Photographer Rodney Smith, who sadly passed away in 2016 at the age of sixty-eight, made work that was not only technically flawless but filled with a sense of caprice and delight at being alive. Smith’s work in this show is exquisite and filled with the joy he found creating it. He once said, of the purpose of his photography, “Today, a great deal of Western culture seems rooted in remoteness, anger, alienation, and squalor. I want people to see the beauty and whimsy in life, not its ugliness.” Walking through the show, it’s apparent that Smith was successful in this mission—viewing his photographs, one feels a million miles away from the real world.
In images like “Maria Holding Orange Balloon, Charleston, South Carolina, 2010” “Saori and Jimmy Drinking From A Coconut, Dominican Republic, 2010,” and “Reed Floating Above Giant Top Hat, Amenia, New York, 2014,” the humor is almost childlike in its sense of fun. One can only imagine how amused the team must have been, watching as Smith created his magic. And yet, he was the ultimate perfectionist—meticulous in every way, he considered each hand-made print an artifact. Smith deemed the sets and scenes he created only the means to an end. The print, he said, was “the creation, the purpose—the result of my endeavor.”
Smith’s work has an editorial or illustrative essence. Trained by such luminaries as Walker Evans, he ultimately found his way to fashion photography. Images like “Bernadette with Red Hat with Book No.2, New York Public Library, 2003,” “Saori in Fern Dress, Dominican Republic, 2010” and “Saori on Seaplane Wing, No.2, Dominican Republic, 2010” illustrate his acuity for fashion photography. Smith also had a gift for storytelling. In the wonderful image “Viktoria and Rainer in Car, Snedens Landing, New York, 2011,” a couple gazes at the viewer from inside front and back windows of a car piled high with a pyramid of vintage suitcases. It could easily be a scene from any Wes Anderson film, as could the 1994 black-and-white image “Hemline, New York City,” in which a series of women with ascending hemlines parade in a crosswalk, a small leashed dog in the lead, or the 1995 image, “Kiton Man, The Knole Estate, Long Island, New York,” in which a man sits on a chair, legs crossed, with a fedora covering his face. Smith’s quirkiness became even more pronounced with his shift to color.
One of the most striking black-and-white images was made in Chicago, on the oft-photographed circular staircase of the Rookery building. On ten steps, women’s shoes “descend,” one shoe per stair, as if five invisible women are following one another down the staircase. It’s titled “Shoes on Staircase No. 1, Chicago, 1997,” and is stunningly framed to forty-six inches by fifty-eight inches. This show and the smile it will put on your face is well worth a drive up along Lake Michigan on a lovely autumn day.
“Rodney Smith, A Leap of Faith” is on view at Anne Loucks Gallery, 309 Park Avenue, Glencoe through December 5.