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Lasting impression

Unsung perhaps, but Edwin Smith’s photographs have spread deep enough into the national psyche to evoke unconscious familiarity

Are Edwin Smith’s photographs truly nostalgic or do they just look like that 40, 50, 60 years later when those captured moments are gone? asks architect Tom Emerson. ­Emerson, of 6A, is one of a small number giving their views on this unsung hero of post-war photography in Ordinary Beauty, an exhibition on Smith opening at the RIBA’s 66 Portland Place on 10 September.

Smith made his way into thousands of homes through the Shell Guides, English Parish Churches and English Cottage Gardens. His work has a sort of familiarity. The Eugene Atget-influenced reportage of small children in streets and hatted men in markets, loading meat (or inspecting hats), looks like you must have seen it before, perhaps alongside some diary extracts gathered by a Mass Observation research project – which also valued the everyday. Here are the women working in industry or at home, the wind whipping away the moisture even as the housewife hangs the washing on a bleak Scottish hillside (above).

  • The staircase becomes a hillside, steps leading to the chapter house, Wells Cathedral, Somerset (1968).
    The staircase becomes a hillside, steps leading to the chapter house, Wells Cathedral, Somerset (1968).

Writer Gillian Darley recalls searching for ‘Edwin Smith gardens’, the very particular look of an unreconstructed vernacular cottage and a mixture of vegetables and flowers, having studied his book on the subject. These bright photos, once Brand Edwin Smith, barely appear in the exhibition. Taste changes, as Darley’s personal tastes have. ‘I realise I don’t like Smith in colour,’ she admits now.

In one of the rare shots he took of a modernist building – Connell, Ward and Lucas’s 66 Frognal in north London – Darley points to the dilapidated picturesque framing of its flat planes, fringed with branches and an unhinged gate alongside. Is it that he puts his imprint even on modernism with its sunny photography or that he always picked up such little details? After all, he imbued wig models on the high street with the same classical dignity that he shot iconic marble statues.

The book English Parish Churches took Smith’s photographs into many homes. Here St Lawrence, Didmarton, Gloucestershire, is beautifully composed (1961).
The book English Parish Churches took Smith’s photographs into many homes. Here St Lawrence, Didmarton, Gloucestershire, is beautifully composed (1961).

Instead, it is the monochrome photographs and their perfectly pitched tones that draw viewers in with evocations of moments and places, whether from a bird’s eye view of the dock at Newcastle or the nuanced composition of a corner of a tiny parish church in Didmarton, Gloucestershire (above). Playwright Alan Bennett discovered Smith through his pictures of churches, and is also interviewed for the show. The churches were part of a stream of interest in the British vernacular, much of which was disappearing before Smith’s post-war eyes. He gives tumbledown cottages a Constable prettiness, but in black and white they suggest more record than postcard (though he had a series of these in his time) – which is essential to the way we understand them now, with a tinge of sadness for a way of life that has gone (below).

Nostalgia and record sit side by side in Smith’s work, as here: the cottage looking out over its working landscape of the newly ploughed field, Holkam, Norfolk (1970).
Nostalgia and record sit side by side in Smith’s work, as here: the cottage looking out over its working landscape of the newly ploughed field, Holkam, Norfolk (1970).

Perhaps the purest test of nostalgia versus photographic art is proven by his masterfully composed and lit photograph of Wells Cathedral’s preserved but worn steps. Darley imagines he must have waited and waited for the light to show the hundreds of years of footfall. Emerson comments: ‘He behaves as if he is a landscape photographer in buildings. It’s amazing. It becomes a hillside not a staircase.’

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith. 10 September to 6 December, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD