born in New York in 1947, Rodney Lewis Smith discovered an interest in photography during his childhood. While on vacation, his parents would leave him and his sister in the care of an older couple, one of whom was an amateur photographer and showed Smith how to use a darkroom. However, his strict parents didn’t support his creative endeavors, so he instead explored other avenues. He studied English and religious studies in college, but during his junior year, visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), specifically, the permanent collection of photography, which reignited his passion and, after finishing his undergrad, he minored in photography under the great Walker Evans while studying for a master’s degree in theology from Yale University.

    Like many young people, Smith grappled with finding meaning in life, often feeling he didn’t meet his parents’ expectations, and photography became his medium for self-expression. Describing himself as an ‘anxious loner,’ Smith found solace in capturing images, viewing it as a way to ‘reconcile the mundane with the ideal’ and to shift from observer to participant.

    In 1976, he completed a three-month fellowship in Jerusalem, where he captured vernacular images that bear the influence of his teacher, Evans. Though quite different from those images for which he is now known, the trip helped open his mind to new possibilities, and he subsequently traveled to the American South, Haiti, and Wales, three vastly different places, capturing penetrating portraiture and landscapes that began to reveal his distinct visual language.

    It was during this period that he honed the style that would become his trademark. Experimenting with different cameras, film, exposure, developer, and paper, he narrowed it down until he found his favorites, and spent countless hours in the darkroom, playing with light and tone.

    By the 1980s, his work began to catch the attention of commercial clients and publications. However, it was the release of  “The Hat Book” – a whimsical series of images contrasting workers in an 18th-century hat factory with hats as expressions of identity and fashion (co-authored with Leslie Smolan, creative director and his wife of three years at the time) – in 1993 that truly brought his work to global attention.

    This newfound recognition resulted in editorial commissions for leading fashion and lifestyle magazines, including The New York Times, W Magazine, Vanity Fair, Departures, and New York Magazine, as well as collaborations with esteemed commercial clients like Ralph Lauren. It was during this period that Smith produced some of his most iconic work, characterized by striking, surreal portraits set in real-life locations and infused with wit, whimsy, and the absurd. He also created personal images, often incorporating the same props and backdrops used in his commercial work.

    Despite the meticulous planning required for his images, Smith always trusted his intuition. He famously declared, “I trust my instincts to get to the heart of the matter”, viewing composition as an emotional rather than an intellectual process, akin to ‘rhythm in music,’ where elements harmonize to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

    Perhaps stemming from his feelings of melancholy and disillusionment with the world, rooted in a childhood where he never felt good enough, Smith continually pursued perfection. He sought to reveal a world ‘slightly beyond reach, beyond everyday experience,’ believing that purity and goodness could make it attainable.

    He passed away in 2016, just weeks shy of his 69th birthday, leaving behind a unique and remarkable body of work. His images are held in the permanent collections of numerous presitgious museums, and a recent retrospective book titled ‘A Leap of Faith’ serves as a testament to his enduring legacy.

    Rodney Smith should be remembered as more than a photographer; he was an artist and visionary who dedicated his life to creating images that transcended reality, inviting viewers into an extraordinary, pure, and beautiful world of his imagination.


    All images © Rodney Smith