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Edwin Smith

Currently on exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is the work of Edwin Smith.
Smith is possibly one of our most underrated photographers. He is sidelined in the history timeline of British photography and has often been labeled as just an architectural photographer. Of course holding the exhibition at RIBA does nothing but reinforce that view!
RIBA are in fact the custodians of 60,000 of Smith’s images and the exhibition is showcasing a varied selection that shows Edwin Smith was much more than a photographer of architecture.

'Ideal' fish and chip shop, London, 1958. © Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

This link to a short video from the BBC gives a highlight of some of his images picked by one of the co-curators of the exhibition.
At the start of his photographic career, Smith like many learning their way in the medium, explored a variety of topics, subjects and ways of working. These ranged from portraits of clowns to documentary projects in the North East of England in the 1930s. Smith was influenced by the work of Atget and his images of empty Parisian streets when he started taking images. This influence is carried through into the images shown in the BBC video, all taken in the 1950-60s.
What is often key in a Smith image is stillness, combined with a precise composition that pulls the frame together. Although an early experimenter with colour, his preferred medium was black and white. Smith was a master of practitioner in the darkroom and utilized his printing skills to carefully control the tonal range in his final images.
In the BBC video, several images feature a light highlight that becomes the focal point of the photograph. It is this highlighted subject that gives us the trace of human presence. From white shirts drying on a line, a milk bottle on the side, to a white cassock hanging in a church, or the white smoke emanating from chimneys, all leaving an implied presence.
This simple trace of human presence lifts the image from simple record of a place to becoming a story. Who do the shirts belong to, who pegged them out. The milk is there, but where are the family to drink it. A cassock left hanging on peg, where is the vicar?
When photographing places, it is these little traces that can give so much more to an image. Abandoned cups on a table, half empty glasses on a bar, a pair of glasses left aside a newspaper by a chair. Suddenly we have human engagement to the content of the image. It is often the bits and pieces, the flotsam and jetsam left behind from day to day life, that provide us with an extra layer of meaning to the image. This implied presence, provides a lasting trace of those who passed through the frame prior to the image being taken. These markers become focal points within the image and can allow the photographer to compose the frame leading our eye to them.
Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith is on at RIBA, Portland Place, London until 6 December 2014.


Posted by author: Andrea Norrington
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3 thoughts on “Edwin Smith

  • I am pleased you have helped to raise the profile of Edwin Smith, a photographer who has inspired me for the last 30 years. If Smith had been as lucky as Atget the world would be familiar with his work. He needed a visit from Man Ray and the attention of a Berenice Abbott type to have moved him up the order. “The Gates of Hardwick Hall” is a photograph I have looked at probably more than any other. I can feel the stillness through the tonality and atmosphere. For practitioners of the monochrome image they need look no further than his “photographs 1935 – 1971” which teach so much on tonality and contrast control.

    • Hi
      I have a very large b&w photograph of the gates at Hardwick hall. It’s a marvelous picture. I love the lion finial, and if you look at the right gate. There looks to be a cats face in the light area.

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