THE SPONTANEITY OF STYLE
By Joe Rosenthal
By Joe Rosenthal
Rodney Smith’s iconic photographs exert a gravitational pull. These are not images that rest quietly on walls. They beg to be looked at, pulling you in with their stunning technical perfection and evocations of exuberance, mystery, whimsy, heroism, and vulnerability.
Whether Smith’s subjects were a couple clasping hands above a tiny blue Fiat in Amalfi, a man improbably leaping over a massive roll of hay in the fields of Maryland, or a woman balancing majestically on a seaplane’s wing in the Dominican Republic, the photographer’s exquisite prints shimmer with natural light and feature gorgeous settings framing moments of spontaneity, romance, and reflection.
“I want people to see the beauty and whimsy in life, not its ugliness,” Smith once said of his work. “I feel the need to reach out for its soul, its depth, and its underlying beauty. I represent a world that is possible if people act their best.”
The photographer is the subject of a new exhibition at Anne Loucks Gallery in Glencoe that runs from September 29 to November 30. Rodney Smith: Leap of Faith features 24 examples of the artist’s work from 1994–2014, in both color and black & white. The show title is a nod to the recent release of the Getty Museums’ retrospective monograph, Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith. The book’s author, Getty photography curator Paul Martineau, will be at the opening reception Friday, September 29th from 5 to 7:30 p.m.
“For the exhibition, we’ve focused on the narrative elements of his work—the storytelling, the style, and humor,” says gallery owner Anne Loucks. “The images included are striking in their beauty and magical light and at the same time, they draw you in and invite you to look twice. Rodney’s brilliance is evident in the compositions filled with spontaneity, wit, and a touch of surprise.”
The humor and creativity that Loucks speaks of are deftly on display in Reed Floating Above Giant Top Hat, which was shot in Amenia, New York, two years before the artist’s passing at age 68 in 2016. Smith shunned any manipulation of his images, which makes the surreal loftiness in the photo all the more mesmerizing. With its dueling top hats and leaping figure, it’s a nod to René Magritte as well as photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who was a significant influence.
Smith was born on Christmas Eve 1947 in New York City to parents from the hamlet of Woodmere, Long Island. He attended Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut and fell in love with English literature. But it was a visit to the Museum of Modern Art during his college years in 1967 that inspired Smith’s decision to become a photographer. He saw works by Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, and Dorothea Lange that stoked the creativity that had been burgeoning within him.
“My life was never the same again,” said Smith of the trip. “I looked at those pictures repeatedly, getting more and more excited, and saying and feeling to myself ‘I can do this. This is for me. This is my life.’”
After he graduated from the University of Virginia in 1970, much to his parents’ chagrin he earned a master’s degree in theology from Yale University, while minoring in photography under famed photojournalist and photographer Walker Evans.
But Smith got off to an auspicious start. Upon graduation, he received a Jerusalem Foundation Fellowship to document the diverse cultures in the Middle East. His images from the time are photojournalistic in style and reminiscent of the work of his teacher, Evans. Following this documentary phase, he was commissioned to take portraits of corporate leaders like the CEOs of H.J. Heinz, Merrill Lynch, and Northrop Grumman. From there, Smith found a calling in fashion photography, shooting for Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus among many others, and forged long-term working relationships with W, Vanity Fair, New York magazine, The New York Times, and leading fashion publications throughout the ‘90s. Over time, Smith transitioned to more personal work, indulging his creativity fully, often shooting at his beloved Hudson River Valley home in Snedens Landing an hour outside Manhattan.
Smith’s work has gained the attention of curators around the country and is now included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, the Getty Museum, and many others.
Loucks lived in New York in the early nineties and recalls Smith’s work for fashion houses and major publications back then. “He was an artist whom I admired for many years,” she says. “The more I saw and read about his work, the more I fell in love with it. He was a master of both the art and science of photography. He knew his camera inside and out and understood every aspect of its capability. Such technical mastery and intuition helped enable his boundless creativity. He would work through different ideas on a photo shoot to get the perfect composition, playing around with scale, proportion, light, and movement, as well as the emotional response to a setting. His work was shot only using film and natural light. Nothing was ever digitally enhanced or manipulated. He liked the depth and richness he felt he could only get with film shooting.”
Surveying some of the work in the exhibition, Loucks’ longheld appreciation is clear. In Jimmy Standing in the Ocean Wearing Sunglasses, she notes the humor, irony, and spectacle of the unexpected scene of Smith’s model submerged while wearing a suit. “He knew the light and reflection at this moment in time,” she says, pointing out nuances in the image. “There’s so much to look at in each of his prints. At first glance, they’re captivating in their beauty, but when you get closer and study them, you’re really in awe of the magic and creativity.”
In Saori Standing in a Boat, which has a wonderful complexity belying its simple veneer, Loucks notes how the composition and background light uplift the viewer. “There’s so much joy and promise. He worked with these beautiful settings and he was aware of the majesty of the place, the light, the color, the atmosphere. He had a profound connection to the world around him, and at the same time was always interested in the human story behind his photographs.”
Indeed, one need only read Smith’s own words about what photography meant to him to better understand the power of his images: “I go out in the world. I breathe in its notoriety and humor, to be able to see clearer, to look for understanding and purpose, to open up, to reach exuberantly and unforgivingly for the light.”
For more information, visit loucksgallery.com.