Misty skies photography: David Platzer enjoys a captivating survey of the sensitive art of Edwin Smith.
Edwin Smith was renowned for sensitive and evocative photography that captured the essence of architecture and landscape. Since his death from cancer in 1971 at the early age of 59, his fame has receded, despite the unstinting efforts of the writer Olive Cook, his devoted widow and frequent collaborator. No fan of what he called 'fair weather' photography, Smith sometimes included misty, changing skies in his pictures to captivating effect. Part of Robert Elwall's aim in this book is to rescue Smith from the misty, changing skies of fashion that have sometimes obscured. Elwall is Photographs Curator at the Royal Institute of British Architects, which was given Smith's archive of some 60,000 negatives by Olive Cook shortly before her death in 2002.
The son of a stonemason, Smith described himself as 'an architect by necessity, a painter by inclination and a photographer by necessity'. His only full-scale public admission to being a photographer rather than a painter who took pictures to support his real work came in a lecture a year before his death. Could he have been the brilliant photographer he was without being passionate about it? Elwall shows us that Smith was painstakingly devoted to his craft and provides illuminating details about such technical aspects as the cameras Smith used. He also argues that Atget and Frederick Evans were strong influences.
One of Smith's first clients was Vogue, but fashion photography, although lucrative, was not his thing (Cook claimed that he was dropped when the editor discovered his name was plain Smith rather than the Chetwynd-Smith she had assumed). For those who know only Smith's architectural photography and his romantically lush landscapes, one of this book's revelations is the illustrations of his early work, of the 1930s and 40s, showing circus scenes and working people. Although his photography was admired for its humanity, Smith was occasionally criticised in his later years for not showing people enough. Eva Neurath, chairman of his publishers Thames & Hudson, wrote to Smith about his pictures for England in 1970, 'Your photographs are really wonderful', but added, 'I have the impression that we are a touch too architectural and that the human element is somewhat missing'. The 'human element' is richly present in such pictures by Smith as Clowns, Olympia, London (1938) or Mitcham Fair, London (1935), which capture their subjects with affection and humour. Popular art and 'fairground baroque', to use Cook's term, was always a favourite subject for Smith and made a frequent appearance, often with texts by Cook, in his photographs for The Saturday Book annual, a classic of post-war British publishing.
A sense of tender, humorous respect shines through such pictures as Miner, Ashington Colliery, Northumberland (1936), part of a series about shipbuilding and mining communities commissioned by Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson. Elwall describes Wilson as combining 'a libertarian zeal for social reform at home with an enthusiastic zeal for Fascist regimes abroad', adding that there is 'circumstantial evidence' that Smith too may have had 'pronounced right-wing views' Probably Smith, like other aesthetes of the time, was politically naive, if not entirely apolitical. He spent much of World War II on the run from the authorities in order to avoid conscription.
One of those who hid Smith when he was ducking the recruiters was Oskar Kokoschka, a refugee from Nazism. He introduced Smith to Walter and Eva Neurath, the founders of Thames & Hudson. Their publication of his English Parish Churches in 1952 was the turning point in his career. From then on, publishers kept him busy taking pictures of architecture and landscapes at home and abroad. Smith liked nothing better than photographing parish churches. Although he took excellent pictures of great houses, such as Hardwick Hall seen through an early morning mist (1956), he was happier with the smaller scale of such churches as St Lawrence, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire (1950) or St Lawrence, Didmarton, Gloucestershire (1961). His pictures of domestic settings, such as the Cottage, Trefgarn, Pembrokeshire (1953), often have an eerie quality, giving the impression that the inhabitants have mysteriously disappeared.
Cook described Smith's as 'an essentially English mind, an English way of thinking and feeling about every subject', yet some of his best work, notably a haunting view of Castle Stalker across the waters of Loch Laich, Appin, Argyllshire (1954) is in his two books on Scotland. His romantically lush landscapes, especially with those with water, such as The Estuary, Portmeirion, Merionethshire (1959) or of the Venetian lagoon at sunset (1968), are even richer than his architectural images, and his Stonehenge captures the site's primeval magnificence.
The prospects of a revival of interest in Smith's photographs may be brighter than Elwall implies in his closing pages. Even if commentators find his work, wrongly in my view, too quaintly 'English', as Elwall points out, 'Smith's highlighting of the fragility of both our natural and our built heritage ... is more topical than ever'.
David Platzer is a freelance writer. He lives in Paris.
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|Title Annotation:||Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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