Today the story behind that picture is not about one of my photographs, but instead one of the photographers I admire. Rodney Smith was a die-hard film photgographer, using a Leica M4 and a Hasselblad with 80mm. He never touched a digital camera.
The story of Rodney King is also an interesting study – for those who care to look into it – of a photographers creation of images, his business model, and the continuous promotion and management of his estate after he passed in 2016.
How the photo was made
Rodney Smith told the story about this photo on website in 2009, but as it often is with the internet, things disappear. So I thought it to be my mission today to make this little gem available again:
Well. Here I am. On the internet. I am not so sure someone like me belongs here. I shoot film. I listen to Beethoven and Copland. I visit the post office daily. I relish my daily morning paper. But, technology calls, and I feel compelled to try and enter the twenty-first century on all four feet. I look forward to any comments or thoughts you may have about these spreads from the new book, even though they are small on your screen and the book is huge.
Some pictures just sort of happen very spontaneously (think Henri Cartier-Bresson) and others are very created (think Irving Penn's still life portraits). This picture was created. What strikes me about this picture is the old adage, “location, location, location!” fused with “production, production, production!”
This was originally shot for New York Magazine in the summer of 2008. The original concept was to create an essential New York picture and incorporate the great New York icon, the yellow taxicab. That was my only direction. The first step: location. One of the problems finding a location to shoot 30 cabs in New York City is finding space, and then getting permission. After much searching, and several failed attempts, we found ourselves at 125th street underneath the west side highway. The second step: logistics. It was a long and arduous process arranging to have 30 cabs at the right place at the right time, perfectly placed for a seemingly whimsical photograph.
After that, shooting the picture was very simple. The whole story was about this couple in love. Placing them on top of the cab was my idea. Again, shooting the picture was the easy part. Throughout my 40 years of photography, the hardest part is always finding the perfect location, and then the production involved in making it happen.
The second thing — which has to do with photography in general, not only this one photograph — is composition. Composition is to photography what rhythm is to music. It is about symmetry and proportion, resonance between the photographer and subject; where everything fits just so. Almost like iambic pentameter in poetry, or natural cadence and body rhythm. To me this picture represents not only everything in its right place, but also the right proportions, the right relationships, the right cadence. Composition is seriously lacking in most photography in the 21st century. It has been abandoned—whether due to lack of skill or lack of interest I’m not sure. It seems to me losing a sense of composition is synonymous to having an irregular heartbeat.
– Rodney Smith, July 13, 2009.
Behind a strong man ...
I mentioned that, if you care to do so, you may study the business model, the style, the way in which Rodney Smith created his images. But there is also a hidden gem, which is this one:
Leslie Smolan had a thirty-year collaboration with photographer Rodney Smith, both as his creative partner and wife. Today, she is engaged in preserving, enhancing and sharing Smith's legacy. She is the reason his name and photos appear so many places today.
Rodney Smith and Leslie Smolan in Italy, 1990.
You will see some artists who's archive and legacy tend to fall apart after they pass. Often it is up to luck and consciences. As in the case of Saul Leiter, who's caretaker(!) continued taking care of his archive and legacy after he was no longer with us. Henri Cartier-Bresson has his HCB Foundation in Paris (now in a brand new building), and there is the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. And of course the Vivian Maier who didn't care, but was lucky that John Maloof found her negatives and made it all known.
The story of Rodney Smith is as romantic as it is a business case. His love, muse and partner brings it all to life on the website www.rodneysmith.com and in galleries and hotel interiors all over the world.
In 2021, Hermès used several of his images as the centerpiece for its holiday campaign, and the J. Paul Getty Museum is acquiring 10 of his works for its permanent collection.
While you admire his photographs, you may also admire the strong woman behind (who has a life-long career as founding partner of Carbone Smolan Agency in New York).
The Edition Hotel in Tampa, Florida was the first 5-star hotel in town when it opened in October 2022. The suites feature Rodney Smith prints. (Hotel design by Ian Schrager).
The book about Rodney Smith
Paul Martineau, curator in the Paul Getty Museum is currently authoring the book "Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith,” but also previous books with the work of Rodney Smith are available at rodneysmith.com.
The mix of commissioned photography, fashion photography and art
While alive, Rodney Smith was often disappointed in the reception of his photoraphs as "too positive". The photos are his own ideas, though often commissioned by magazines. Rodney Smith would say that his allegiance was to the image, not to the client, and thus his images became very much his, and at the same time very useful for the clients. The almost simultaneously acquisition of his images by the Paul Getty Museum as high art and the use in Hermes commercial campaigns symbolizes how photogreaphy can be both commissioned, can be commercial and fashion - and yet high art. Which happnes to be also the discittion in this one hour video:
Rodney Smith (1947-2016) was a Leica M4 user in New York, and then a Hasselblad 500 with 80mm user for most of his work. You could say he primarly created photographs. He thought them out, arranged them and made them. HHis photos are popular for interiors, with an element of both composition genius and humor. This photo taken with a Hasselblad shows a Polaroid of Rodney Smith with his Leica - a sort of crosspoint in his career. But he never shot digital, so he used both Leica M4 and Hasselblad in 2015. Many Leica users have a soft spot for Hasselblad, just as manuy Hasselblad users have a soft spot for Leica.
Above: "Andrew and Edythe Kissing on a Sea of Cabs" 2008 by Rodney Smith.
Thorsten Overgaard by Wilson Leung.
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish-American multiple award-winning photographer, known for his writings about photography and Leica cameras. He travels to more than 25 countries a year, photographing and teaching workshops to photographers. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via email.
You can follow Thorsten Overgaard at his television channel magicoflight.tv.