Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rodney Smith: Old School With A Modern Twist

By Mark Edward Harris, Photography By Rodney Smith Published in Photographer Profiles
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.
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.

DPP: What's your workflow for that process?

Smith: We process the film and then scan the negatives with an Imacon/Hasselblad 646 scanner. Probably 50 percent of my income comes from collectors buying my prints. The majority of print collectors are buying mural-sized pictures. Those need to be outputted digitally. I print on Somerset Velvet. It's a watercolor paper. If somebody wants a silver-gelatin print, we still work in a darkroom and make prints up to a 20x24.

DPP: What camera and film combination are you using to produce these huge prints?

Smith: A Hasselblad with Tri-X. My favorite film was Plus-X, which was discontinued a while ago.

DPP: Why do you shoot black-and-white versus color for a particular image?

Smith: For about the last 10 years, I've shot both. But the majority of my life I've shot only black-and-white. This derives probably from a few reasons. Initially, and probably even today, I've always felt that there's more color in a black-and-white than there is in color. This refers to the multitude of the gradations of grays and deep dark tonality, but it also refers to the psychological core of black-and-white. Black-and-white is about feeling and things that lie below the surface. It's about architecture and form and shape, while color is about the surface of things. The variety and depth of what lies below is far more complicated than what lies above.


DPP: You have described your approach as old school with a modern twist. What does that mean?

Smith: I'm 65 now and have pictures in my studio that are 45 years old and prints of images I made last week or last month. People can't tell which was shot decades ago and which was shot this year. There's something about the pictures that still feels relevant in the culture we live in today. I'm definitely a classicalist. I don't like a great deal of popular culture, and I feel a great deal of contemporary photography is pretty mediocre.

I've worried about photography. Many successful photographers these days are compositing their pictures. They're putting together multiple pictures to make one. They're becoming more like illustrators. Retouchers are becoming more important than the photographer. The photographer is becoming more of a technician than a visionary. Pretty soon the retoucher is going to want as much credit as the photographer. That's okay. But it's not the photography I know.
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