Edwin Smith – Ways of Working

On other pages, Unwrapping the Enigma, I describe how in 1989 we set out to explore the work of Edwin Smith and in doing so talked to his widow, Olive Cook, and some friends, a few of whom worked with him.  That article uses the interviews to try to gain some insights into the character of Edwin.  This article uses the same sources and research in the Olive Cook Papers (Newnham College) to explore something of his way of working as a photographer.

Edwin Smith, self-portrait

Unwrapping the Enigma refers to Edwin as an individualist, someone with the capacity to be impatient and astringent, yet sociable and warm.  Interviewees also referred to him as having a vivid imagination and the ability to work purely intuitively with little guidance and direction.  Notebooks in the Olive Cook Papers show him travelling alone throughout the continent photographing for the Great Houses of Europe (1961).  The East Anglian writer and historian Norman Scarfe said he had the capacity to ‘photograph with great fluency….naturally, with vividness’. Spontaneity and enthusiasm were recurring impressions as people talked about Edwin.  Edwin’s approach to photography was inevitably influenced by these qualities.

What external influences shaped his choice of subjects and style of photography is less certain.  None of the interviewees was able to recall Edwin expressing a view about photographers, or other artists for that matter, who influenced him.  What Edwin did have was an artist’s eye and a voracious appetite for the world around him.  Mrs Donald Horwood1 referred to ‘the connection between his eye, his marvellously seeing eye, and sorting out the things of the natural world that ….. appealed to him.’

To complement the adjoining article by Brian Human, I thought I would add some of my own observations about Edwin Smith’s work based on my experiences in printing many of his negatives over the years.

I never met Edwin, but in printing the negatives in the care of his widow, Olive, I began to feel very close to the man. Sometimes, in the darkroom when dealing with a particularly ‘awkward’ image, I found myself talking to him, asking him how on earth he got the result he did from the tonal range I was presented with. This was obviously the time to take a break and grab some coffee!



 Edwin and Olive in the front garden at 29 Buckland Avenue, Hampstead, c. 1949-50. 
all photographs courtesy of the RIBA collection

So, what of his technique? His negatives were usually of a reasonably good quality and could range from glass plates, through sheet film to roll film in format. I have his last camera, an Ensign Autorange, and a lot of his later work was done with that, producing 6×9 cm negatives on roll film. He used a variety of film types, predominantly Kodak or Ilford of medium (125 ISO) speed.

I do not know what chemistry he used to process the films, but a man who mixed his own pigments to make oil and watercolour paints probably mixed his developer from basic chemicals on occasion too. I do know, from a contact who inherited some of his darkoom content, that he possessed a very large quantity of potassium ferricyanide – a chemical used for bleaching the silver in prints (or films) to reduce its density, lightening shadows and clearing highlights.

This single fact confirmed something that I had suspected for some time. It was not possible to create modern prints that matched his originals by pure exposure and development alone. Partly this was because materials have changed, but it was also because – far from ‘co-operating with the inevitable‘ or ‘going with the flow‘ – Edwin Smith worked on his prints with bleach (and possibly intensifiers) after exposure and development in the darkroom.

In a way, this is little different in outcome to the previsualisation techniques of technical masters like Ansel Adams. Edwin undoubtedly knew, at the time of making the exposure, what he wanted the final print to look like. He could not be bothered however withthe strict scientific approach required to translate his experience-based exposure technique (counting seconds as ‘cat one-cat two-cat three..’ etc) into a developed negative and subsequent print that matched his intention. What he did havewas the knowledge and tenacity to work on the end result, by whatever means was necessary, to achieve his goal.

He was not averse to racking the rising front of his view camera to beyond the usable image circle of the lens, just so he could get the top of a particularly dramatic church steeple in shot. Similarly, as the cover image of ‘English Abbeys & Priories‘ illustrates with its blurred church tower and treetops, his use of camera movements was at times a bit ‘casual’.

Edwin Smith’s Zeiss Protar lenses

In general though his rendering of scenes was excellent. His technique was in most cases more than equal to his vision and intention.
I am fortunate to also own the lenses he employed on his Thornton-Pickard Ruby camera; Zeiss Protars, made around 1912 and highly sought after even today for their almost total lack of astigmatism and curvature, coupled with an extraordinarily large image circle.

Edwin had published ‘All the Photo Tricks: ways and ideas off the beaten track’ in 1940 at the age of 28 and so obviously had a pretty deep knowledge of all that was possible with cameras, lenses, light, materials and chemicals. This in-depth knowledge is somewhat at odds with his life-long avowal that he was only a photographer ‘by necessity’, as Brian mentions.

