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Reverie and Reality

Photographs by Rodney Smith

Front cover
A.J. Looking Over Ivy-
covered Wall, Harriman,
New York, 1994.
Back cover
A.J. Chasing Airplane,
Orange County Airport,
New York, 1998
Reverie and Reality
Photographs by Rodney Smith

16 May – 10 August 2003

University of Virginia Ar t Museum

Chicken, La Valle, Haiti,
Pears, Clinton,
Connecticut, 1974


I first came upon Rodney Smith’s photography in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
His delightful assemblage of realistic and surrealistic elements combined with the physical
beauty of his images—their composition and light—announced an unusual talent. Even if
the articles weren’t all that interesting, the photographs never disappointed.

In 2001, Bill Sublette, director of University and Development publications and a photographer
himself, brought me more images and information on Rodney Smith, who I learned was an alumnus
of the University of Virginia. That connection to U.Va. gave further impetus to our invitation to
him to share his distinguished photography career with us.We are deeply honored to present his
work and are excited to share this exhibition with our visitors, especially University students.

Each year the Museum appoints a graduate art history student as the Museum-McIntire
Department of Art Fellow.Working with the Museum’s curator Suzanne Foley, this year’s fellow,
Jon Stuhlman, took the leadership in organizing this show. He was ably assisted by Ms. Foley
and Stephen Margulies, our curator of works on paper. Drawing on his past experience at
the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, and as assistant director of Second Street Gallery,
in Charlottesville, Jon worked closely with Rodney Smith and his assistants, Patricia
Barrett, Eric Jorgensen, and David Meredith, to select the images, which were then
produced for this venue. Jon professionally installed the handsome exhibition, wrote
an insightful essay on the artist’s work, and managed production of the catalogue,
which has been beautifully designed by Anne Chesnut.

Reverie and Reality is made possible at the University of Virginia Art Museum with
support from the Arts Enhancement Fund. About six years ago, the Office of the
Provost created this special fund to support all the arts at the University. Since that
time the Fund has brought to the University many distinguished artists and
performers, considerably strengthening the academic program and the visibility of
the fine and performing arts.We are grateful to Gene Block, our current provost
and vice president, for his continued support of this program.

Jill Hartz, Director 2

Reverie and Reality
Photographs by Rodney Smith

A real rebellion in art would be to show people that there is real beauty and grace in the world. 1
—Rodney Smith

The world depicted in Rodney Smith’s photographs is full of subtle contradictions, quiet
tensions, and whimsical surprises. In one image, an elegant woman stands before a window in
a sun-shot Baroque sitting room, while her reflection in a nearby mirror creates a ghostly
Opposite, clockwise
double (fig. 9). In another, men in bowler hats and impeccable suits stand chest-deep in a field
from upper left with pruning shears raised, yet cut nothing (fig. 12). An early work depicts a chicken balancing
Grove Dordogne, impossibly on the edge of a step, posing just milliseconds before bursting into flight (fig. 1).
France, 1985
Each of these events is captured in Smith’s stunning black-and-white photographs (sometimes
Pecan Grove, Shelby,
Mississippi, 1977 tinted with delicate yellows, greens, blues or browns), which are characterized by their tightly
Trees, Hereford, arranged, evenly balanced compositions and their striking tones ranging from the crisp whites
England, 1980 to deep, velvety shadows.
Landscape No. 1, Parc de
Sceaux, 1995 Early in his career, Smith studied and was inspired by the photography collection at The Museum
of Modern Art, taking particular interest in the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugène Atget,
André Kertesz, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and Eugene Smith. One of his strongest
memories from this experience was his discovery of the differences between European and
American photographs. The former he found to be voyeuristic and dispassionate, but created
with “an extraordinary compositional sensitivity;” the latter seemed grittier, with subjects who
were often more aware of being photographed and thus had a more obvious (or even intimate)
relationship with the photographer.

Although they have long captured moments of whimsy and contradiction, Smith’s photographs
did not always traffic in the marvelous. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he took a much more
hands-off approach, working as photojournalist in the documentary tradition. Like the street
photographers of the early twentieth-century, he depended on a perfect confluence of events:
on being in the right place at the right time (with the right camera and lighting) and acting
quickly to capture the shot before the moment was gone. While always formally and
compositionally elegant, these early images were the product of the camera used as a detached,
3 4

5 6
objective eye; Smith simply sought to document the people he saw and the places that he traveled.
In these works, such as Howdy-Doody, Alligator, Mississippi (1977, fig. 16), he rarely posed his
subjects or altered the setting but rather waited to shoot until the moment seemed just right.
During these formative years, he created a body of work consisting primarily of landscapes and
portraiture. Over time, however, he became more interested in “creating” a picture rather than
waiting to capture one.This shift also signaled his move into the world of commercial photography.
Left to right When speaking about this new domain, Smith tells the story of a colleague who was hired to
Bernadette, No. 2,
Burden Mansion, New create an advertisement for an insurance company, but he came away from the shoot empty
York, 1995 handed, saying that “there just wasn’t a photograph there.” It was then, Smith realized, that
Eva Twirling, No. 1, The “99 percent of the time, there’s not going to be a picture there waiting for you; you have to make
Cloud Room, New York,
1999 the picture.” As he began to take on increasing numbers of commercial assignments, Smith
realized that he would have to make do with a wide variety of situations, many of which were
less than ideal. If it was raining on the day of a shoot, he had to find a way to work with it:
to make it “sunny,” or to change his plan and work with the rain rather than fighting it. Smith
cautions, however, that one can also go too far in creating a scene and “over-direct.” If the
photographer imposes his will too much upon the picture, Smith feels, the resulting image
runs the risk of lacking vitality and spontaneity.

So how does Smith go about creating his photographs? When he receives an assignment, he says,
an ideal client will give him some sense of what he or she is looking for but not have a final
image firmly in mind. They must realize, rather, that Smith will treat their initial idea not as an

7 8
Bernadette Twirling,
Burden Mansion,
New York, 1997

endpoint, but as a place of departure. Once he determines the location of the shoot, Smith
remains open to its potentiality, avoiding fixing a final image in his mind immediately. He gives
his models some direction but also a fair amount of freedom. He watches them to see what
they do, how they interact with each other and their surroundings, and how their individual
personalities are revealed in the various ways in which they walk, stand, sit, and carry themselves.
Smith never takes test shots or Polaroids,® preferring to allow his blend of control and spontaneity
Left to right
to create a series of happy accidents that work in concert to create the final photograph.
Daniel in Live Oak Tree As a result of this process, Smith’s photographs become a collaboration between artist and
with Fog, No. 2, Pebble
Beach, California, 1998
model rather than a dispassionate, impersonal interaction. He also feels that his images, even
Three Men with Shears,
those created for commercial ends, say a great deal about him. On one hand, Smith relates,
No. 1, Reims, France, 1997 “I like an ordered world but also one that contains a certain amount of whimsy.” On the other,
he feels that being behind the camera “allows me to have a greater intimacy with people,”
and therefore gives “me a tremendous amount of strength that I don’t have without it.”

While technically Smith’s photographs hold their own against the genre’s masters, conceptually
they share a great deal with Surrealism. Surrealist photographers used the camera as an
instrument of the imagination rather than as a tool for documentation. As mentioned above,
the intersection of opposites drives much of Smith’s content. In a similar manner, unexpected
mixtures and their fantastic results—in particular, the intersection of inner and outer worlds,
of dream and reality—were one of the Surrealist movement’s cornerstones; it is perhaps for this
reason that Smith’s photographs are often called surreal.2 While Smith’s dream-like images

