Edwin Smith & Social Documentary Photography

As the decade wore on this concern for aspects of the national identity took on a new intensity with development, modernisation, fear of approaching war and the appreciation of the potential destruction of both the physical fabric and the way of life.  The reaction to this fear is expressed well in the Recording Britain project.   In 1940 with the familiar British landscape under triple attack from Germany, rapid urban development and major changes in farming practice, the Ministry of Labour and the Pilgrim Trust set up the project to commissioned artists to record the changing face of the countryside before it was too late. There was ultimately a search for particularity, for the voice and look of England and for engagement, not detachment, between art and society.  Artists and photographers who were at the heart of this debate included Cecil Beaton, Bill Brandt, Lasazlo Moholy-Nagy, Paul Nash and John Piper.  Alexandra Harris refers to this group as the ‘romantic moderns’, and seeks to step aside from the traditional fight between English ancients and continental moderns.

Interieur, by Atget

So, in evaluating Smith as a documentary photographer, he lacks neither a context within which to work nor peers from whom to learn.  Yet he seems to have operated outside of all this.  It is difficult to believe that he was unaware of the documentary photographic context around him and surprising that he nowhere acknowledges its existence.  This apparent absence of influences has always been curious and in our work on Edwin we have sought to establish which photographers’ work he admired and influenced him in his own practice.  So far as we can tell he left no written record, while Olive Cook often sought to give the impression that he was unique and owed his achievements to no one.  However, she did acknowledge Atget and Photographe de Paris (PdP), an original copy of which Edwin owned, as a significant influence. 

Mrs Holman’s Cottage, Crewkerne, by Edwin Smith ©RIBA

Indeed, this much is evident from a comparison of their work, compare just four subjects: the shop displays ‘Boulevard de Strasborug’ (PdP pl. 76 (original book numbering)) and ‘Hairdresser’s shop window, London’ (EoP p. 35); the fairgrounds ‘Faire des Invalides’ (PdP pl. 71) and ‘Mitcham fair, London’ (EoP p.37); the interiors ‘Interieur’ (PdP pl. 2) and ‘Mrs Holman’s Cottage, Crewkerne, Somerset’ (EoP p. 40); and the bedrooms ‘Chambre & coucher’ (PdP pl. 16) and ‘Camden Town bedroom, London’ (EoP p, 28).  The similarities in subject, composition and tone are striking.

Although there is limited evidence direct evidence from the 1930s, Smith must surely have become increasingly aware of what was happening in the arts through his commercial work mixing with artists, including Edward Ardizzone, Edward Bawden, Edward McKnight Kauffer and John Piper, artists with whom he was increasingly familiar from the 1940s.

If an absence of a relationship with his photographic peers in the 1930s is surprising, it is no less so that in an age of picture magazines so little of the work was published.  One fairground study appeared in Modern Photography: The Studio Annual of Camera Art, 1935-36; and further examples of Smith’s photography appeared in volumes for 1940-41 and 1941-42.  Some of the documentary work was published subsequently in various editions of The Saturday Book, Leonard Russell, the editor, being an admirer of Smith’s early work. The apparent isolation of Smith from his peers in the 1930s and 40s is reflected in his absence (and indeed Olive Cook’s) from Alexandra Harris’ comprehensive Romantic Moderns.

How therefore do we judge Edwin Smith’s documentary work?  This can be looked at in four parts.

Clowns, Olympia, London 1938 by Edwin Smith ©RIBA

The photographs of fairs, circuses, pubs and the embellishments and curlicues of popular culture capture the theatricality and exuberance of this world.  It is an effervescent world, but also one with an uneasy undertone – to a modern eye it exploits women – more or less pronounced.  Smith captures both the animation and the excitement of performance and the poignancy of life behind the scenes.  The subjects are at ease and we may imagine that the photographer was too, the latter is evidenced by the repeated visits to circus and fairs in a way that is not apparent in his other documentary work.  The combination of type of shots (establishing, close up, action, relationship) creates a celebratory body of documentary work in the mode that was being established by other workers at the time.  The pictures get behind the scenes and go quite some way towards getting to the heart of the matter.

Miner’s House Interior, Northumberland by Edwin Smith ©RIBA

The photographs of the miners and the communities in the North East are much more formal.  Miners pose for the camera and both they and their homes appear spruced up for the occasion; they troop off to work with noble enthusiasm and relax in the sun.  The quaysides are busy with activity.  If there are occasional insights into a harder life, this does not look like the region that spawned the Jarrow March less than two years earlier. 

Quayside, Newcastle by Edwin Smith ©RIBA

There is little sense of the full life of a mining community – women and children are incidental to the main characters – certainly no revelation of the hardness that surely must have been the daily experience of life in the 1930s.

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