PROVO, Utah — The images created by photographer Rodney Smith blur the boundary between imagination and reality. And within the surreal, dream-like world that Smith creates in his photographs, viewers can discover singular beauty, sly wit and even poetic truth.
An exhibition of Smith’s work, “Adam’s Dream: The Photographs of Rodney Smith,” will be on view at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art from July 28, 2005 to January 16, 2006. The exhibition consists of 69 black and white gelatin silver prints drawn from all phases of Smith’s career with a particular emphasis on his commercial work during the 1990s.
The title of the exhibition is drawn from a passage in an 1817 letter written by the poet John Keats — “The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream. He awoke and found it truth.” In poetically interpreting “Adam” as “everyman,” both Keats and Smith ponder the human experience of the imagination, dreams, and their connection to the immediacy of the physical world. Dreams can reveal essential truths that have been overlooked or denied by the conscious mind. Smith’s photographs seek after the insight that dreams provide into the experience of reality.
“A camera’s eye,” Smith says, “can see the world with more acuity or resolve than your own eye. It can penetrate deeper, it can see sharper, it can give you an insight, a depth that your own eye can’t have.”
The timeless beauty of Smith’s photography is a conscious counterbalance to the brazen ugliness of the contemporary media environment. In contrast to the frenzied “realism” of a lot of fashion and advertising photography, Smith creates images that foster a sense of serenity and well-being. “My interest is not in what is new or fashionable, but rather what endures, and is graceful, stylish and beautiful,” Smith says.
Smith’s unique visual language has had great success in the commercial world. He searches for locations outside the studio that have the distinctive architecture and landscape features that will properly frame his vision. His photographs frequently reference other artists, most notably the surrealist painter Rene Magritte. His images carefully balance the elements of design and spontaneity to make Smith’s contrived compositions appear natural. Smith’s unwavering commitment to the science and craft of traditional black and white photography assures that the final photographic print will be an object of refinement and beauty.
Smith grew up in a family that was attuned to the details of appearance — his father was president of fashion industry giant Anne Klein. Smith recalls, “A sense of style, a sense of proportion and a sense of beauty and a sense of grace — all of those things were very important in my upbringing.” However, Smith rejected the superficial world of fashion to study English literature and theology at the University of Virginia.
Later, while in the Master’s of Divinity in Theology program at Yale University, Smith met the renowned documentary photographer Walker Evans. Smith became Evans’ student and mastered the craft of black and white photography. Today, even though digital technology has largely replaced the darkroom, Smith remains committed to traditional photographic printing methods.
After graduating from Yale, Smith pursued various photographic projects, traveling through the southeastern United States, Haiti and Israel. This early work, which included live action, portraits, formal landscape and still life, had a significant impact on Smith’s commercial photography. For nearly a decade, Smith worked in relative obscurity until a couple of high-profile assignments in the mid-1980s introduced his work to a broader audience. Today, Smith lists an impressive clientele on his résumé, including American Express, Merrill Lynch, The New York City Ballet, Ralph Lauren, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the New York Times Magazine, to name only a few.
“Adam’s Dream: The Photographs of Rodney Smith” will be on view in the Conway A. Ashton & Carl E. Jackman Gallery on the museum’s second floor. This exhibition is free and open to the public during regular museum hours.