Edwin Smith's New Photographic Technique

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Edwin Smith's New Photographic Technique
Edwin Smith, 'Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire', 1954
Edwin Smith's New Photographic Technique

During the 1950s and 1960s, Edwin Smith established his reputation as one of Britain’s foremost topographical and architectural photographers. The themes underlying in his work seem particularly pertinent now more than ever: the works show an empathetic response to, and concern for, the preservation of the countryside and our built heritage buttressed by an unremitting antipathy to inappropriate development and the numbing standardisation that erodes subtle regional variations.

Edwin Smith was born into humble circumstances in Camden Town, London in 1912. After a failed attempt to forge a career as an architect, he took up photography professionally in the mid 1930s with the help and encouragement of the artist Paul Nash. While the influence of Nash was obvious in his pictures of blasted trees and the eerily contorted shapes to be found in nature, Smith’s pre-war work was diverse, embracing as it did landscape, architecture, found objects, plants and flower studies, as well as portraiture. The social problems of the 1930s also came before his lens, in particular with a commission from the MP, Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, to photograph the mining, fishing and shipbuilding communities of north-east England, although the results displayed little of the reformist ardour one might have expected but instead celebrated the nobility of the working man. Uniting this eclectic body of subject matter was Smith’s excitement at discovering photography’s possibilities and above all the revelatory light the medium could shed on the visual richness of the world he inhabited.

Smith’s work for Thames & Hudson in the 1950s obliged him to perfect a new photographic technique. The small format cameras he had employed before the war were unsuitable for architectural recording, which required larger cameras with a full range of movements, especially a rising front to counteract the problem of converging verticals. Smith thus purchased a second-hand, half-plate Ruby, a camera manufactured by Thornton Pickard of Leeds, together with a quarter-plate Sanderson and a smaller Ensign Autorage 820, which were more easily portable to subjects difficult to access. The lyricism and tonal delicacy of Edwin Smith’s imagery of this era, worked extremely well with the primarily historical subject matter of his photographs. The success of his books, English Parish Churches (1952), English Cottages and Farmhouses (1954) and English Abbeys and Priories (1960), saw Smith’s work in greater demand than ever before during the last decade of his life.

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