Surreal Reality: Photographs by Rodney Smith

play to live; live to play

Surreal Reality: Photographs by Rodney Smith

FOST gallery has surfaced an interesting collection of images, which avid art purveyors will find familiar. Yet they are distinctively timeless, aided by the classical medium of black and white photography. Envisioned by American photographer Rodney Smith, these images depict neatly fashioned gentlemen (and women) in interesting settings, suggesting a homage to, or sharing a fascination of men in suits and bowler hats with Surrealist Rene Magritte. The exhibition title is contradictory or enigmatic, depending on the manner it is decrypted. On one hand, the exhibition title could describe bizarre, real life events. On the other hand, it could characterise a visual treat — blurring of fantasies and the real world; tricking the mind to make up a story behind the image, pushing absurdities in composition, fictitious narrative and pictorial perspectives; shifting an event or item out of the ordinary to give visual pleasure to the image maker and viewer.

Photography in this time and age is democratised to the extent that anyone can be a photographer. But not everyone can take timeless, memorable photographs, transcending personal memories to evoke powerful narratives or messages. While anyone can learn to compose an image formalistically, paying attention to rule of thirds, rhythm or proportion, not everyone can relentlessly pursue an artistic vision. The photographs by Rodney Smith is a case in point of a remarkable artistic vision, and I suspect he is unable to take haphazardly composed holiday snapshots.

The black and white photographs might appear cliche or overtly nostalgic to some viewers. But their reservations should not detract from the artist’s valid treatment, using monochrome to draw attention to the picture’s subject matter, ensuring that the composition is undisturbed by colours. Monochrome photography is not obsolete or dead; it remains an alternative means to make an image that is equally telling.

Photography is a medium that is both comfortable as a framed print, or as pages in a book form. This works if tightly supervised by the photographer, evident in this exhibition: the size, proportion, tones, density of blacks, luminosity of whites in a print are all taken gravely. This exhibition features framed and signed edition-photographs. It also features a hardcover copy of The End (2010), a limited edition collection of choreographed photographs of “city life, holiday escapades, italian gardens, and posh sports”. From this weighty, summative tome, the meticulous, yet surreptitious working methodology of the artist is revealed. Using natural light, mostly black and white film,each image is carefully composed. Each photograph is never cropped. They are also hand printed on silver-gelatin photographic paper, or embracing the digital printing process, reproduced perfectly with archival pigment and paper. Each location is painstakingly scouted likely a movie location scout, taking up the bulk of the creative process. Yet the image is never pre-determined: the eventual scene the result of a dialogue between the photographer, the model and the location.

Yet the description above over simplifies the photographer’s uncompromising, visionary merits or his resolute adventuring to make a photographic image. There is a Peter Pan-like playfulness, an admirable unyielding spirit of photography that gives these images its gestalt decisive moment. Perhaps it is this playful spirit we so envy that makes the images stick out, collectively, transcending stock image libraries and wedding photography albums, into the realm of fine art. In the spirit of Neverland, perhaps the sole enduring message the photographer wants to convey is “we only live once”.

FOST Gallery, Gillman Barracks, 15 Nov 2013 – 5 January 2014

Read the artist’s blog here:

“The shortest distance between reality and mystery is photography” – Rodney Smith

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