DPP Home Profiles Rodney Smith: Old School With A Modern Twist

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rodney Smith: Old School With A Modern Twist

Rodney Smith’s timeless photography is instantly recognizable. He explains how and why he shoots film, and how his study of theology plays a role in his whimsical images.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
As photography continues to evolve in the digital age, Rodney Smith shoots primarily with black-and-white film. He isn't a luddite nor does he reject technology. While some may feel limited by film, Smith enjoys the obstacles, finding that they push his creativity. A self-proclaimed classicalist, Smith's style is sophisticated, surreal and distinctly his own. His timeless photographs are relevant to modern culture without following trends. He shoots everything in-camera, such as the photograph on the opening spread, right, which became a Time Magazine cover. Smith built a physical backdrop with clouds made of cotton. "There's not one bit of retouching. That's the fun of it for me. I'm a photographer, not an illustrator," he says.

The greatest test for a photograph is if the two-dimensional image imbedded in its fibers can stand the test of time. With Rodney Smith's elegant aesthetic and compositional prowess applied to creative concepts, the paper itself may one day fade, but the memory of the imagery will not.

First exposed to the craftsmanship of photography as a teenager by a neighbor who had a small bathroom darkroom, in his college years he found a connection with photographers including Gene Smith, Minor White, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White through their photographs at the Museum of Modern Art. He admired both their compositional expertise and their ability to extract emotions out of the subjects and objects before their lenses.

Decades later, Rodney Smith's photographs are now highly prized objets d'art for the same aesthetic and emotional content.

DPP: You're part of a somewhat rarified group these days, a top commercial and fine-art photographer who shoots only film. Why this approach?

Rodney Smith: There's an old aphorism, "A change is not necessarily an improvement." Film fits my temperament. I've never shot a Polaroid because I've never wanted to know what the picture looks like before I processed it. For me, the whole experience of making the picture is what's wonderful. And, if every few seconds I'm looking at what I had just shot, I won't focus on the picture. Nor would I want an art director to ever see what I'm shooting every step of the way. It used to be a problem when I didn't shoot Polaroids, but my clients got over it and got to really enjoy the making of the photograph. The last thing that I would ever want an art director to say is "Stop, do something different, move here, move there...." I also have enough confidence, maybe mistakenly so, in my technical abilities. I also love the atmosphere of film and its limitations. Stravinsky wrote in his book Poetics of Music, "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit." There's a lot of restraint in film, like the limited latitude and not being able to vary ISOs for every shot.

Will I ever shoot digital in the future? It's possible. But as long as they make film, I'll probably shoot it. However, most of the output I do these days is digital.


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