In 2010, I visited the location of one of Edwin’s photographs taken in Ireland (Powerscourt, shown below) and attempted to recreate it. You can read about the experience in a blog post here.

Powerscourt, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, by Edwin Smith


Roy Hammans, 2011

Norman Scarfe recalled:
‘I suppose he had a wonderful eye.  One of the marvellous things that Olly [Olive Cook] makes clear in that book about Edwin….. is describing how when he was a very young boy he had extremely defective eyesight and it wasn’t discovered until… quite late on, and there is a sense in which that is a marvellous advantage, because….. seeing for the first time it really is such an excitement.  I think that some of Edwin’s extraordinary response to visual objects derives from that strange experience of not being able to see properly for a certain time and then suddenly being able to see.’

Scarfe also said that the visual awareness was linked to an ability to seize an opportunity:
…..his wonderful gift of making the most of an opportunity, I mean, if ever he saw a cat in the right position in relation to a lane or path or something of that kind he photographed it, most people would miss this kind of opportunity, but I don’t think Edwin did.  I don’t know why, but part of it was that he was always ready.

However, Mrs Horwood argued that when Edwin travelled to Venice and on arriving found the place was flooded, he treated it just as another trial and tribulation of travelling, something that was sent to plague him, he didn’t look at it with a journalistic eye, as a story that was worth recording.

Photojournalism aside, he had a voracious appetite for seeing and understanding the world.  Ruscha Schorr-Kohn2 said,
‘I think he valued the past, he felt it was something that was disappearing; I think it was better than nostalgia; it was seeing the beauty of something and the way it was done and having the understanding of the way it was done, because he was very knowledgeable about how buildings were built and the techniques involved, I think he was aware of it dwindling.’

Mrs Horwood recalled, ‘He particularly liked things that were close to the ground, ethnic things….. like his passion for vernacular architecture.’ Norman Scarfe explained, ‘Old fashioned plaster used to be a mixture of lime and sand, and that’s what he understood very well and that’s why he loved old buildings, because they have this beautiful texture that works.’

Mrs Schorr-Kohn remembered Edwin as a collector: ‘…..you saw it all around.  All kinds of little 19th century objects, amusing little ceramic figures, that lovely fairground glass with silver.  He liked memorabilia and ephemera, metro tickets, all the things they made the collages with.’Mrs Horwood recalled his collection of orange papers: ‘He’d rush into a shop and buy an orange with a paper that he’d caught out of the corner of his eye and he’d not got.  Long before it was fashionable to collect ephemera he was gathering up these things.’

Edwin’s natural creativity and spirit of independence lead him to work almost always as a freelance, usually commissioned independently or to work with a writer.  His relationships with writers appear to have been mixed.

Olive Cook claimed he ignored the writers he worked with, in the sense that he didn’t really take a lot of notice of what they requested him to do.  He just went ahead and photographed what he felt was important.  Mrs Horwood recalled talking to Olive about this. 
‘She was quite funny on the subject of Edwin and his photographs, because people were lazy about illustrating their own books and they very often looked to Edwin and said to him, “Can you let me have a set of pictures to illustrate my book”, and she said, he….. was quite light-hearted about it and would send them a sort of motley collection, thinking, well, if they can’t be bothered to get it right for themselves why should I do the hard work for them.’

Norman Scarfe has a much more positive recollection of working with Edwin.  Scarfe was confident in giving Edwin a brief and letting him get on with it knowing that the result would be first class.  Scarfe recalled their working together.
‘We once went to do a Country Life article, which was to be about a place near Bury St Edmunds called Little Haw Hall; we had a day to do it in and it was very complicated and beautiful house.  At the top of the staircase there was a ceiling above the landing, very ornate and I think painted in the late 1730s or early 1740s by Francis Hayman and it had never been photographed very much.  He was terribly excited about it, but gosh it was difficult to do and get right and of course he did it.  It’s the only time I’ve spent an entire day with him doing a professional job of photographing an interior, and although he hadn’t got a great deal of equipment, it was nevertheless I think like watching a marvellous conductor getting something out of an orchestra.  He really was not idle for a second, he was diving under a table or getting under something, or moving something, or getting himself set and moving again and getting it right.  He was absolutely alive and concentrating on the business in hand in a way that I hadn’t dreamt that you had to do.’

‘I’d actually written the article already and I just wanted him to do certain jobs, and I was perfectly happy to let him do it, to do what he wanted to do….it was the utmost pleasure, it was an extraordinary experience because he was so warm and responsive and amusing, always smiling and laughing…..because he really enjoyed life, I think.  I think he was always excited by visual truths of a kind that he was somehow gifted in interpreting.’

