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November 30 2019
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The work of photographer Rodney Smith is frequently described as surreal, which is funny, because Smith, who died in 2016 at 68, used no filters, retouching, or postproduction trickery of any kind. His pictures come by their surreality honestly.

The son of a domineering fashion executive, Smith rebelled by earning a master’s of divinity from Yale. But he kept one foot in this world, minoring in photography under Walker Evans, who was then a professor at the school. Beginning in the 1980s, Smith found success in advertising—his blue-chip clients included Heinz and Northrop—and fashion, both editorial (Vanity Fair, W, New York) and commercial (Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Ralph Lauren). Yet his photographs are utterly uncontemporary, even when they feature on-duty yellow cabs and rented billboards.

A rare exhibition of Smith’s work will be shown at the Edward Hopper House Museum, in Nyack, New York, starting December 7. Curated by his widow, creative director Leslie Smolan, “Human in Nature: The Art & Wit of Rodney Smith” selects 20 photographs taken out of doors—“in Nature” might be a stretch, since Smith, an avid gardener, was drawn to locations “where the hand of man is apparent.”

These manicured dreamscapes are populated—sparsely—by men wearing bowlers, fedoras, top hats, or pith helmets, and women in hand-sewn ball gowns. Smith’s compositions are also very formal, to a point. The serenity of the rolling meadows and sculpted topiaries in these photographs—taken, among other settings, in Reims, France; Beaufort, South Carolina; and Snedens Landing, New York, where Smith lived—is thrown out of kilter by the curious figures at their center, all dressed up for no discernible reason, very purposefully peering over a hedgerow or teeing off the twisting branch of a live-oak tree.

Stephen Frailey, the chairman of photography and video at the School of Visual Arts, in New York, has said Smith’s oeuvre combined “a Magritte-inspired vocabulary” with the “playfulness of Lartigue,” but “Merchant Ivory presents Monty Python” might be closer to the mark. —Ash Carter

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