This is part of a series of articles about the life and work of great photographers. Here we look at Rodney Smith, who is currently working out of his studio near Manhattan in New York, USA.
Life and background
All we know about Rodney Smith’s life is what he has chosen to reveal through interviews and his blog. The biography on his own website presents an enigma of a man – where are those traditional details about his place and date of birth, his schooling and style of upbringing, his family and his sibling relationships?
One gets the impression that these details are not what he considers important. Instead we hear a lot about his philosophies of life, his likes and dislikes and his no-longer-orthodox working methods. However, we do learn that he is a loving husband and a proud father and grandfather.
It’s possible to piece a little more together from interviews. He was first introduced to photography by a neighbour who had built a darkroom in his bathroom. He studied an MA in Theology at Yale University having already gained a BA in English and Religious Studies. He has spent a lot of time travelling. All of this has its influences on his work.
Photography and career
Rodney Smith believes that art has the ability to express the feeling in one’s soul, and counts photography among the arts that can do that.
You only have to look at his images to be struck by the feeling in them. His work is simultaneously striking and unsettling, capturing the uncanniness of life and the knowledge that there’s more to life than what we see.
Most of us don’t attempt to pin this down but he does so ruthlessly, favouring black and white images over colour and analogue film over digital – describing himself as ‘adamantly analogue’.
His images possess freshness and modernity – he claims that people often can’t tell the difference between those shot decades ago and those he shoots today. They look staged but are actually spontaneous and morph unexpectedly between portraiture and landscape.
He studied photography under Walker Evans, again at Yale. There followed a fellowship in 1975, which funded a trip to Jerusalem – the resulting images became the book The Land of Light, which was released by publisher Houghton Mifflin.
Following its publication, he received many offers of lectureships from Harvard University, the University of Madrid, the University of Mexico, Colombia University, and Goethe University. However, these were all declined – instead he embarked upon more travel and photography. His degree in Divinity later allowed him to become an an adjunct professor, but he never stopped taking photographs.
He has won 75+ awards, his photography is a collector’s item and he published his second book The Hat Book, in 1995. His work is exhibited in every major gallery across the globe and has been used on the cover of Time Magazine. He cites his mentors as Cartier-Bresson, Kertész and W. Eugene Smith – in particular Gene Smith, who, he says, is the reason he became a photographer.