A Look at the Magical World of Iconic Photographer Rodney Smith

Rodney Smith Surreal Photography

‘Man on Ladder in Times Square, New York, NY,' 1999.

For over 45 years, fine art and fashion photographer Rodney Smith brought his unique vision to the world through his whimsical imagery. Playful and surreal, his photographs graced the pages of TIMEThe Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among others. Even after his passing in 2016, his legacy carries on through the galleries and museums that continue to display his work, as well as publications and new photographers influenced by his style.

An appreciation for elegance and beauty came to Smith early, as the son of Anne Klein president Stanford Smith. While studying at Yale, he began taking classes with acclaimed photographer Walker Evans, soaking in the lessons learned and transforming them into his own style. Merging what he learned, four factors became the driving force behind his work—composition, scale, proportion, and relation.

Composition in photography is like rhythm is in music,” he shared with My Modern Met in 2015. “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.” In an age when we're are used to seeing photo manipulation, it's important to note that Smith's compositions were created in-camera. A faithful devotee of film photography, he never switched over to digital technology, preferring to make magic on site rather than in post-production.

For much of his career, Smith shot exclusively in black and white, only switching to color in 2002. Still, all his imagery has a classic, timeless feel, as though the characters are suspended in limbo. Even when their backs are turned to the camera or faces are obscured, his skill as a fine art photographer brings out unspoken emotions in the viewer. In his own words, it was his “mission to find order out of chaos.”

Rodney Smith Fine Art Photography

‘Edythe and Andrew Kissing on Taxi, New York,' 2007

Rodney Smith Fashion Photographer

‘Zoe Balancing Teapot on Head, Burden Mansion, New York, NY,' 2006.

Rodney Smith Surreal Photography

‘Viktoria Under Lampshade, Rhinebeck, New York,' 2011

Rodney Smith Surreal Photography

‘Viewfinder face with hat, Liberty Park, New Jersey,' 1997.

Rodney Smith and Surrealism

A man in a bowler hat about to leap from a skyscraper or perched high on a ladder in Times Square—these iconic images of Smith's are an unmistakable nod to Surrealism. A wink at Belgian master René Magritte, Smith viewed his work as part of a personal quest, one that helped him deal with and reveal his most intimate feelings. “I put my life on the line for photography and it returned the effort with abundance,” he wrote on his blog in 2014.

Much in that way that Surrealists viewed their art as a vehicle for the unconscious to express itself, Smith was never quite certain what would be the end result of his shoots. This attitude allowed him to work flexibly within any location and capture the story as it unfolded.

“I do not have any preconceived or preordained ideas. The location is the key in which I compose in. Once I find the location, everything sort of falls into place for me. It's the location that drives all the pictures,” he told My Modern Met in 2011. “One of the things that is interesting, and I think people are always intrigued by this, is that though my pictures seem so composed, they are extremely spontaneous. 95% of the pictures I take, I didn't even know I was going to take them a few minutes before.”

Rodney Smith Black and White Photography

‘Alan Leaping From 515 Madison Avenue, New York City,' 1999.

Rodney Smith Surreal Photography

‘Nathan Holding Portrait of Himself, Amenia, New York,' 2011.

Rodney Smith Surreal Photography

‘Skyline, Hudson River, New York,' 1995.

Rodney Smith Fashion Photographer

‘Saori on Sea Plane Wing, Dominican Republic,' 2010.

Rodney Smith Whimsical Photography

‘Saori & Mossimo Holding Hands, Amalfi, Italy,' 2007.

The Legacy of Rodney Smith's Whimsical Photography

The magical world that Rodney Smith portrayed endures, with his studio continuing to promote the lessons that Smith embodied through his photography. As more and more photographers return to film, picking up the beloved Leica M4 and medium-format Hasselblad that were his tools of the trade, a renewed appreciation for what he was able to achieve has sprung up.

Through publications, including Rodney Smith: Photographs—a comprehensive look at his illustrious career—it's possible to review his rich archive of work. Prints of some of his most well-known photographs allow collectors to hang Smith's work in their home and his work is represented by galleries across Asia, Europe, and North America. In the United States, prestigious galleries Gilman Contemporary, Robert Klein Galleries, and Fahey Klein Gallery represent Smith's work.

Rodney Smith Surreal Photography

Rodney Smith Surreal Photography

Rodney Smith Fashion Photography

‘Bernadette in Red Hat With Book, New York Public Library, NY, ‘2003.

Rodney Smith Fashion Photography

‘Woman with Hat Between Hedges, France,' 2004.

Watch Rodney Smith as he discusses his career and legacy.

Rodney Smith: Website | Facebook

Related Articles:

Remembering the Legendary Rodney Smith (1947-2016)

Interview: The Illustrious Career of Photographer Rodney Smith

More Charming Photography by Rodney Smith

Met Exclusive: Interview with Rodney Smith (Part 1 of 2)

Photographer Rodney Smith Shares His Stories

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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