Edwin Smith

"Edwin Smith is perhaps the greatest British photographer left floundering in obscurity - a situation that a revelatory new exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects sets out to address. Smith was a master of architectural and topographical photography. During the post-war years he quietly toured the nation, photographing cathedrals, abbeys, follies, farm yards and fields just as these agrarian and Anglican influences began to lose their hold on our sense of national identity." (Christian House for the Telegraph, 12 September 2014)

Hailed by Sir John Betjeman as "a genius at photography" and by Cecil Beaton as "an understanding and loving connoisseur of his subject”, Edwin Smith (1912-1971) was one of Britain's foremost photographers. 


Smith described his photography as "co-operating with the inevitable" while it was only at the very end of his life that he finally acknowledged the appellation 'photographer' at all, having labelled himself ‘artist’ previously, he maintained a prodigious output of artworks - oils, watercolours, woodcuts and sketches - throughout his life. Ultimately, it is for his photography that he will be remembered.


Eagerly courted by publishers, he provided the core illustrative material for more than thirty books, many of them handsome volumes that proved both popular and influential. In addition, he was widely regarded as without peer in his sensitive renditions of historical architecture and his empathetic evocations of place.


Few of Smith's prints were displayed during his lifetime, and his reputation and influence were founded almost entirely on his rich corpus of book illustrations. Inspired largely by a series of commissions for book illustrations from the newly established publishing firm of Thames & Hudson, Smith found the I950s a formative decade in the development of his photography. 


Smith’s work focuses in the examination of British architecture and topography that not only posited a lyrically evocative alternative to the graphic economy of mainstream architectural photography, but also presented a visually compelling case for preservation of the country's increasingly threatened built heritage, and gave potent visual expression to the reevaluation of British national identity. His work shows a concern for the fragility of the environment, both natural and man-made; an acute appreciation of the need to combat cultural homogenization by safeguarding regional diversity; and, above all, a conviction that architecture should be rooted in time and place.


Smith's pictures evince a romantic sensibility, in a world of unrelenting pace, instant gratification and the fleeting glimpse of 'zoomscape', Smith's photographs invaluably teach us to pause, look, reflect and understand. His log books provide an invaluable record of the type of the conditions encountered, the materials used, and the time consequently needed to obtain a successful picture. 


Although intolerant of publishing houses that dared to retouch his pictures, Smith accepted this flexibility as an inevitable part of the publishing process, and there is thus often a significant variance between original negative and published picture. 


Vintage prints by Edwin Smith are exceptionally rare. His photographs were largely made for publication rather than exhibition and although a huge number of negatives exist there are very few vintage prints in circulation. Smith's entire archive of negatives and prints was gifted by his widow to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) who staged a revelatory show in 2014.


(Excerpts extracted from Elwall, R., Evocations of Place. The Photography of Edwin Smith, Merrel Riba, 2007.)