Following the success of the recent exhibition ‘Ordinary Beauty: the Photography of Edwin Smith’ at RIBA, London, we were keen to catch up with curators Justine Sambrook and Valeria Carullo. They filled us in on the work of Edwin Smith and its relevance to the MidCentury Modern era.
35 Hallam’s Lane, Chilwell near Nottingham, 1937, RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Edwin Smith photographs: a British Great
Edwin Smith was one of Britain’s greatest 20th Century photographers and was very well known in his heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. John Betjeman called him a ‘genius at photography’ and Cecil Beaton ‘an understanding and loving connoisseur of his subject’, but after his death in 1971 his romantic, picturesque style of photography fell out of fashion as more dynamic, photojournalistic approaches came to the fore and his name disappeared from public consciousness.
Edwin Smith was highly regarded in his lifetime for his thoughtful portrayal of historic buildings and landscapes, especially in the British Isles. Although he is less well known today, his photographs retain a powerful ability to convey a sense of place with a single image and to capture the beauty of the ordinary.
Edwin Smith’s work reveals a concern for the fragility of our natural and built environments, an appreciation of regional diversity, and a conviction that architecture should be rooted in time and place. The continuing relevance of these themes and the superb quality of his photography merit introduction to a contemporary audience and we hope that this exhibition offers a timely reappraisal.
What inspired you to put together an exhibition on the work of Edwin Smith photographs?
Edwin Smith’s widow, the writer Olive Cook, left his archive to the RIBA Robert Elwall Photographs Collection in 2002 and it is one of our treasures. It is made up of over 20,000 prints and 60,000 negatives, all of an incredibly high standard. Since we acquired the archive it’s been catalogued, conserved, digitised and researched. But this was the first time we’d been able to exhibit so many of his original prints thanks to our new Architecture Gallery at the RIBA Headquarters 66 Portland Place, London.
The idea for the exhibition was the brainchild of our previous Photographs Curator, Robert Elwall. He had always wanted to show a retrospective of Edwin Smith’s work at the RIBA believing, quite rightly, that his wonderful work deserved to be better known. Sadly Robert died in 2012 and we have created this exhibition in his memory.
Back-street garden, Camden Town, London, 1960, RIBA Library Photographs Collection
By whom were Edwin Smith photographs originally commissioned?
Edwin Smith’s work was primarily commissioned by publishers. He had already established himself as a working photographer in the 1930s, working on fashion shoots for Vogue, social documentary commissions for the Conservative MP Arnold Wilson, as well as pursuing his own fascination with British popular and folk traditions with photographs of the fairground and circus inspired by his hero Eugene Atget.
It was in the 1950s that he established his reputation as an architectural photographer with an important commission for a series of books for Thames & Hudson in 1952. The success of these books lead to a deluge of book commissions and during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as for a prestigious series of postcards for Gordon Fraser.
What would you say were your favourite Edwin Smith photographs in the exhibition?
I think Edwin Smith’s photography is particularly interesting for Midcentury Modern fans. He rarely photographed new architecture, preferring instead something with history and patina, and the photograph of the 1930s house in Nottingham is a therefore an unusual one for him. It’s a favourite of ours and was taken while he was working as an assistant to the architect, Raymond Myerscough-Walker.
Edwin Smith’s photographs tend to show the other side of mid-century life, a more traditional way of life before post-war modernisation fully took hold. His photograph of a back-street garden I Camden Town is one of our favourites, it’s just incredibly beautiful – an ordinary scene rendered extraordinary by the softness of the light, the tonal richness and range, and the luminosity of those shirts hanging on the line. The composition is clever too – the shirts could almost be people standing in the garden.
Peggy Angus’s house, Furlongs, near Firle, East Sussex, 1953, RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Why is Edwin Smith perhaps less known that some of his contemporaries?
At the time of his death in 1971 Edwin Smith’s reputation was at its peak. Considered one of Britain’s foremost photographers, he had helped open the eyes of a generation to the richness of the architectural heritage in Britain and the dangers that threatened its preservation. It’s important to remember that at this time, although much exciting and innovative new architecture was being constructed at this time, there was also a lot of thoughtless and insensitive destruction taking place.
Changing fashions in photography, however, meant that the romantic style that Edwin Smith appeared to embody soon waned in popularity. The influence of street photography and photojournalism was beginning to be felt in the world of architectural photography and a more spontaneous, gritty attitude became popular. Photographers such as John Donat, Patrick Ward and Tony Ray-Jones were documenting modern life using 35mm film and handheld cameras and Edwin Smith’s more formal compositions seemed out of place. His photography had more in common with the pictorial approach of the 19th Century photographers than with this new generation of practitioners. But today, Edwin Smith’s photographs are a valuable record, not only of lost places and ways of life, but also of a period – not so dissimilar to our own – when Britain struggled to reconcile the need for modernisation with a desire to protect treasured buildings and landscapes, and by doing so, to preserve a sense of local and national identity.
Read Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith by Robert Elwall
Find out more about RIBA
For more images from Edwin Smith, visit ribapix.com
Check out our article on fellow British photographer John Pantlin photographs: the mid century home