Monday, September 8, 2014

Portland Place, London

The essence of place

‘Who,’ people sometimes ask me, ‘is your favourite photographer?’ Maybe Eugène Atget, with his photographs of Paris, hailed as pioneering works of documentary but with an atmospheric stillness that helps them transcend that label. Or Henri Cartier-Bresson with his decisive moments. Or Walker Evans, especially his images of run-down buildings, usually empty of people but full of their former presence. But great as all these are, I keep a special place for British photographer Edwin Smith, whose work I’ve loved for years.

Much of Smith’s work was architectural, and was commissioned to illustrate books on subjects such as parish churches, cottages and farmhouses. Smith’s wife Olive Cook often wrote the text and publishers Thames and Hudson ensured that Smith’s images got the airing they deserved. His work was in other places, too, from Vogue to the Shell Guides. And yet Smith, who worked between the 1930s and 1960s, is not that well known today – his photography seems to have been overshadowed by the contrasting kinds of work (street photography, different modes of documentary) that came along in the 1960s and 1970s. All to the good, then, that the RIBA, who hold Smith’s vast archive (20,000 prints, 60,000 negatives), have put on an exhibition of his photographs.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith looks good in the RIBA’s new architecture gallery at 66, Portland Place. It embraces his early commissioned work (some fashion shots, portraits, wonderful photographs of the circus), but is soon on to the typical stuff, the images of places and buildings that he made from the 1950s onwards, using old large- and medium-format cameras and black and white film. They reveal his obvious virtues and talents – a flair for composition, an eye for detail, a penchant for capturing the way shafts of sunlight illuminate things and make us look anew.

More important, though, is Smith’s genius for showing us the essence of a place. Similar qualities to those that I try to hold up for examination and comment on this blog – the texture of stone and its regional variations, the differing qualities of walls and fences, the lettering on an old Irish shop front, or the regional variations of roofing (slate, stone, tile…) – fascinated Smith. And above all the unregarded details that summon up a place and seem to paint a portrait of it. How typical, for example, that Smith should turn his back on the lovely Georgian box pews in a church like Didmarton and produce a photograph of the transept with its wooden stair. Likewise how moving that he should photograph, as well, no doubt, as the statuary and garden buildings at Rousham, some nettles growing through the slats of a bench – they make a beguiling pattern of leaf and timber.

For Smith, this portrayal of places was the heart of the matter. It was the kind of thing, he felt, that we needed, if we were to save things from the planners. In the 1950s, when Britain was being rebuilt after World War II, such bits of local distinctiveness and traditional craftsmanship were vanishing, fast. A raft of movements and publications, from the Victorian Society to Pevsner’s Buildings of England books, were coming along in the 1950s to put the case for preservation. Smith was there, alongside them, with his bellows cameras. Robert Elwall, author of the excellent book Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith, put it well:

‘The recurring themes of Edwin Smith’s work – a concern for the fragility of the environment, both natural and man-made; an acute appreciation of the need to combat cultural homogenisation by safeguarding regional diversity; and, above all, a conviction that architecture should be rooted in time and place – are as pressing today as when Smith first framed them in his elegantly precise compositions.’

That message is tied up, not just with the great compositions, but also with the telling details. Often, these are human traces – washing on a line, farm equipment in a barn, a milk bottle on the table in Furlongs, Peggy Angus’s house in Sussex – traces of people who, apparently, have just walked out of shot. They’re humble traces – ‘Ordinary Beauty’ indeed – but full of significance, and they produce an effect that’s not dissimilar to that in some of Eugène Atget’s Parisian photographs: a generosity, a lost past captured, a haunting presence hinted at, a gentle but revealing light. Atget’s was the one photographic influence Smith would admit to. I can see why.

Top photograph: Edwin Smith, Great Coxwell Barn, Berkshire
Lower photograph: Edwin Smith, Didmarton, Gloucestershire
Note: These images are taken from books. Readers should refer to original prints – in the exhibition and in the RIBA Library – to appreciate the true quality of the work. Smith's photographs are
© Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith is at the Architecture Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, from 10 September to 6 December 2014.


Eileen Wright said...

I didn't think I knew Edwin Smith, but after googling to see his photos I was amazed at how many I knew, including some of my favourites.

I'm certain that Edwin had a huge influence on photography as I often see his particular style of composition from my fellow photographers on Flickr. I remember being influenced by his 'Tulip Staircase' pic in the mid 1960's, when I was at Art College, and taking a copious amount of pics of the wonderful wrought-iron and stained-glass windows of the college's staircases.

I can't travel to see the exhibition, but now I know who he is I can at least put a name to his photos and enjoy seeing him online. Cheers, Philip. I'm really chuffed to know about him at last. :)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Quite a few of his books are also available secondhand. It is worth having a look for these on ABE books or Amazon. Some are listed under Olive Cook's name, she being the author, Edwin Smith the photographer.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved one particular photograph by Smith showing a cottage situated behind a stonewall, an imperturbable cat ensconced on the wall. Most photographers would have either shooed the cat away or done something artsy with it, but Smith just presented the cat as a fact of cottage life.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes. That's the kind of decision that makes his photographs special.

Eileen Wright said...

Many thanks, Philip. I now have 'Evocations of Place' winging it's way to me as we speak. I did manage not to buy one of the two books that cost just under two and a half grand, mind! ;)