In Profile

Rachel Smith

BY Sarah Schmerler, March 1, 2014

Rachel Smith isn’t your typical young photography dealer; the 31 year old isn’t keen to open up a whitewashed space on the Lower East Side with a stable of new names in contemporary photography, her own name stenciled on the window. Rather, she has been given the mantle of a more delicate task: running the gallery of her mentor and personal friend, Bonni Benrubi, out of the same well-respected and established midtown space where she’d worked for eight years, before Benrubi’s untimely passing last year at the age of 59. It was a seamless transition. The gallery’s lights didn’t dim for even a day, a work ethic of which (Smith felt) Benrubi would have approved. “It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around it,” Smith says with some emotion. She is sitting at the gallery’s oval meeting-room table, surrounded by mid-career Benrubi-gallery stalwarts, mid-20th-century material, and photographs by new practitioners whom Smith has recently introduced. “It’s tricky,” she says. ”I’m coming out of this great legacy, and I also know that I have to tweak it and change it so that it can move forward. But this is a business that I really know how to do.”

Smith — petite, vibrant, sweetly loquacious — was born in New York City and raised in Fort Lee, N.J., taking frequent trips with her parents to New York galleries and museums. “I would look at photographs and I would just consume them. I never thought of doing anything else,” she says. Riverdale’s storied Horace Mann School, which Smith attended through high school, further stoked her passion for images. There was a state-of-the-art darkroom, an art history program, and rigorous practical courses in photography, but Smith learned quickly where she belonged. “I enjoyed learning the mechanics,” she says, “but it was other people’s photos I was interested in.” At George Washington University she majored in art history, then interned with the Howard Greenberg Gallery every summer, and upon graduation worked at Christie’s, as a junior specialist in their prints and multiples department. Contemporary photography was her passion, and Benrubi saw that. In 2006, Benrubi hired her as assistant director. “I was 24, and I was so lucky,” she says. “I would sit and sell with her and learn from her. Soon I had my own clients and my own relationships. With Bonni, if you showed you had a talent for something, she let you run with it.”

In the last year, Smith has brought a number of new photographers to the fold, maintaining and expanding the gallery’s mission with just the right touch on the wheel. New names include Erik Cahan, who shoots sunrises and sunsets through a resin filter, reducing them to abstract bands of color, and Jacqueline Hassink, who takes photographs of corporate boardrooms for her Tables of Power series. Even Jed Devine, 70, a longtime gallery artist known for his delicate platinum prints, is experiencing a debut of sorts. Through April 12, his large still lifes, shot in a riot of color, are on view. Smith is all too happy to support this major transition in his work. “People have always come to the Bonni Benrubi Gallery to see something they don’t expect,” says Smith, “and I’m going to continue that.”