11 12
Gary and Henry Chasing
Butterfly, Beaufort,
South Carolina, 1996

often inspire a sense of wonder in the viewer, they tend to be more lighthearted and less
subversive than those of Surrealism proper. In the calm, ordered world of Smith’s images,
everything seems in its place; there is virtually nothing to be found of the distortions,
ambiguities, and brutal cropping that characterize much of Surrealist photography.3 However,
both Smith and the Surrealists wish to impress upon their viewers the sense thatthe world
is a magical place, full of untapped potential and happy accidents that can occur anywhere and
at any time, if only we pay attention. Accordingly, Smith’s work shares as much with André
Two Women in Black, Breton’s novels or René Magritte’s paintings as with images by any of the Surrealist photographers
Long Island, New York,
(not to mention both Magritte’s and Smith’s predilection for bowler hats.)4 As Smith says,
“I love playing with people’s perceptions of how the world operates.” Such a statement could
Polaroid Self-portrait, easily have come from Magritte as well.
Schoenburg Palace,
Vienna, 1998 In the end, the strength of Rodney Smith’s photographs lies in their complete synthesis of the
formal clarity and technical skill of early twentieth-century European photographers, the more
personal relationship between subject and photographer of their American peers, and the
embrace of the accidental, the marvelous, and the spontaneous advocated by the Surrealists.
In Smith’s enchanted world balance produces beauty, laughter and whimsy dance hand
in hand, and things are not always what they seem…a perfect blend of reverie and reality.

Jonathan Stuhlman
March 2003

1 From an interview with Smith by Larry Frascella in

“Rodney Smith,” Communication Arts 40, 1 (March–April
1998), 102. All other quotations in this essay are from
an interview with Rodney Smith conducted by Jonathan
Stuhlman on March 17, 2003.
2 Another link between Smith and Surrealism is his
relationship with the world of advertising and fashion.
Surrealism’s relationship with these two industries
is a well-documented one, and many of its best-known
participants (most famously, Salvadore Dalí) worked
with one or both of them. See Richard Martin, Fashion
and Surrealism (New York: Rizzoli, 1987) for more.
3 For example, as seen in work by Hans Bellmer,
Jacques-André Boiffard, Man Ray, or Raoul Ubac.
For more in this area, see Rosalind Krauss et al.,
L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (New York:
Abbeville Publishers, 1985).
4 Books like Breton’s Nadja are filled with such chance
encounters and promote a similar view of the world as
a place filled with mystery and rich potentiality.
Selected Solo Exhibitions
1981 Books & Company, New York, NY
Berkeley Center, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT
1982 Image Gallery, Bantam, CT
1984 Pucker Gallery, Boston, MA
Cathedral Museum,St.John the Divine,New York,NY
Milton Weill Gallery, 92nd Street Y, New York, NY
1986 Pucker Gallery, Boston, MA
Goodrich Gallery, New Haven, CT
1992 Witkin Gallery, New York, NY
1993 Gallerie Zur Stockeregg, Zurich, Switzerland
1995 Gallerie Zur Stockeregg, Zurich, Switzerland
1997 Pucker Gallery, Boston, MA
2000 Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, MA
2003 University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville,VA
Center for Photographic Art, Carmel, CA
Fahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CA

