Posing: Smith can't forget the shoot

The University of Virginia Art Museum’s fresh new exhibit of work by photographer Rodney Smith is a retrospective, and there are surely some early photos on display: a still life with a bowl of fruit surrounded by shadow and space; the bulge of a staircase in Jerusalem; or the textured face of a Mississippi man. 
A UVA alum, Smith is best known for photography far removed from these sorts of soberly artful gestures and documentarian impulses. He has worked extensively in fashion, having produced work for Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Vanity Fair, and GQ, and the bulk of his work from “Reverie and Reality” bears that mark.
Smith’s photography has an instantly appealing capriciousness and a dry sense of humor. There are elements of fantasy here, as well as touches of the absurd. But if there’s one quality that defines much of what he has done for this exhibit, it’s his ongoing and wholehearted obsession with the pose.
Unlike the few early works on display, Smiths photos do not look like chance events. He obviously does not produce these images by strolling through a city with camera in hand.
His photos are highly controlled, filled with anonymous men in bowler hats and natty suits, and women with leonine features, dressed as ballerinas. In the background are more trappings of fashion, from trimmed gardens to boutiques and mist-grayed cityscapes. 
And then Smith adds his sense of humor, which never betrays his respect for stillness and grace. His models– often in the middle of a far-off gaze– are always completely composed in the way that one expects Royalty to pass the time when in public. 
Even in photos which take motion as their theme, Smith’s strong sense of composition and the obvious and purposeful artifice in his work drain the sweat and exertion from the photos. “AJ Chasing Airplane, Orange County, New York,” for example– with its North by Northwest referencing image of a man in sprint below a small airplane– is clinched by the careful arrangement of the man at the center of the photo, his hat just between the wheels of the plane. And again here, no face, just a smart suit.  
These are the elements Smith uses to compose his quirky and welcoming photography. It’s as if he loves the world of fashion photography and feels no need to leave. Anyone who’s ever cut a glossy photo out of the back of a fashion magazine to hang on the wall will find much to enjoy here.

Rodney Smith’s “Reverie and Reality” runs through August 10 at the University of Virginia Art Museum.  155 Rugby Road.  924-3592.

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