February 5, 2013

The Real Thing

I guess I should be flattered, imitation is supposedly the highest form of flattery, but I am not sure what I feel, and what I’m really not sure about, is why someone would applaud or even hire a vision that is by it’s very nature “second-rate.”

True, it may be a virtuoso performance. It may be filled with all the contemporary photo techniques to help fulfill it vision, but despite all its efforts, one is still left with an imitation.

In the early 1990′s when I was beseeching people to hire me for fashion assignments, I thought I could get to see Donna Karan, as she had a personal relationship with my father, having working for him in the 60′s and 70′s. I never did get to see Donna Karan until years later when I took her portrait, but I did manage to see Patti Cohen, her long time confidant and assistant. At that time, Patti was the gatekeeper and it seemed that Donna Karan totally trusted her.

So one afternoon I brought my portfolio of prints to their offices, and like many photographers before me, I showed her my work. Despite the pandemonium around us, and the distractedness of Pati Cohen, something happened that day that I remember well.

About two-thirds of the way through the portfolio, she stopped and although speaking to denizens of people around her at the same time as looking at my work, she paused everything for a brief moment and looked directly at me and declared emphatically, “Oh my God! This is the Real Thing!”

Although I was never hired by Donna Karan, apparently they too did not want the real thing. They too only wanted to copy it, as they did years later, and ended up remunerating me for their efforts. I have never forgotten Patti Cohen’s brief, quiet comment to me. What did she see in my work that was so different than all the work that preceded it? What in my work made it the real thing? What is the real thing?

Today I think I know. I realize that there is always much in life to imitate and the urge to do so is enormous, yet I also realize that to be original one has to look deep within themselves and find what no one else can copy, a very private voice.

Often this is difficult and painful and requires a self-awareness that many people do not have or want. But if one speaks honestly and to thine own self be true, they too may find a way to be their own real thing. I have tried to express my own feelings about the world in my work. These expressions could only come from me and my own personal experiences. If they are the real thing, it is only because they are unique to me and represent a real and honest expression of my life.

So young man, the man some photographers have written to me in outrage, the man photo magazines have applauded as original and new, I say to you, “Although you can fool most of the people all the time,” please remember you can’t fool me.



  1. Rodney.. you are one of my favorite photographers of all time. However, I know the man that shot these ads and he is full of his own style and whimsy. His work may be reminiscent of yours, and I have always thought that, but who isn’t influenced these days. As you quoted “there is nothing new under the sun.” The man in question did not concept these ads, he only photographed them.

    Comment by JP — February 5, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

  2. I’ve always pondered the question of imitation. Some say, the great Dutch painter Rembrant was imitating his Flemish counterpart Peter Paul Rubens early in his career. Not imitating a master was highly discourge as guilds saught to proect the painting profession. The great calligraphers of the Ottoman Empire also taught their craft through imitation. A once renown artist, my dearest teacher and mentor, said something I have held dear: “There are two types of artists in this world. The first is the type that calls people to himself. The focus of his art says ‘look at me, look at what I’M doing’. The second, which is extremely rare, is the type of artist who’s work calls to itself. The artist serves only as a vessel of something much greater than himself.” Imitation, by its very nature, will always lack this true depth.

    Comment by Safi — February 6, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  3. When I first read this post a few weeks ago, I admit I had no idea who the photographer in question was, until last night when I came across a certain publication. After viewing more of his work, I was saddened by how blatantly obvious some of the “knock-offs” were. The man has talent. However, it’s one thing to be inspired and influenced by a great artist. It is another thing to tear off the smile from the Mona Lisa and claim it as ones own. “To the Real Thing!”

    Comment by kat — February 21, 2013 @ 9:08 am

  4. I’ve been stuck here for some time now, reading and re-reading this post. Trying to decipher between what is acceptable or considered theft. As it goes, I finally thought I realized who this post is written about. However, after I patted my back for being quiet a detective, I found another blatant theft followed by another.

    You have no shortage of imitators. It reminds me of street painters in Europe who sell imitations of van gogh or who paint those wretched landscapes over and over again. If one is simply looking to make a few dollars I think it will serve them well to imitate a master or play to the public’s need to feel cultured. Why pay for the Bentley when you can get a Chrysler 300.

    However, I do think imitation on some level is ok. One has to experiment and learn. What better material then to look back at the solid foundation. See what works and take the gifts left by those that could or can really ‘see’. Like a Vermeer painting, a Daniel Brush sculpture, or, yes, a Rodney Smith photograph.

    So I find myself in this state of confusion. It is hard for me to place the line between acceptable vs unacceptable. What is your’s and what is not. I really don’t know. I guess the simple answer is ‘you know it when you see it’.

    Comment by Safi — March 7, 2013 @ 11:54 am

  5. [...] directed us to a post on his blog in which he had written, “What I’m really not sure about, is why someone would applaud or even [...]

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  6. [...] Rodney Smith has covertly spoken out about the cover on his blog. In a post titled “The Real Thing,” he calls the image an [...]

    Pingback by Photog Accuses PDN of Using a 'Second-Rate' Imitation on Their March Cover — April 4, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

  7. Hi, I love this photograph very much! I was just wondering what is the meaning behind this photo? what does it symbolize?

    Comment by Julia Antoniou — January 16, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

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