American photographer Rodney Smith DIV ’73 has never shied away from asking existential questions.
In his latest book, “The End” — a limited edition, 16 by 20-inch, $750 monograph available now — Smith reevaluates the photographic vision that has defined his more than 30-year career in New York working for magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue and clients such as Coach, Ralph Lauren and BMW Motor Company. While he was a student at the Yale Divinity School, Smith also acquired a thorough training in photography at the School of Art under the direction of famous photographer Walker Evans. Smith later taught residential college seminars on photography and theology at Yale for two years. Though Smith works strictly with black and white film in the darkroom, his photographs have a surreal and humorous quality that is highlighted in “The End.” In an interview with the News last week, Smith talked about his new tome of photography, the Magritte-like surrealism of his style and studying theology at Yale to become a photographer.
Q: What does your newest book, “The End,” represent for you?
A: The full title is “The End Is Just the Beginning,” but you do not know that until the very last page. What it refers to is sort of the culmination of the kind of work I have been doing — very different from my early work. It is kind of whimsical, quirky. I want to reconsider my stylistic approach and see if there is something still brewing inside me that I can express photographically in a different way. [The book contains] 15 years of work — a lot of shoots for different clients. It is self-published, and production was incredibly complicated and expensive, which is why the book is so expensive. It is a tremendous labor of love and no traditional publisher would ever touch it.
Q: Can you explain the style of photography that is featured in “The End” and how it evolved?
A: When I first started to take photographs, I made portraits and was a landscape photographer as well, but I never mixed the two together. When I began to do the assignment work… I had to integrate the environment into the picture. That restraint turned out to be an extremely liberating moment for me. Most people who shoot portraiture usually place somebody in front of something — to say “You’re in Paris,” “You’re in London,” “You’re in Prague.” What I was able to do was integrate people into their environment. I began to see two distinct ways of shooting that combined into one, and it led me to the place where I am now.
Q: Your photographs have a witty, comedic quality. How did that evolve?
A: [For commercial assignments], I was no longer choosing my subjects, and they didn’t have the intellectual depth of character my subjects before had. But they still had something interesting. How did I find that? Humor became the answer. These models became almost part of the story. In the latter work, these models became characters in the story rather than the story being about them. That change has occurred in two ways: integrating them into their environment and reacting to them differently, which gave my work a Magritte-like surrealistic quality. In this book, “The End,” I’m asking a rhetorical question about what is next for me.
Q: When you think about your entire career, is there an event that stands out as particularly changing or defining?
A: When I first graduated from Yale, within the first year and a half, I had the good fortune to go to New York and work with Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast. I had the good fortune of meeting with him, and I was really young. He looked at my work and said, “You should shoot fashion.” He passed my name to Vogue and to Bea Feitler who was starting Vanity Fair. In the world we live in, that has never happened again. It doesn’t happen in the real world. [Liberman] had the courage, strength and the position to do this. And I’ve been waiting for that to happen again. Every time I’ve wanted to change, I’ve had to work very hard to make that transition.”
Q: What was your experience at Yale like?
A: I went to Yale with the intention of being of a photographer, but I studied theology. I thought the last place one would learn to be a photographer would be studying photography. When I was there, Walker Evans was chairman of the program there. It was a very distinguished program, And I learned my craft really, really well. I think the vision and the desire to have something to say about the world did not come form studying photography, so I studied theology for three years. I did it purely with the intention of being a photographer.
Q: How did you enter the realm of commercial photography?
A: In the 1970’s the only black and white photography was either academic or journalistic. There was no commercial black and white work. When I graduated, I either needed to teach or become journalistic. I had a fellowship right out of school and lived in Jerusalem. Then, in the mid 80s, my life changed radically. I started to do commercial work. They always wanted color and I refused. In the mid 80s, people began to accept black and white as a viable medium [for commercial work].