Rodney Smith: Old School With A Modern Twist

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.

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 20×24.

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.

Smith honed the craft of photography in school while earning a degree in Theology. For him, the two fields became integral to each other. "You have to have something in your heart that needs to be expressed or exposed. You have to find some way to give form to feeling," says Smith.

DPP: In your shot of the man holding binoculars sitting on top of a ladder, it looks like a composite with the clouds.

Smith: That was for the cover of Time Magazine. It wasn’t composited. It was all shot in-camera in my backyard. I had a backdrop with painted clouds, and we made clouds out of cotton and put them in the foreground. There’s not one bit of retouching. That’s the fun of it for me. I’m a photographer, not an illustrator.

DPP: How do you work with light?

Smith: Ninety-nine percent of what I do is done with available light and using reflectors, if needed. Many times photographers abandon the greatness of the medium they work in. The interchange between an object or a subject or a person with the world around it, how the natural light illuminates it, is one of the great gifts of being a photographer. Many photographers have abandoned natural light for artificial light. They’ve abandoned using film for Photoshop. They’ve abandoned the fundamentals that make photography a wonderful medium.

DPP: Mary Ellen Mark once told me, you can never do better than reality. Do you think that’s true?

Smith: The ironic thing is, though, my pictures look very composed and serene; they’re unbelievably spontaneous. They look like I’ve previsualized it. I’m very rigorous about the scouting of a location. Finding a location is the secret to my work. But when I find a location, I don’t want to know what the pictures are. All I do is walk in and say, "Great. I can make pictures here." I don’t know what they’re going to be, but I trust my instincts. So, when I leave and come back for the shoot, it’s really fresh to me.

DPP: Your ballet images are reminiscent of Eisenstaedt’s work with the same subject matter. Alexey Br
odovitch, the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar, also shot ballet. He, of course, is better known for his layouts for Bazaar using the photographs of Penn and Hoyningen-Huene and the other greats of that time. Many of your images share the same aesthetic.

Smith: My mentors were Cartier-Bresson, Kertész, W. Eugene Smith. Gene Smith is why I became a photographer. When I was in college I went to the Museum of Modern Art to view the permanent photography collection. It was Gene Smith’s pictures that made me feel that I could transfer my feelings onto a two-dimensional piece of paper like he did. It was an epiphany. His ability to take intense emotions and put them on a two-dimensional piece of paper was amazing. I met him only once and just for a moment. I was in Cornell Capa’s office, and just as I was walking out the door, Smith walked in. We stopped and shook hands. I haven’t washed my hand since! Gene Smith, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, all had an enormous compositional sense. They transcended photojournalism. Irving Penn transcended what he did in fashion and portraiture.

DPP: After graduating college, you went to Yale University to get your master’s degree in Theology. Does this background play into your work?

Smith: And my bachelor’s was in English and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. It absolutely plays into my work. When I was studying theology I was fortunate enough to be in a program that allowed me to earn a large number of credits from the photography program, so I learned my craft. But learning the technique of photography only takes you so far. You have to have something in your heart that needs to be expressed or exposed. You have to find some way to give form to feeling. From my point of view, that generally doesn’t come from just studying the technique of photography. You have to have some passion or some interest. Theology is, in part, the study of the existential questions that confront human beings. I really loved it. As Socrates would say, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

DPP: Why did you choose this field of study?

Smith: I began college as an English major, but found the department too academic, not raising existential questions about feelings. The Religious Studies program was asking the questions. I wasn’t interested in the answers. I never have been. I needed to resolve some issues and I continued on to graduate school to complete that. I would encourage others to sail around the world or to study Chinese history or whatever one needs to do. You need to develop and nurture a voice inside you that makes you special and unique.

The interchange between an object or a subject or a person with the world around it, how the natural light illuminates it, is one of the great gifts of being a photographer.

I want to show that there’s a certain grace and elegance to the world. There’s a sense of whimsy and humor. My pictures are basically an affirmation of this. I’m coproducing these pictures with the world around me. I think that most contemporary photography is very nihilistic and negative and kind of dispassionate, and everyone thinks it’s so cool to be that way. Most art critiques applaud this as insightful and original. I think that’s very misplaced. With my photography, I’m trying to affirm a giant "Yes!" to life.

You can see more of Rodney Smith’s photography at

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