The elegant photography of Rodney Smith

“Saori on Seaplane Wing, Dominican Republic” detail (2010); © 2023 Rodney Smith Ltd., courtesy of the Estate of Rodney Smith

A man who loved beautiful things

Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith, by Paul Martineau (Getty Publications, 248 pp; $65)

by Bondo Wyszpolski

This is as much a luxury item as it is a volume of elegant, bewitching photographs, and it complements similarly-related books that Getty curator of photographs Paul Martineau has written for the institution’s publishing arm, in particular “Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography” and “Herb Ritts: L.A. Style,” the latter also being catalogs in tandem with major exhibitions.

“Wessel Looking Over the Balcony, Paris, France” (2007); © 2023 Rodney Smith Ltd., courtesy of the Estate of Rodney Smith

These days, Rodney Smith (1947-2016) may be most recognizable thanks to his photograph, “Wessel Looking over the Balcony, Paris, France” (2007), which was reproduced as the cover for “A Gentleman in Moscow,” the best-selling novel by Amor Towles. That image alone conveys plenty about Smith’s aesthetic. As Rebecca A. Senf notes in one of the book’s essays, “For Smith, the print was everything. He was a man who loved beautiful things.”

Smith may be described or summarized as an American fashion photographer, but he was also one with an occasional playful touch. The humor, though, is restrained, held in check; he’s not fishing for the belly laugh. Graydon Carter (formerly an editor of Vanity Fair for 25 years) describes the look of a Smith photograph in these words, or rather this equation: “Wes Anderson + René Magritte ÷ Federico Fellini – Irving Penn = Rodney Smith.” He also adds that “A Rodney Smith (image) can be whimsical but solemn, composed but candid, still but full of movement, mysterious but revealing, desperate but funny.”

“Self-Portrait with Leslie, Siena, Italy” (1990); © 2023 Rodney Smith Ltd., courtesy of the Estate of Rodney Smith

That pretty much clears the bases, but this monograph covers Smith’s entire working life, which got underway in the early- and mid-1970s. He initially shot entirely in black and white, the images sharp and yet with a soft undertone. A few remind me of early 20th century Pictorialism, dialed up a notch. His 1990 photograph, “Self-Portrait with Leslie, Sienna, Italy,” might be an example of this, focused and soft at the same time.

Many of Smith’s later images have Gatsby-like young men and women in them, as if he was drawn to the New England jet set and edging closer to becoming something of a John Singer Sargent or William Merrit Chase of the fading millennium.

His earlier work, however, shows what he picked up from Walker Evans, who was one of his teachers, and, for example, a trip to Israel in 1976 — which yielded several timeless images — no doubt enhanced his eye and sharpened his sensibility. Tone, focus, visual texture, we see it in these pictures and also in those which he took in the American South, the United Kingdom, Haiti and France. Later, the poor people and the elderly would vanish from his work, but because they were there at the start they remain part of his artistic foundation.

“Edythe and Andrew Kissing on Top of Taxis, New York, New York” (2008); © 2023 Rodney Smith Ltd., courtesy of the Estate of Rodney Smith

Those earlier images or portraits also had a seriousness to them as well as a subject matter that wasn’t conducive to the whimsy or slight playfulness that emerged later. Senf also writes that, “For Smith, making pictures was the most joyous, freeing experience. It was what he lived for. Being on location was the epitome of being lost in the moment; he could shed the ordinary pressures of his daily life and be out and interacting with the world.”

As the above indicates, there were stressful times in Smith’s life, as there are in all sensitive people when the world at large places demands on them and has high expectations. But in photography Smith found his raison d’être, which was to create striking images.

To do this, though, a certain sensibility is required, and Smith appears to have had an intuitive sense of composition, the ability to take in all at once the shadows, shapes, colors or tones, and how they conspire with one another in some kind of harmonious fashion. And one has to be quick about this. There’s no time to hesitate. One sees, and must seize the moment.

“Don Jumping Over Hay Roll No. 1, Monkton, Maryland” (1999); © 2023 Rodney Smith Ltd., courtesy of the Estate of Rodney Smith

That said, everything doesn’t always fall into place just because we want it to. For example, there’s an image titled “Don Jumping over Hay Roll No. 1, Monkton, Maryland,” that Smith took in 1999. This wasn’t the result of just one snap and let’s go home, for later we are shown a contact sheet with 12 images of Don in midflight. A few of the others might have sufficed, but Smith zeroed in on the one he thought was best, and it’s hard to disagree.

It probably wasn’t difficult for Smith to slide into fashion photography because he’d done all the legwork, so to speak. He’d excelled in depicting quiet, serene, thought-inducing work, and so the sublime shifting into the elegant may perhaps have been a natural progression rather than, to reference the title of the book, making a leap of faith. Also, Smith apparently had a knack for getting people to relax and loosen up, which can pave the way into a successful photo shoot. One could say this is the first step, that of human interaction. Martineau talks about this in the book, when Smith was hired to make a series of corporate portraitures.

“Skyline, Hudson River, New York” (1995); © 2023 Rodney Smith Ltd., courtesy of the Estate of Rodney Smith

Despite his earliest images, one might also conclude that Smith was at his best as a portrait photographer. He avoided flashy crowd scenes and there are no images of soccer matches, volleyball games on the beach, or people pressing forward to board a subway. There is one picture taken in a stadium — “Shirley Seated in Grandstand, Long Island, New York” (1995) — and although Shirley has a pair of binoculars hanging from her neck she is the only person in the photo, surrounded by rows of empty seats.

Not surprisingly, then, Smith focused on classic fashion. He avoided or perhaps turned down shooting the Halloween costume styles that we often see on fashion runways, worn by anemic models, and one doubts that he would have been tempted by the celebrity peahens and peacocks of the annual Met Gala. Also, too, there are no titillating images in Smith’s fashion photography. One could contrast his work with Tim Walker’s, currently on view at the Getty Center. Both men mastered their craft, but their work is light years apart.

“Three Men with Shears No. 1, Reims, France” (1997); © 2023 Rodney Smith Ltd., courtesy of the Estate of Rodney Smith

What I like about Rodney Smith is that whimsical touch, mentioned earlier, which can be found in “Three Men with Shears No. 1, Reims, France” (1997), but also a more solemn image like “Bernadette Leaning Against Wall, Brooklyn, New York” (2000), which could have been a painting — like one of Anselm Feuerbach’s images of Nana — from well over a century ago.

This book is a lovely homage to the memory of a brilliant and sensitive photographer, and Paul Martineau, you are to be commended for bringing him to our attention. ER


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