Appreciation for the work of acclaimed photographer Rodney Smith continues to grow. His whimsical photographs, sometimes compared to the work of Surrealist painter Magritte, have long been a favorite for a select group of magazine editors, museum curators, and photography aficionados. Nearly two years after his untimely passing, Smith’s wife and creative partner Leslie Smolan continues to educate the public about his life and work.
Smolan, who serves as executive director of the Rodney Smith Estate, is helping build the legacy of Smith. Recently, she had the opportunity to present his work at an event organized by Smithsonian Associates and Anthony Wilder in Washington, D.C. Throughout the course of the evening, Smolan gave details about Smith and his work that only an insider could know. By unraveling the stories behind his work, she revealed the true creative genius behind the camera. And she also gave insight into the psyche of this artistic genius.
“The great irony about Rodney is that his pictures look the exact opposite of how he felt,” Smolan recounted. “They’re bold and confident, beautiful and graceful, whimsical and funny, while in reality, Rodney was often lonely, anxious and fearful. Photography was an emotional outlet—a way for him to channel his anxiety and express himself.”
So great was this creative desire that he left behind an astounding body of work that stretches from 1970 until 2016—200,000 negatives, 18,000 contact sheets, and 8000 images printed. Meticulous in his work, he remained faithful to film, never transitioning to digital. Smolan reminds us, “he always shot on location with natural light, and none of his images are retouched, despite how fantastical many of them look.”
Smolan and Smith met in 1987. At the time, 38-year-old Smolan was a business owner working as a graphic designer. Smith, then 43, was looking to take his career to the next level. This serendipitous meeting would set them both on a new path. First, as they worked together on The Hat Book, and later as they continued to build their personal and creative life together.
Read on for more from Smolan about Smith’s creative process and the story behind some of his photographs.