Nearly five years after the anniversary of the death of photographer Rodney Smith, there is a renewed appreciation for his work.
Hermès used several of his images as the centerpiece for its holiday campaign and the J. Paul Getty Museum is acquiring 10 of his works for its permanent collection. The Rodney Smith Estate will be leading a series of virtual discussions starting Dec. 8 with “What Makes Fashion Photography Art.”
Smith’s widow Leslie Smolan, who oversees his estate, discussed the current interest Monday afternoon, as well as plans for an upcoming book and documentary about the photographer. Combining surrealism and a whimsical style, Smith’s work is often recognizable to many, “but the challenge has always been that many people don’t recognize the pictures with his name,” she said.
While some museums have added works by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts and others to their collections, acknowledging fashion photography as an art form has been slow to happen on a wider scale, Smolan said.
Next month’s inaugural talk will feature the J. Paul Getty Museum’s curator of photographs Paul Martineau, Staley-Wise Gallery founder Etheleen Staley, W magazine’s former creative director Dennis Freedman and model Viktoria Vamosi. Martineau is at work on a book, “Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith,” that is being shopped around and is expected to be released next fall, Smolan said. A second essay for the tome has been written by Rebecca Senf, chief curator for the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. That institution was started by Ansel Adams, who was a big inspiration to Smith, Smolan said.
The title of the book is a wink at the fact Smith attended divinity school in order to become a photographer. While earning a master’s in theology at Yale University, he minored in photography, studying under famed lensman Walker Evans. Recalling her husband’s deep-thinking approach, she said, “In many ways, he was a philosopher and an analyst as well as a photographer. He wanted to understand what made people tick. He had a very complicated relationship with his own parents, who ironically came from the fashion business.”
His father Stanford was a former president of Anne Klein and also manufactured clothes for other labels through Modelia, such as Pierre Cardin USA. He also developed Borgana faux fur, which made him very successful at a very young age, Smolan said. “Unfortunately, his father’s success meant that he left Rodney home with the help, abandoned. Rodney’s mother got breast cancer at 30, had a double mastectomy and went to her bedroom and didn’t come out. After she got ill, his father really wanted to give her the lifestyle she wanted, so they bought a big house, went on trips including long cruises for three months at a time. They left Rodney home,” Smolan said. “That sowed the seeds for his need for self exploration and definition. The camera allowed him to do that.”
In the mid-1980s, Smith was hired by the Heinz Company to follow their captains of industry (the presidents of the conglomerate’s brands) around the world humanizing them in portraits. Using a handheld Leica, Smith broke the mold for corporate portraiture, said Smolan, who met him around that time through her design agency Carbone Smolan. “It’s probably not surprising that Bergdorf Goodman, Ralph Lauren and Neiman Marcus then discovered him,” she said. “Ironically, even though he was trying to reject his parents, he came full circle and embraced fashion in the end and was really quite good at it.”
Feeedman hired Smith in the early ’90s, when he took over the creative director role at W. “Dennis was looking for people who had something to say about the world — originals. In 1995, they sent him to Paris for the men’s portfolio for a story called ‘Swell Times.’ His photography had a classic look. You almost can’t tell when they were shot. He loved this formal elegance. And at the time a lot of fashion photography was the exact opposite — heroin chic. [Consider] pictures of Kate Moss by Corinne Day,” Smolan said.
Never switching to digital, Smith was the quintessential craftsman relying on film throughout his career. Everything was shot on location with natural light and there were never any Polaroids shot in advance. “It was literally this exercise in spontaneity, discovering the moment and capturing it on film. And that moment would never happen again,” Smolan said.
Having grown up in a fashion-minded environment “where everyone cared about how things looked, and how well they were maintained and the stitching and the detail, became part of his DNA even though he tried to reject that,” Smolan said. “His life was trying to prove his worth. Photography was a means of staying engaged with the world and a tool for exploration and self understanding.”
In addition to wanting to know everything about the people he met, including their routines, Smith was in tune to their personal aesthetics, how they moved and carried themselves. Smolan explained, “He would tell his models, ‘Don’t model. Be yourself. Hold your hands the way you hold them. Stand the way you stand. Don’t give-it-to-me-baby.’ There’s a kind of exuberance to that and that figures in the campaign. That’s what Hermès responded to. They extracted his figures, which are in motion.”
Smolan added, “He was a bit of a recluse, frankly. He had a very specific idea about the world. He wasn’t into celebrities. He liked real people. And he cared most about the image. Even to me as his client, he would say, ‘My allegiance is not to you. It’s to the image.’ He wouldn’t push the shutter if he didn’t think it was an image that he wanted recorded on film.”