Edwin Smith is something a forgotten man in British photography. His work does not fit within the documentary tradition that became so strong in the years after the second world war and nor is it quite grand or artistic enough to sit easily with Beaton and his ilk. It is often beautiful but rarely wry, judgemental or amusing so perhaps it is perceived as lacking in significance or meaning. However, as we move further and further from the times he chronicled it may be that his work will come to sit on the same level as Eugene Atget (whose work Smith admired): artistic documents of a time and world now gone.
Making full use of the newish architecture gallery at RIBA this exhibition naturally focuses on how Smith photographed the world around him. He did so at a time when how people lived in their cities changed, what they wanted to preserve and why came to be politicised and romanticised, and the role of buildings within the ‘natural’ environment came to assume new importance. Smith’s photography is often beautiful with very simple black and white toning and apparently straightforward representations of reality. But as the exhibition takes pains to show, and a study of the images reveals, that view is overly simplistic.
Firstly, such straightforward pictures do not happen by chance. The composition in almost every frame is note perfect. Even a shot of a field has the cows arranged as if by an artist’s hand. You get the feeling the picture would not exist otherwise. Secondly, there is a manifesto of sorts behind this. A need to record – and to advocate for – buildings (and occasionally, people) who are being left behind and which are in danger of being crushed by progress. It’s no coincidence that the great preserver Betjeman was a fan. Thirdly, even basic toning of this quality takes time. In the age before layers and levels in Photoshop, Smith was a darkroom junkie. He didn’t merge negatives, he didn’t put in what wasn’t there, but he created the perfect tonal effect. That took longer than setting up those cows.
Smith photographed widely. There are working class streets, abandoned country houses, railway stations and all manner of vistas. He appears to have been interested in virtually everything and everyone and to always have been able to pass on in a photograph what it was that made it interesting.
But now we are left with a legacy of a man out of time and out of place. If only he’d put some of the anger and frustration he clearly felt about how the world was turning into his photos. If only he’d been European so academics could write knowingly about him. But, hopefully, the brisk business and positive reviews will see these images and this photographer become better known.