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Curating Identity: Edwin Smith's Photography

Current RIBA exhibition Ordinary Beauty leads Savtchenko to wonder where Smith’s interpretation of Britishness really comes from: the objects photographed or the nature of the photographs?

Inside RIBA’s doors, visitors are greeted by a guard, a barograph, a box with signage, and an abundance of tightly spaced black and white pictures, framed and aided on all sides by wall-text panels, pull-quotes and colour-coded floor-to-ceiling reproductions. An institutional buffer zone, almost impossible to neutralise, positions Edwin Smith as an artiste (above and beyond his vocation as a photographic topographer of rural vernacular Britain) and ascribes a visual identity to a culture long considered by many to be ‘verbally rich but visually impoverished’. The question is: what is the current import of a collection of images that, in the effort to record, go a long way to constructing the very notion of ‘Britishness’? And for those of us particularly invested in the ability of the built environment to communicate, what does Britishness actually look like?

To contextualise Smith, Eugène Atget is featured as his primary influence. There are sporadic similarities in subject matter and points of view. But photographically speaking, the pedigree is misplaced. Smith’s mature photographs could not be more different from Atget’s gritty unapologetic seizures (think of his Prostitute Taking Her Shift). Unlike the wolfish appetite of continental counterparts, Smith’s photographs appear at a cool distance, serenity and wholeness achieved by a precise sense of stable composition and close framing.

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Lyne Church, Peebles, Scotland 1967
RIBA Library Photographs Collection

To architectural and technical enthusiasts alike, they are a vital reference and source of inspiration in framing, layering, detailing, textural richness, and use of light. In the most accomplished views, eg, Haford House, near Pontarfynach Ceredigion, Wales (1950) or the Canterbury Cathedral: Crypt Ambulatory (1968), the light is photographed with such technical acuity that it looks every part a tangible object. The elements which frame it: walls, columns, arches and staircases, give rise to a feeling of containment, acting both as portals to transport the viewer and seal the scene in a kind of respectful reticence − an air of nostalgia in agreement with moody British weather and the grain of film. It’s amazing to be reminded that silver gelatin does possess this mysterious quality of imparting images with a deeply beautiful substance and material presence. These images do not aim to possess, like Atget did to Paris, but to revere and enshrine.

In the introduction to Evocations of Place, Robert Elwall repudiates Martin Parr’s jibe that English photography ‘displays a mawkish sentimentality’ and ‘is therefore unworthy of critical regard’. Now, critical regard is afforded to an artist’s language insofar as it reveals some hidden truths.

‘What is the current import of a collection of images that, in the effort to record, go a long way to constructing the very notion of Britishness?’

The photographs are sublime, seducing the viewer. But is there truth in quaint country houses and Romanesque churches? Alas, Smith’s ‘unerring ability to convey the spirit of any place’ and ‘sensitive portrayals [of] British character’ fall somewhat short when confronted with truth. The language is ornate with ‘emphatic evocations’ and viewers are provided with a warm and pleasant feeling of something homey stroked inside. Links with JB Priestley’s idealised ‘Old England’ only further the general agenda − a push for national identity in a climate of contention regarding Britain’s role in Europe.

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St Lawrence, Didmarton, Gloucestershire, 1962
RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Let’s not forget Smith’s subject was postwar Britain, torn between an expired imperial identity and a drive to rapidly modernise. In the effort to rebuild, Labour funded more public housing and urbanisation schemes, yet by the 1950s failed to deliver the dream. This disappointment, coupled with rising New World influence, meant a decline in national self-confidence. In fact, the exhibition does well to note that Smith’s important commissions came about as part of a widespread effort to record ‘lost places and ways of life’. But it is of course a paradox of photography that each exposure made to record existing conditions becomes a version distinct from reality. As such it can pervade an entire cultural memory. In this way, a curatorial imperative in selecting just over 100 images from 60,000 can be assumed to generate a myth.

However, Smith did photograph the urban commonplace, and one really active image is included. In Portobello Market (1961), a man stares sideways wearily, forlorn, at some brass trinkets. To the left of him, outside his peripheral vision, a woman’s legs mingle with hanging spoons and scissors − a juxtaposition worthy even of oversexed surrealists. In the same breath, another detail: in the top right corner, an American flag hangs carefully burned into an overexposed section. Far less beautiful for light and composition, yet worthy of Smith’s and our attention: in the city, a critical narrative emerges.

Smith was a brilliant technical photographer. But to really provide his work with critical regard would mean to examine not only his meaning in taking photographs beyond commissioned work, but also to ask whether the Britishness referred to comes from the objects photographed, or the nature of the photographs. And then, to be prepared for the possibility that what might be uncovered is not as warm and pleasant as one hopes.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith

Where: RIBA, London
When: until 6 December 2014

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