Rodney Smith’s Leap of Faith: An Intimate Chat with Leslie Smolan & Terence Falk09/07/2023
Rodney Smith was a photographic visionary, with an allegiance to the image above all else. Long acclaimed for his iconic black-and-white pictures—not to forget his later jewel-like color scenes—Smith captured enchanted worlds full of subtle magic and lighthearted humor. Using only analog film and the aesthetics of natural light, his dream-like photographs are matched in quality by the craft and physical beauty of his prints.
Above photograph © The Estate of Rodney Smith
Smith died in 2016, yet the enduring precision, elegance, and whimsy of his world view is nowhere more evident than in our conversation with Leslie Smolan, his widow and executive director of his estate; and his long-time assistant, master printer Terence Falk.
Listen in as Smolan discusses key aspects of Smith’s career development and describes her recent collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum on the book, Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith. And Falk provides firsthand anecdotes about the unique experience of working on a Rodney Smith shoot—an experience that led one powerful New York executive to call his secretary from a midtown pay phone and exclaim, “I feel like I’m in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!”
As New York Fashion Week ushers in the fall season, we’re looking back on the career of one of the most distinctive photographers to infuse business and fashion with a timeless sense of style and grace.
Guests: Leslie Smolan and Terence Falk
- 1:50: Rodney Smith’s educational background in photography and religious studies, and the role these studies played in his photographic vision.
- 4:28: Smith’s reliance on available light and his focus on the aesthetics of illumination.
- 8:34: Corporate CEO portrait assignments for Heinz and how this work allowed Smith to come to terms with his past strained relationship with his late father, a very powerful businessman.
- 23:24: Distinctions between the objective nature of most commercial photo shoots and the subjective experience of a Rodney Smith shoot.
- 29:30: Smith’s complex approach to crafting prints in the darkroom, and manipulating tonality with burning, dodging, and toning to achieve glowing skin tones and rich blacks.
- 32:05: Smith’s connection to surrealism, Rene Magritte, and the experience of magic.
- 41:02: Episode Break
- 41:25: The reasoning behind Smith’s shift from 35mm to medium format: better resolution, added detail and tone, while still maintaining his mobility.
- 45:48: Leslie Smolan’s process behind creating the book, Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith and the dynamic team she worked with—including Paul Martineau at the Getty Museum and Patricia Barrett at the Rodney Smith Archive—to produce the book remotely in the midst of the COVID pandemic.
- 56:47: Rodney Smith’s transcendent style, allowing images to cross categories between fashion, corporate, and fine art use.
- 1:02:40: The suspension of time in the world of Rodney Smith and his insistence on capturing only ideal moments for posterity.
- 1:06:40: Terence Falk describes working in the darkroom with Rodney Smith, from how he applied the Zone System to get proper skin tones to the development methods he used to retain maximum highlight detail. Plus stories about Smith’s influence as a teacher.
Rodney Smith was born in New York City to a family steeped in business and fashion. Initially rejecting the commercialism of his father, Smith earned a master’s degree in Theology from Yale while studying photography under Walker Evans. In the late 1970s, his early documentary photographs reflected a diverse cultural mix, while his corporate portraits of the early ’80s revolutionized the genre. Smith’s later fashion work, with its combination of surrealism, style, and wit, depicted enchanted worlds full of subtle contradictions and surprises. Using only analog film and light, his un-retouched dream-like images are matched in quality by the craft and physical beauty of his prints. Smith was a man who cared deeply about sharing his vision of the world with humor, grace, and optimism. Smith died in 2016, at the age of 68.
Leslie Smolan is the Executive Director of the Estate of Rodney Smith, where she is actively engaged in preserving, enhancing, and sharing Smith’s legacy. Smolan had a thirty-year collaboration with Rodney Smith as his creative partner and his wife. Leslie Smolan was co-founder and director of creative strategy at Carbone Smolan Agency (CSA), the creative force behind some of the world’s most celebrated brands, and currently serves as Senior Advisor to 50,000feet, who combined forces with CSA in 2019. Smolan received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 2014. She co-authored "Dialog": What Makes a Great Design Partnership with Ken Carbone in 2012, and was coauthor of The Hat Book with Smith, in 1993, as well as spearheading several other books of Smith’s photographs, most recently Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith, written by photography curator Paul Martineau and published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2023.
Terence Falk is considered one of the country’s finest traditional black-and-white master printers, producing exhibition prints for a long roster of distinguished photographers. He has taught advanced courses in photography and darkroom printing at the International Center of Photography and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, the Maine Media Workshops, the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop, and Paier College of Art, in Connecticut. In his own photography, Falk works with a large format view camera, exhibiting in solo and group exhibitions in New England and New York. His commercial assignments include work for clients such as BMW, Chubb, the New York Times Magazine, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, New York City Ballet, and Estée Lauder.
The Estate of Rodney Smith Website: https://rodneysmith.com/
The Estate of Rodney Smith Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rodneysmithphotography/
The Estate of Rodney Smith Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_rodneysmith/
The Estate of Rodney Smith Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/rodneysmithpics/
Rodney Smith Lecture at the B&H Event Space: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/the-photographs-of-rodney-smith-1970-2016
Conversation about Rodney Smith at FIT Amphitheater: https://www.fitnyc.edu/museum/events/index.php
Rodney Smith Exhibition at Staley Wise Gallery in New York: https://www.staleywise.com/exhibitions/rodney-smith2
Rodney Smith: A Remembrance with Dr Rebecca Senf: https://santafeworkshops.com/creativity-continues/rodney-smith-a-remembrance-with-rebecca-senf/
Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith book: https://shop.getty.edu/products/rodney-smith-a-leap-of-faith-978-1606068465
Host: Allan Weitz
Senior Creative Producer: Jill Waterman
Senior Producer: Mike Weinstein
Executive Producer: Shawn C. Steiner