With an illustrious career spanning over 45 years, New York-based photographer Rodney Smith has produced countless images that are a perfect blend of sophistication and whimsy. Shooting on film with a medium-format Hasselblad, Smith creates enchanting portraits of classically styled figures posing perfectly within charmingly eccentric scenes. His beautifully framed photos, although often fanciful and downright surreal, are almost 99 percent shot in-camera, as he told us in a 2011 interview.
Smith–who has taught at Yale and worked with clients like The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, New York Magazine, Ralph Lauren, and Neiman Marcus–will showcase over 175 of his finest photos in the RODNEY SMITH Book, a work-in-progress that he calls “the most ambitious and comprehensive book” he has produced to date. The retrospective volume will cover Smith’s 45-year photographic career, featuring contemporary color work as well as the elegant black-and-white imagery that he has become known for.
We had the chance to ask Smith a few questions about his distinguished career and his new book. Scroll down to read that exclusive interview with one of our favorite photographers.
Looking back at your extensive portfolio in preparation for the book, were you struck by any unexpected thoughts, feelings, or insights regarding your own work and career?
I guess one of my surprises has always been how I always seem to rule from the center. From the very beginning of my career to its present state: composition, scale, proportion, and relation have been the driving forces in my work. Composition in photography is like rhythm is in music. I am a product of an earlier era–for example, when the compositional senses of photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, Andr Kertsz, etc. were impeccable; everything was in the right place. I have noticed, as the world has become more casual, the sense of composition and relationship has been radically altered. I miss when it was the photographer’s mission to find order out of chaos.
How do you think you’ve grown or changed as a photographer over the last 45 years? Can you see clear threads and shifts in your photography?
Definitely. I think as I have matured psychologically as a person, I have been able to direct my inner perceptions to the world that we inhabit. I am able to see more clearly, have greater resolve as I have gotten older, and as a consequence, the pictures have gotten funnier. The world I inhabit has gotten more gracious, elegant, and refined as the actual world we live in becomes more crass, vulgar, and casual. I also think that there is no question that one person has taken all of these pictures since there is a particular vision that drives every frame.
How did you select the 175+ photos to be included in the retrospective project?
I left that to the designer Jennifer Domer Schuetz and the creative director, my wife Leslie Smolan. I try to make it a practice to let people who are very good at their job, do their job. That does not mean that I am not very engaged in every step along the way, but I have also learned as I got older that you have more control in your life by letting go. I believe it to be one of the fundamental truths that govern us all.
Your musings on your blog have been sorely missed since you last posted in March. Can you speak more about your writing and how it will complement the images in your book?
The writings from the book are brief excerpts from a number of the blog posts. Hopefully they give some insight into me as a photographer. I also wrote a brief foreword and afterword. As far as the blog goes, I simply need a break, mentally and physically, from writing, but I feel that I am getting close to starting again. I do not want to make any promises, because I have a habit of breaking them, but please stay tuned for more.
Do you create art for the viewer or for yourself?
Everyone needs and craves adulation and support, so to say I simply make something without consequences would be naive. I desire approval as much as the next person, but for all my life as a photographer, the purpose and function of making pictures has been to resolve deep personal issues within me. As my ex-father-in-law Robert Anderson once told me, “When you are speaking the most privately, you are speaking the most universally.” I completely believe this to be the case. Although the pictures come from deep wells of emotions within me, they seem to resonate with a much larger audience.
What are some guiding principles you always follow in your own work?
To try to speak the most privately; to expose my most intimate feelings, thoughts, and anxieties. That way I always know I am speaking the smallest, most private truth. If I can do that, if I can speak with a small truth, then that is the most a small person in a very large world can ever hope to do.
In 2011, you told us that everyone–including yourself–is searching for something. Are you still on that quest in life?
Definitely. In fact, more than ever.
My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Rodney Smith.