Rodney Smith (born 1947) is a New York based fashion and portrait photographer. The son of an enormously successful businessman, Smith was first exposed to serious photography as a teenager. “When I was a young boy, my parents traveled a great deal and there was a German couple that took care of me and the man was very interested in photography,” he recalls. “He built this little dark room in a bathroom and I used to watch him developing film and making prints and I loved it. I think in retrospect it was important for me because I’ve always sort of loved the technical side of photography and I think I got that from him.”
Smith’s next exposure to photography came while he was an undergraduate: “I remember this day very well. I went to The Museum of Modern Art to the permanent collection,” he says. “Edward Steichen was still the curator there and I remember looking at the permanent collection of photography which included Gene Smith, Minor White, Dorothea Lange – and I just looked at these pictures and I said, ‘I can do this.’ It was pretty arrogant when I look back.”
After graduating college, Smith went to Yale University to get his master’s degree in, of all subjects, theology – a topic that has been a deep part of his entire adult life. “I guess I’ve always been very intense, but back then the intensity was sort of manifesting itself as anxiety,” Smith recalls. “Because of all this intensity I became really introspective and trying to figure out the cause and the purpose and the resolution to all that anxiety.”
It was while he was at Yale that Smith began a serious study of photo technique: “I knew I wasn’t through studying theology but I really went there with the total intention of becoming a photographer,” he says. “I absolutely knew I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t feel that studying in an art school or a photography department full time was the way to address the issues that were interesting to me – so I sort of entwined the two.”
After graduating, Smith went though a long period of struggling to find both his vision and a way to earn a living. He supplemented prints sales by teaching, putting collections together for corporations and basically living the life of a starving artist. “I never really knew from one month to the next how I was going to live,” he recalls. His first break in corporate work came when a friend who owned an ad agency hired him to shoot a black and white ad campaign for Northrop – which was shortly followed by a plum annual report assignment from Heinz – an opportunity that helped transform a lifelong devotion into a prosperous career.