The Daily Heller: Rodney Smith’s Wit, Elegance and Art

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Rodney Smith was one of late Modernism’s most imaginative and audacious fashion photographers before his passing in 2017. Since then, Leslie Smolan, his wife and the former partner of Carbone Smolan Agency, has taken on the role of administrating, orchestrating and propagating his memory, keeping it alive through books, exhibits and updates.

The most recent book, Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith, is a major collection of his alluring commercial and hypnotic art photography. The Symposium is a celebration and choice review of the fashion commissions and personal work that has made him among the top artists of his time.

I asked Leslie to discuss keeping the flame lit and all that goes into maintaining his personal brand. In addition to our conversation, reprinted below is Smolan’s Coda from the book.

After taking in our dialogue, sign up a free Getty Center Zoom conversation about Smith on May 21 featuring Smolan, Getty Curator Paul Martineau, Chief Curator at the Center for Creative Photography Rebecca Senf, and Fahey Klein Gallery owner David Fahey.

Why did you make the decision to “retire” from Carbone Smolan Agency three years ago and devote yourself to preserving Rodney’s legacy through print and exhibits? What has been your driver?
In December 2016, my husband died suddenly at age 68. He was an extraordinary photographer. His work was often compared to surrealist painter Rene Magritte, and his whimsical black-and-white images combining portraiture and landscape were featured in many prominent publications, such as The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Departures magazine.

Rodney was a rare talent and an extremely unique person, whose fascinating family history both tormented and shaped him. His photographs were instantly recognizable yet few people knew his name. I felt compelled to tell Rodney’s story.

In 2019, after successfully running our design company for 42 years, my business partner Ken Carbone and I merged Carbone Smolan Agency with 50,000feet, an independent branding company who embraced both our staff and clients. This freed us to pursue new passions, Ken as an artist, and me as executive director of the Estate of Rodney Smith. My goal was to preserve, enhance and expand Rodney’s legacy so that he would be remembered as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. Rodney is not as well-known as Irving Penn or Richard Avedon, but I think that’s going to change.

How did this book and exhibit at the Getty of over 200 images come to be conceived and executed? The sheer momentum to keep his work alive must have demanded unerring determination.
I have been working 24/7 over the past six years elevating Rodney’s work to curators and collectors. I’ve flown around the world meeting with museums and galleries, publishing books and exhibiting Rodney’s work, organizing all of his correspondence and grant proposals, getting articles about him published, posting his work via social media, collecting oral histories of student recollections, inviting scholars to access the archive, plus writing and building a very sophisticated website.

Instead of having 50 clients, I now have only one, Rodney. As executive director of the archive I get to be the client, envisioning what I want to happen. I am able to tap into my 50 years of experience as a designer to tell the story of a man I knew both professionally and personally. This opportunity feels like a gift, not a burden. It’s a way to take care of Rodney as he took care of me when he was alive.

I knew of Rodney’s work from fashion magazines and I was smitten by the witty, surreal Hat Book that you and he collaborated on, but had no idea how dramatic, humorous and simply gorgeous his images were. Commercial or not, there is the sense, underscored by the book’s cover of a man defying gravity, that Rodney had something to say. How would you describe that voice?
Rodney had strong ideas about how the world should look—hopeful, beautiful, surprising, elegant, mysterious, fun. This is the way he wanted the world to be, not mundane, but extraordinary. He believed that over that imaginary line, everything you see and feel in his pictures would be possible. Rodney Smith approached fashion with a soulfulness and concern for the human condition, giving his work an unusual sense of timelessness.

It could not have been easy but certainly cathartic to see this book and exhibit come to fruition. Can you describe the feeling?
Rodney, like many other artists in the 1980s—Guy Bourdin, Deborah Turbeville, Helmut Newton—was discovered by creative directors like myself, who commissioned artists to elevate the work of our commercial clients. Until recently, Rodney’s work was under-appreciated by art historians, but that has changed with this new retrospective, Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith. The J. Paul Getty Museum has acknowledged Rodney as the artist he was—influenced by his teacher Walker Evans, inspired by the work of humanist W. Eugene Smith, adopting the technical rigor of Ansel Adams—yet having a singular vision all his own. This recognition may have been long in coming, but the celebration of his work fills me with pride and relief, for now his story can be told by many, many, many others. 

By Leslie Smolan

WHO CAN SAY IF I’VE BEEN CHANGED FOR THE BETTER? BUT BECAUSE I KNEW YOU, I HAVE BEEN CHANGED FOR GOOD. —Stephen Schwartz, “For Good,” from the stage musical Wicked (2003)

I met Rodney Smith in 1987. The timing was serendipitous. I was a 35-year-old graphic designer, and Rodney was a 40-year-old photographer. I instantly fell in love with his talent (falling in love with the man would come later). His pictures were remarkable and unlike those of any other photographer I’d ever worked with. They were intense, human and powerful. The photographs excited and inspired me, and they still do.

Yet Rodney was even more interesting than his photographs. He had a vision of how life should be lived and what the world should look like. And he made sure that those around him knew it too. Whether you were his wife, his children and family, his photo team, his housekeepers and gardeners, his friends, his students, his clients, his gallery owners, his publishers, his contractors, his neighbors, his doctors or his local coffee shop, you knew that his expectations would make you aim higher. He had a quest to make the world more beautiful, more precise, more peaceful, more romantic, more witty, more human, more interesting—more lasting. This extended to every detail of his life, and he insisted on maintaining the most exacting of standards.

From my description you might think he was concerned only with the surface—how things looked and were made—but it was just the opposite. Rodney was intensely looking for connection; he wanted to make sure you understood him and vice versa. He was always searching for the truth, for something worth talking about. He wasn’t interested in a litany of facts and figures or what the celebrities were doing that week. He wanted to dig down to find the essence of you. He’d ask you about your daily routines. He’d ask about how you felt about yourself. About your parents. He wanted to know what made you tick. The glue, the sticky part of Rodney, was his inherent understanding of the uniqueness of each person.

His openness and introspection surprised me. His questions about my childhood intrigued me. Rodney and I could not have been more different, which was part of the attraction. He grew up in a wealthy family, while I grew up middle class. Rodney’s parents focused on themselves, expecting their children to fall into their shadow, while my parents considered themselves successful when their kids succeeded. His parents lived large, with a houseful of help, turning Rodney into a great delegator. My Depression-era parents were frugal savers, making us self-reliant. Rodney was impatient and spontaneous, always jumping to the head of the line, while I had enough patience for us both. Rodney was always pushing me out of my comfort zone. He saw the person behind the expectations. He’d tell me that there would always be obstacles along the way that seemed insurmountable, but if I followed my heart, I would find my way. He’d remind me of who I am deep inside and encourage me to build on that. Calmly, and with generosity, he’d say that it isn’t easy to “thine own self be true.”