The Photographs of Edwin Smith

These are some of Edwin Smith’s photographs from my own collection. They are a few from the many that I printed for Olive Cook during the 1980s and 1990s.

In my first solo exhibition of my own work, I used a quotation from Edwin in the requested ‘artist’s statement’:

“The man who lives through his eyes is continually confronted with scenes and spectacles that compel his attention or admiration and demand an adequate reaction. To pass on without pause is impossible and to continue after purely mental applause is unsatisfying; some real tribute must be paid.
Photography, to many of its addicts, is a convenient and simple means of discharging these ever-recurring debts to the visual world.”

From the first time I encountered Edwin’s work I was enthralled by his approach to his subjects. Undoubtedly, there is something of the romantic vision of an idyllic rural England embodied in many of them which is always attractive, but his approach to this was not condescending or patronising and certainly not ‘pictorial’. He would treat every subject the same whether it was a King’s bedroom or a farm-worker’s kitchen. His photographs are akin to those of Eugene Atget (the only photographer whose influence he admitted to) and are perhaps even more the ‘documents pour artistes’ that Atget advertised – the artist in this case also being the photographer.

Many more of Edwin’s photographs can be viewed in the article Edwin Smith & Social Documentary Photography.

There is a strong association with the work of Walker Evans as well. It is not known for sure whether Edwin Smith was familiar with the Farm Security Administration work that Evans was involved in during the 1930s, but it seems unlikely. Their approaches were similar however, even if their motivations were very different.

The entire Edwin Smith archive was bequeathed by Olive to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), where it now resides. Smith’s archive of 60,000 images and their copyright are now held by the RIBA Library Photographs Collection (RIBApix) where nearly 4500 images have now been added to the online catalogue. They have very kindly granted permission for reproductions on this site.

The Chris Beetles Gallery in London manages sales of high-quality photographic prints from the RIBA collection. Copies of Edwin’s photographs, authenticated with the estate stamp, may be purchased from them.

The images above are presented as thumbnails, clicking on them enlarges each. Use the navigation on any of the pop-ups.

For a comprehensive view of their holdings, and to purchase original prints from Edwin Smith’s negatives, please visit the RIBA link above.

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