Professional Recognition
1987 ❚❘ The Mead Show for best annual report
The American Institute of Graphic Arts
1988 ❚❘ Warren Paper Company:
Best Annual Report for Metropolitan Life
Rodney Smith graduated from the University of 1991 ❚❘ Advertising Photographers of America for
Virginia in 1970 and went onto earn a Master of Divinity Bergdorf Goodman assignment
in Theology from Yale University in 1973 where he also 1992 ❚❘ PDN/Photo Design Award for The Hat Book
studied photography under Walker Evans. Mr. Smith is a 1993 ❚❘ PDN/Nikon for The Hat Book
photographer based in New York with years of teaching ❚❘ Applied Arts Annual for Lear's assignment
experience, including an adjunct professorship at Yale ❚❘ Graphis Annual for The Hat Book
University. He regularly teaches at the Santa Fe 1994 ❚❘ Communication Arts for The Hat Book and
Photographic Workshops in New Mexico. Along with his W Magazine and Mirabella assignments
personal work, Mr. Smith has been commissioned by 1995 ❚❘ Andy Award for The Hat Book
❚❘ Photo Design for Ellen Tracy assignment
clients such as American Express, BMW, H. J. Heinz, IBM,
❚❘ Communication Arts for Mirabella assignment
MCI Worldcom, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, The New
1997 ❚❘ PDN Photo Design Awards in advertising,
York City Ballet, The New York Stock Exchange, Starbucks corporate, and editorial categories
Coffee, and VISA. His fashion clients include Bergdorf ❚❘ Communication Arts for BMW assignment
Goodman, Ellen Tracy, Neiman Marcus, Ralph Lauren, 1998 ❚❘ PDN Photo Design Awards in advertising,corporate,
and Saks Fifth Avenue, and his editorial clients include and editorial categories
Bloomberg Personal, Esquire, Fast Company, The New York ❚❘ Communication Arts for Canard Duchene and
Dayton Hudson assignments
Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and W Magazine. In 1975
❚❘ Alfred Eisenstadt Awards: finalist for
he received a Jerusalem Foundation Fellowship which magazine photographer of the year
enabled him to live in Jerusalem for three months and 1999 ❚❘ PDN Photo Design Awards for Advertising (Gold)
resulted in his first book, In the Land of Light, published by and Magazine (Merit Award)
Houghton-Mifflin Company in 1983. His second book, ❚❘ Society of Publication Designers for
The Hat Book (with Nan A. Talese), was published by Bloomberg Personal assignment
Doubleday in 1993. Currently, Mr. Smith is working on a 2000 ❚❘ Communication Arts for
The New York City Ballet assignment
third book. He lives with his wife and daughter in Snedens
2001 ❚❘ PDN Photography Annual for
Landing, a small community on the Hudson River near
The New York City Ballet and VISA assignments
New York City.
Man with Canoe on Head, Saranac, New York, 1994,
9 3⁄4 x 13 1⁄4
Bernadette in White Looking Down, Burden Mansion,
New York, 1995, 15 1⁄2 x 15 1⁄2
Bernadette, No. 2, Burden Mansion, New York, 1995,
19 1⁄2 x 19 1⁄2
Bernadette Sitting on Chair, Burden Mansion, New York,
1995, 15 3⁄8 x 15 3⁄8
Gary Descending Stairs, Parc de Sceaux, Paris, 1995, 15 x 15
Gary Standing on Wall, Parc de Sceaux, Paris, 1995, 5 x 5
Landscape No. 1, Parc de Sceaux, 1995, 4 13⁄16 x 6 inches
