“I Never Sang for My Father”


Death ends a life, but not a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution . . . 

Robert Anderson I Never Sang for My Father


You can see it in many of my pictures. It’s there below the surface, residing often in the very molecules that comprise the image. Deep below the whimsy, and the joy is a loneliness, a slow whiff of sadness and an everlasting melancholy.

Although I am shouting yes to life, to goodness, to beauty, and exalting on the wonders of our existence, I am forever fighting a looming large and very dark presence that is saying No.

It’s as if my pictures are my response. They are my strong defiance, even my “ruthless determination” to refuse or accept the verdict that I am a large No.

My response to these very deep lingering feelings tells a personal story that was only partially played out in reality. The pictures tell a story of triumph, joy, and are filled with hope, when in my own personal history this partial triumph over despair, this anger that fueled my determination to find a small yes and overcome this great No, was only played out in a small office, deeply alone with only the help of one doctor in New Haven Connecticut over many many troubling and confusing years.


It ended and started one very late morning in the early Spring of 1968. I was home for Spring Break in my junior year of college, and for some reason my father and I were alone together in New York City for a day.

I don’t remember where it started but somewhere, some morning, outside of our Manhattan apartment my father got very angry at me. You would think that by this time in my life I could handle his disappointment and annoyance at me, but even at this ripe old age of twenty-one I still was unsure where to place his disappointment with me. Was I to accept his stated and unstated view of me, or was I to fight back with all the rage that was lodging in every anxious and fearful sinew in my body.

By now I had excelled at things he knew nothing about. I was an A student, an academic, a boy of confused and smoldering ideas with feelings that had no place to go, especially where they belonged. I was engaged to be married into a world somewhat distinct and removed from my own, but still I felt unacceptable and unequal to this diminutive man, who remained a very dark towering presence standing mightily over me.

For a few hours after breakfast while I tagged along with him as he did some errands, my anger smoldered and churned within me. For as many years as I could remember I had never once stood up to this man, fought him fairly in battle. The odds had always been on his side. Today I was going to change that.

In the past I had quietly gone my own way, looking like the obedient son but rebelling in my interests, my loves, and in my thoughts. I looked like the dutiful son but who was I really?

By the time we returned to the apartment in the late morning I had finally after twenty-one years of a lingering, agonizing, deep seated anger intwined with tremendous fears and anxieties finally reached my tipping point.

When we got back he noted with disdain something I had done wrong when in fact I had done nothing. I started to say something that now reflected all the years of silent self-destroying resentment that was contained in my soul. Just as I started to raise my voice in rage to sing my song of rebellion, my fathers voice came down on me like a sledge hammer. He became furious, dismissed me abruptly and walked away angry.

For hours I fumed and he in his fashion spoke nothing to me. Finally some hours later, with the battle lost before it even really began, I apologized, he nodded and never spoke again of our encounter.

On this same Spring Break in 1968 I went to see the permanent collection of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and sealed my fate. It was there on that early spring day that I realized that I wanted to be a photographer and immerse my soul far away from any control he had over me.

So in the end I found my special voice and I was able to scream at the top of my lungs not at him but for him. To this day I am still begging for this man, my father, to notice me, and to see me for all I am worth and to realize finally I am worthy of his love.

Two years later my father was dead. I was left with forty years of trying to find a way to come to grips with the complicated man I called Dad.


Happy Thanksgiving to you all.


This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Sometimes tragic events can move us into our destiny.

  2. My heart breaks for you, Mr. Smith!

  3. wow, well written and moving! if he is anything like my father it wouldn’t have mattered what you said, yelled or sang to him. sadly, it was always about him and not you to begin with.

  4. I’m almost crying as I read this.

    There is something so familiar about the way you describe things- as if the words I didn’t know how to express were pulled out from under my skin.

    And the “no” you speak of- I know it all too well. The shadow that’s always lurking around, even when you should be feeling perfectly blissfull.

    You have an amazing way of conveying the paradoxes of life, in your art- in what is displayed and what’s missing, in words said and words left out.

    Wishing you all the best and the hope that we’ll figure it all out someday!

  5. Mr Rodney Smith, I admire your images since I studied art in a community college in southern California. I wrote an essay about one of your images, the use of light and shadows, window light – beautiful!
    Amazing words about the ever difficult relationship with a father. Your photography is wonderfully done!
    All the best for the Holidays!

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