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Tip of the Cap

Golf had an unmistakable effect on famed photographer Rodney Smith

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While Rodney Smith’s surreal images are widely collected, hang in galleries worldwide and have appeared in fashion magazines globally, he is not well-known within the golf world. Yet the celebrated photographer’s story can’t be told completely without the game. He played in his youth in order to spend time with his demanding father, a high-powered fashion executive. He “could never rid [himself] of a frustrating and definitely inappropriate slice to the ball.” He quit the game. He came back to it.

In truth, Smith, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 68, never played the game seriously again after he led, then lost, a father-and-son tournament at his family’s country club when he was a teenager. It was so traumatic that after dumping a few balls into a lake, he threw his entire bag in after them. But he later credited that experience with helping shape his success: “I must thank [golf] for helping me accept the course I have chosen,” he wrote in a 2009 blog entry. “I had disappointed my father, but I had begun to find my own destiny. Ironically, these years where nothing could go ‘straight and narrow’ helped me focus so that now, with a master golfer’s attention, I can drive my camera right down the center of the fairway.”

His widow, Leslie Smolan, agreed and finds parallels between Smith on a shoot and a great player on the course. “A great golfer works so hard practicing that when they get to the course, they can just play,” she says. “Roddy was similar. He was so methodical, and so prepared, that when he was on a shoot, he could just create.…He would move quickly with the light, and everyone had to follow him.”

Smith eventually had the opportunity to turn his creative genius on the game for a few golf magazines and some corporate shoots. The result was classic Smith: beautiful, whimsical images that stand out for their originality and heart. Mostly, they make people smile. 

“He wanted the world to be extraordinary, and his pictures made that possible,” Smolan says. “In his pictures, men are gentlemen and funny, and women are ethereal and delicate. The world is full of beauty.”