The big picture: Rodney Smith channels the spirit of Magritte

“The bowler hat poses no surprise,” Rene Magritte said in 1966. “It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity.” When the American photographer Rodney Smith took this picture, three decades later, he could be certain that his audience would understand the other association of the headgear: as a shorthand for the surrealism that Magritte had made his signature. Smith’s image is less a homage than a riff on the Belgian’s art. He placed his trio of faceless bowler-wearers in among the vines of Reims in the champagne region of France. His middle-class men with their matching shears seem more likely to be trimming suburban privet hedges after work than adrift in vineyards that stretch to the horizon. Where to begin?

Smith loved that tension between formality and play. He started out as a photojournalist, having been taught by the Great Depression-era photographer Walker Evans at Yale. His first book, In the Land of Light, saw him travelling in Israel in the mid-1970s, taking haunting portraits of working people. As his style subsequently developed, however, he became interested in creating fashion images in a high style, including work for Ralph Lauren and for magazines including Vanity Fair. He often employed accessories in these pictures, with which he might play elegant tricks with earnestness: butterfly nets, umbrellas – as well as bowlers – became nods towards earlier decades of fun.

Rodney Smith died in 2016, aged 68. A new retrospective book, A Leap of Faith, collects the lasting images of a long career. In his introduction, Graydon Carter, Smith’s long-time friend and editor at Vanity Fair, notes how: “A Rodney Smith photograph can be whimsical but solemn, composed but candid, still but full of movement… desperate but funny.”