Saturday, 13 December 2014

Edwin Smith (1912-1971)

Edwin Smith (1912 - 1971)

A recent posting on  by Andrea Norrington has brought to the fore the work of Edwin Smith and an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

For some Smith is almost unknown but I have been familiar with his work for over 30 years and  one of the first monographs I ever acquired was Photographs - 1935-1971  1984  Thames and Hudson a large hardback with 254 duotone plates and an introduction by Olive Cook.

His work attracted for a number of reasons back in the 1980s and that same attraction continues today, although my understanding of why has probably matured and elements of his style are to be hopefully found in my own work.

Born in London in 1912 he was educated in building trades and later as an architectural draughtsman, becoming a freelance photographer in 1935 in the same year he married Rosemary Ansell. This marriage lasted 2 years and he later married Olive Smith, a successful writer and photographic book producer. Smith was also a prolific artist working in water, oil and linocut/woodcuts.

Smith’s life, his love of painting, his ambivalence towards his own work is in many ways similar to that of Eugene Atget, a French photographer with who he felt a profound sympathy. Smith only conceded to describe himself as a professional photographer late in life preferring to speak of himself as an architect by training, a painter by inclination and a photographer by necessity. Endorsed by (the church loving) Sir John Betjeman as “a genius at photography”.

His main body of work was made in the 1950s and 1960s, photographing barns, churches, houses, streets, shop fronts, gardens and statues. This urban documentary style is without doubt after Atget, both in its style and technical excellence.

I don’t want to make this posting into a long biographical piece on Smith so while accepting there is much more that could be written on the circus photography, his meeting with the artist Paul Nash, World War 2 and his experimentation with colour photography. These and other personal issues can be developed in the future.

Where Smith (and to some extent Atget) influence my photography is the silence and stillness. Two concepts that on the surface are always inherent in a photograph as apposed to a video of movie film, so why do I see this as necessary. I adore peace and quite, love silence, stillness, I even dislike wind which has a noise. Olive Cook (Smith’s wife) describes in the introduction to Photographs - 1935-1971  how Smith would “Calmly, deliberately, discreetly  he would walk round  a church, a garden or a great house relating to the needs of the camera to his own visual responses and only starting work when he was certain of the possibilities of the material and the natural lighting” This description of him working  is exactly how I feel when looking at image making today. In the past I would rush around too much, grab a shot and move on too quickly often in the style of a press photographer (where I have had some experience) who has to grab whatever you can because the opportunity way vanish and nothing in the can. My return to working with film and a medium format camera and a hybrid film/digital workflow also slows down the making process and I find this preferable in so many instances to digital work.

Silence and stillness in imagery comes from two sources. The content and the photographer. Clearly a long exposure shot of a fairground ride whizzing around, bright lights, people clearly screaming, HDR technique and overt saturation is not going to convey silence and stillness at one extreme. I prefer no people or machines in my photography and that is my starting point for silence, preferring instead for lonely places where nothing moves. This does not have to be some wilderness location; in fact a lonely place can be in your own home.
The photographer must also be “silent”. I am not referring to how much noise they make although I don’t condone loud music at these times but that the presence of style should be silent.  A photographer has at his disposal a large set of techniques and tricks to enhance and process the image. I refer here to graduated filters, 10 stop filters, lensbaby etc. These should all be left alone. What I need is the very basic elements of straight photography, including perfect exposure, maximum tonal range, good viewpoint, corrected verticals and work that requires minimal post processing. The photograph should be a demonstration of good basic technique without the viewer thinking, wow this guy is good, I bet he has a good camera.
The viewer should not notice the photographer. Too much time can be spent asking questions on technique, wondering how he did that, does he use Lightroom or Photoshop, is this such and such paper etc etc.
I want my images to say something other than this is a photograph, am I any good? I want the viewer to be interested in what is signified, asking questions on its connotations, be concerned whether there is ambiguity rather than simple reason.

Smith made seemingly simple images and for me many of these resonate with these type of questions.

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