A Brilliant Book – Review of “Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith” by Paul Martineau

In the literary world, there is a long-standing tradition of books that gather the old and reveal the new. Often with subtitles like “New and Collected Stories” (or poems, or essays) by some famous author, the volumes gather scattered gems into one place and use those as a foundation for celebrating writing fresh to the world.

“Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith” by Paul Martineau
Published by J. Paul Getty Museum, 2023
review by W. Scott Olsen

The books can be profound. At one level they serve to collect work we already know is important into one volume, which enables the individual works to speak to each other as we turn the pages between them in ways not possible with separate publications. At another level, it gives a gravitas to the new work by placing it in the company of the established genius.

Oftentimes with these books, there is a critical introduction by some scholar whose job is not so much to defend the author’s literary merit – that’s already been established – as to give voice to details and insights that might be in the air but have not yet been given explanation or form.

Of course, this approach is also nothing new to photobooks. There are a hundred books which seek to gather an artist’s work into one definitive if not exhaustive binding. Rarely, though, has the effort been as engaging and complete as in Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith, by Paul Martineau.

Although this is a book that collects and celebrates Rodney Smith’s images, the arc of his career and aesthetic development, I want to begin with the writing, the explanatory texts in this book.

Figure 1 – Twins in Tree / © Rodney Smith, Getty Publications

Oftentimes, the writing in a photobook is perfunctory, irrelevant, or nonexistent. In Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith, the writing is eloquent, detailed, historically and aesthetically insightful. For people who are not familiar with Smith’s work, the writing provides biography as well as artistic evolution. For those who are familiar with the images, the writing provides backstory and context that make the story of the work more nuanced and complicated – in the very best way.

The book begins with a brief forward by Timothy Potts, Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who writes, “It is our hope that this book serves both as an introduction for those unfamiliar with Smith’s work and a source of pleasure for those who know the photographs but are curious to learn how the photographer’s background and education shaped his creative trajectory.”

This is followed by an Introduction by Graydon Carter, who for 25 years was editor of Vanity Fair and thus at the forefront of high-end fashion photography, who writes, “A Rodney Smith photograph can be whimsical but solemn, composed but candid, still but full of movement, mysterious but revealing, desperate but funny. To artists, writers, and all other manner of creative people, these sorts of paradoxes has long been regarded as a tool rather than as a bogeyman, a way of storing the hard-won harvests of history against the unforgiving winters of uncertainty, and a means of transforming the untouchable into something approaching the divine. To Rodney, paradox was not just a tool; It was the tool.”

Plate 87 – Don Jumping Over Hay Roll No. 1 / © Rodney Smith, Getty Publications

But then, if spectacular is a word I can apply to prefatory writing in a photobook, I would like to apply it to Paul Martineau’s essay, “A Leap of Faith.” Martineau is Curator of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the essay is a wide-ranging, multi-layered approach to Smith’s biography – both personal and artistic. The essay is art history and art criticism at its best – readable and sophisticated at the same time. For example, speaking of biography, he lets us know that, “Smith fell in love with English literature while at Avon and hoped to become a novelist. He graduated in 1966 and set his sights on the University of Virginia, his father’s alma mater, but rather than majoring in business as his parents wanted, he chose English literature as his course of study. Turned off by the English department’s focus on conceptual issues, however, he gravitated towards religious studies, intrigued by the metaphysicians that scholars in the field were asking about the meaning of life.”

Later, Martineau writes, “Smith approached his human subjects with a sympathetic eye, coming in close to try to reveal their inner strength and beauty of spirit. “When I feel I am close I get closer,” Smith wrote. “I am so close that I cannot look the other way or hide behind anything. Then I am aware of an intensity of intimacy and understanding. I begin to sense who I am, and to perceive in others the small expressions that help to reveal a person’s unique and essential quality.”

Still later, he writes, “While most people identify Smith’s photographs of male models running and jumping with expressions of joy, others see something more below the surface. “I think there is something very sad about those male figures,” said Smith’s gallerist Etheleen Stanley. “It’s hard to describe, but there is loneliness there, a sadness, it’s almost Chaplinesque.”

Plate 115 – Wessel Looking Over the Balcony / © Rodney Smith, Getty Publications

The main section of the book contains 143 plates (a number of additional images also accompany the essays), beginning with Doorman, Park Ave. New York, New York, 1971 and concluding with Nathan leaping with Umbrella on Rooftop, New York, New York, 2011. Arranged chronologically the images begin with black and white landscapes and architectural work, the occasional portraits, and quickly reveal Smith’s genius for composition and revealing moments. Whether it’s the use of light in something like Dairy Barn, Wales, United Kingdom, 1980, or leading lines with kinetic energy in Woman Running from Behind, Long Island, New York, 1994, there is a formal quality that makes these images instantly almost metaphoric.

Looking at an image such as Leaning House, Alberta, Canada, 2004, the addition of the two well-dressed men to the decaying house, one upright and framed by a doorway while the other, standing to the side, echoing the lean of the structure, is a way to recast both the house and the people as well as the world within which they both move.

These are posed images. Formal constructions. But not one of them seems forced. Inasmuch as they are constructed, they are also true.

The collection moves into Smith’s color images, and an image like Siobhan Reading a Book, Princelet Street, London, England, 2006, would be worth an entire seminar on compositional balance, use of color and light and shadow, and also the ideas of narrative or story. This is the kind of image, like nearly every image in the book, that deserves and rewards a continued examination. These are elegant, beautiful, unexpectedly compelling images.

Plate 119 – Saori _ Mossimo Holding Hands / © Rodney Smith, Getty Publications

After the plates, there is an essay by Rebecca Senf, chief curator at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, titled “Open and Gutsy.” More technical than Martineau’s essay, though equally insightful, Senf covers everything from model selection to handling of negatives to composition. She writes, “From the beginning of his career, Smith also made landscape photographs that expressed his desire for formal order and celebrated the qualities of natural light. His acute attention to the way architecture and trees created distinct lines and shapes in his surroundings allowed him to construct photographs that brought those elements into relationships that suggested stability, consonance, and resolve – the very characteristics he felt the chaotic world was missing.”

The book concludes with a brief and loving essay by Leslie Smolan, Rodney Smith’s artistic partner and wife. She says, “He had a quest to make the world more beautiful, more precise, more peaceful, more romantic, more witty, more human, more interesting – more lasting… Rodney was always pushing me out of my comfort zone. He saw the person behind the expectations. He told me that there would always be obstacles along the way that seemed insurmountable, but if I followed my heart, I would find a way.”

There is a real joy to this book, and it comes from a slow turning of the pages.

Rodney Smith: A Leap of Faith, is an important and necessary book for every photographer, every artist, every person who treasures beauty in the visible world.

Plate 126 – Edythe and Andrew Kissing on Top of Taxis / © Rodney Smith, Getty Publications

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Comments (1):

  1. Sean T Scanlon

    July 13, 2023 at 20:31

    Rodney Smith has always been one of my favorite photographers. I jumped at the chance to pick this book up the minute it was released and have loved perusing the images. Thanks for the review, I will make sure I go back and spend more time on the essays.


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