Rodney Smith exhibition at Robert Klein Gallery

22 October 2023, by Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas reviews the Rodney Smith photography exhibition that was on show recently at the Robert Klein Gallery.

Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith opened at the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston amd showcased a striking selection of the fashion photographer’s signature humorous and surreal work. Approximately a decade since his last show, the opening of this solo exhibition coincided with the launch of a new extensive retrospective book of Smith’s work published by Getty Museum.

Smith’s (1947 – 2016) distinctively witty and whimsical work transcends a classic editorial style of fashion photography. His images embody a truly timeless aesthetic: his work from 1947 to 2014 show a continued fantastical and fun style.

Fashion is clearly a crucial component of the composition, from models draped in pearls to a suit adorned man leaping across a Maryland haystack. His images are romantic and unexpected; one mage depicts from a couple embracing on the top of a yellow NY cab and another shows a pair of twins wearing tailoring while in a tree. “I trust my instincts to get to the heart of the matter. Once I find the right location and the right light, everything else follows from there,” Smith said.

Over the course of his 45-year long career, Smith became best known for fashion photography. Born in New York City, he started out as a photo-essayist, before turning to portrait photography. Interestingly Smith studied a master’s degree in theology at Yale University while minoring in photography under Walker Evans, a leading figure of American photography and art in the 20th century especially for his images of the Great Depression. Inspired by W. Eugene Smith and devoted to the techniques of Ansel Adams, he viewed photography as a tool for spiritual exploration and self-understanding; “I put my life on the line for photography and it returned the effort with abundance. Its gift back to me was a me devoid of most of my neuroses. One who is clear sharp and energetic,” he wrote in 2014.

Smith travelled extensively throughout the American South, Wales and Haiti, taking photographs of workers and farmers while developing his signature style of depicting an ordered vision in chaos. His images were often in black and white using light to edit and refine his images.

Smith co-authored the photo-essay The Hat Book in 1993 with creative director Leslie Smolan and by the mid-1990s was shooting editorial for some of the biggest names in American media such as W Magazine, The New York Timesand Vanity Fair. He also shot images for Neiman Marcus, Ralph Lauren and Bergdorf Goodman. By the mid-2000s with the advent of archival pigment printing on watercolor paper Smith introduced colour into his work.

Smith was fascinated in print; “For me, the print is the creation, the purpose, the result of my endeavor.” The exhibition showcases a selection of prints that have never been shown before, and prints are displayed along all the walls of this gallery.

Robert Klein Gallery maintains an extensive and ever-changing inventory of 19th century, 20th century, and contemporary photographs. Robert Klein Gallery was established in 1980 and opened with early exhibitions by Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz, Sally Mann and Hiroshi Sugimoto. The gallery is dedicated to exploring the whole history and breadth of photography and often showcases work by New England artists. While the main space in the gallery is used to show Smith’s work currently, the back room of the gallery space also hosts pop up shows, such as Sebastião Salgado’s socio-humanitarian work.

Smith’s name does not hold the same global recognition as some of his contemporaries such as Penn and so this well-timed exhibition brings his work to a whole new audience, to inspire the future of fashion photography.

Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith was open until August 18th in Boston with plans to travel in the future.

While in Boston, Babette also visited the Museum of Fine Arts and reviewed their wedding themed exhibition, which you can read here.

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