Man with Hat Over Face, Long Island, New York, 1995,
10 x 12 3⁄8
Shirley Seated in Grandstand, Long Island, New York,
1995, 10 1⁄2 x 10 1⁄2
Skyline, Hudson River, New York, 1995, 10 1⁄2 x 131⁄2
Couple, San Francisco, 1996, 19 1⁄2 x 19 1⁄2
Danielle in Boat, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1996, 27 x 27
Don Pointing, West Point, New York, 1996, 7 1⁄2 x 7 1⁄2
Gary and Henry Chasing Butterfly, Beaufort,
South Carolina, 1996, 10 1⁄2 x 10 1⁄2
Bernadette Twirling, Burden Mansion, New York, 1997,
16 27 x 27
Three Men with Shears, No. 1, Reims, France, 1997,
101⁄2 x 123⁄4
Checklist Twins No. 3, Sherwood Island, Connecticut, 1997,
151⁄4 x 151⁄4
All photographs are gelatin siver prints.
Measurements are in inches, height precedes width. A.J. Chasing Airplane, Orange County Airport, New York,
1998, 51⁄2 x 193⁄8
Images illustrated in catalogue.
Daniel in Live Oak Tree with Fog, No. 2, Pebble Beach,
Doorman, Park Avenue, 1971, 6 3⁄4 x 9 California, 1998, 101⁄2 x 101⁄2
Pears, Clinton, Connecticut, 1974, 19 1⁄4 x 191⁄4 Jonah, Hands Up, Salzburg, 1998, 4 x 4
Armenian Church, Half-Hour after Easter Service, Jonah with Head in Hedge, No. 1, Vienna, Austria, 1998,
Jerusalem, 1976, 4 1⁄4 x 6 1⁄4 7 1⁄2 x 7 3⁄8
Armenian Seminarian Holding Chin, Jerusalem, 1976, Polaroid Self-portrait, Schoenburg Palace, Vienna, 1998,
6 1⁄4 x 9 3⁄16 4x6
Howdy-Doody, Mar-Saba, Negev Desert, Israel, 1976, 151⁄2 x 15 1⁄2 Woman with Chihuahua in Shopping Bag, No. 1,
Alligator, Mississippi, Rodeo Drive, California, 1998, 101⁄2 x 101⁄2
Howdy-Doody, Alligator, Mississippi, 1977, 61⁄4 x 91⁄4
Pecan Grove, Shelby, Mississippi, 1977, 3 1⁄16 x 4 1⁄4 Alan Leaping from 515 Madison Avenue, New York, 1999,
101⁄2 x 101⁄2
Curved Earth, St. Clears, Wales, 1980, 4 3⁄8 x 5 5⁄8
Deanna and Eva No. 1, The Cloud Room, New York, 1999,
Trees, Hereford, England, 1980, 3 3⁄4 x 5 12 x 101⁄2
Chicken, La Valle, Haiti, 1982, 15 x 15 Don Jumping Over a Hay Roll, No. 1, Monkton, Maryland,
Flour Men, Jacmel, Haiti, 1982, 6 1⁄2 x 9 3⁄16 1999, 4 x 4
Haitian Staircase, Jacmel, Haiti, 1982, 13 1⁄2 x 10 inches Elena and Jessy at Birdhouse, Snedens Landing, New
Grove Dordogne, France, 1985, 4 3⁄4 x 3 3⁄4 York, 1999, 15 x 15
Waiter, Round Hill, Jamaica, 1989, 10 1⁄2 x 10 3⁄8 Eva and Deanna No. 2, The Cloud Room, New York, 1999,
191⁄2 x 191⁄2
Trees, Cumberland Island, Georgia, 1991, 4 x 4
Eva Twirling, No. 1, The Cloud Room, New York, 1999,
Fourth of July, Piermont, New York, 1992, 15 1⁄4 x 151⁄4 101⁄2 x 101⁄2
Two Women in Black, Long Island, New York, 1992, 15 x 18 3⁄4 Jessy in Tree and Elena Resting on Branch, No. 1, Snedens
Maria Behind Pedestal with Hats, Long Island, Landing, New York, 1999. 15 x 15
New York, 1993, 10 1⁄4 x 10 1⁄4 Twins in Tree, Snedens Landing, New York, 1999, 27 x 27
A.J. Looking Over Ivy-covered Wall, Harriman, Bernadette at Broken Window, Brooklyn, New York, 2000,
New York, 1994, 19 1⁄16 x 19 101⁄2 x 101⁄2
Superslow Exercise, New York, 2001, 101⁄2 x 101⁄2

Anne Chesnut
Thesis Sans
Sappi McCoy
Text ©2003 Rector and
Visitors of U.Va.
Photography ©2003
Rodney Smith
University of Virginia Ar t Museum
Thomas H. Bayly Building
155 Rugby Road
PO Box 400119
Charlottesville VA 22904-4119