Despite his individuality there was a warmth to Edwin’s personality that helped in his work.  John Henderson3 suggested ‘in that farmhouses book, [probably English Cottages and Farmhouses]  in order to get into those houses he must have chatted up the little old ladies who were living there to get the photographs, and actually been quite intrusive.’Mrs Horwood supported this: ‘…when he illustrated a book on gardens, it was very interesting that he was not pleased with the photographs associated with the people he felt he hadn’t made real contact with, and the people he and struck a spark with their gardens were quite different.’

This also may suggest that Edwin was at ease with the camera.  Indeed, Scarfe recalled, ‘I think it is Olive, who has pointed out somewhere that, though he may have felt [reservations about photography], he never went anywhere without a camera.’And Mrs Donald Horwood said: ‘Although he did in fact ….. use an old camera for his proper work, he would use a little camera for those pictures that he took of us, saying, “No amateur can make use of the speed of the fastest modern camera”, so anything costing at that time about £15 would do for ‘snapping’ as he lightheartedly called it.’

However, he was always willing to lay the camera aside for the pencil and paint brush, in John Henderson’s words, ‘one felt that the camera was put away, was shut away, at the end of the day’.

Edwin invariably worked with available light and was economical and organised is his approach. Mrs Horwood felt, ‘there was, well certainly with the landscape pictures, a great element of selection.’ Olive Cook said that Edwin’s way of printing, or way of photography, was to get the final print as close as possible to the image that moved him at the time the picture was taken.  Edwin carried back with him to the darkroom an image of how he felt or what he saw at the time and then worked on the sometimes rather unsatisfactory negative or print to produce that effect, rather than working from a perfect negative that stemmed from exact exposure and processing determined at the outset.

Norman Scarfe recollecting their work together said, ‘He didn’t do any of the sort of modern thing of snap, snap, snap, snap, not at all.  I don’t know how many he took in the end, perhaps twenty-five in the course of the day and he always made meticulous notes after he had taken each one, he wasn’t hurried.  So he knew exactly what he’d done.’

Edwin married his personal qualities to an acute and voracious visual appetite and a way of working that suited both.  But if he photographed what he wanted and did things his way he was never a dilettante.

Correspondence and notes in the Olive Cook Papers show Edwin making careful plans for his phoptgraphic excursions and taking great pains to get permission to obtain access to the buildings he wanted to cover, permission that was usually granted.  And when he travelled he went fully prepared: flying to Italy in 1960 to photograph for the great houses project he incurred £10. 4s. 2d (around £172 today) in excess baggage charges.

Edwin’s natural energy translated itself into hard work, as many interviewees testified.  Mrs Donald Horwood: ‘he was very much an autodidact and got his qualifications through sheer grit and hard work’; Phoebe Pickard4: ‘Tremendously hard working – everything else could go by the board’….he was single minded once he took a job on’;and Norman Scarfe: ‘He worked very hard’.

The recorded itinerary to photograph for the Great Houses of Europe in 1960 demonstrates the point.  March 14th – April 8th, Italy – Milan, Stupinigi, Turin, Stresa, Mantua, Verona, Venice, Treviso, Maser, Mason Vicention, Blogna, Urbino, Viterbo, Bagnaia, Bomarzo, Caprarola, Rome, Tivoli.  April 17th – 28th, Spain and Portugal – Madrid, Aranjuez, Seville.  May 16th – June 3rd, south Germany and Austria – Munich, Wurzburg, Bamberg, Pommersfelden, Vienna, Schwarzenberg, Innsbrook, Schwaz.  June 27th – July 11th, France – Calais, Paris, Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Auxerre, Chateaudun, Blois.  August 1st – 24th, ‘North’ – Brussels, Ghent, ‘Holland’, Dusseldorf, Benrath, Koln, Bruhl, Copenhagen, Svendborg, ‘Sweden’, Berlin, Potsdam.

But it was more than just hard work.

Mrs Horwood saw him as a perfectionist, ‘in lots of ways, about the house, about his work’.  Dr Alice Roughton5 said, ‘I think he probably was a perfectionist in many ways’ also ‘he was honest and sincere and that is much more than being a perfectionist.’According to Mrs Horwood, ‘he had a true sense of his own value; he wasn’t prepared to have his time wasted and this I greatly admired in him; there was integrity about him.’ And she had no doubt about his attitude towards photography:  ‘I think he loved photography, there’s no question about it’; and ‘Photography, I feel, was fundamental to his life and in a way he didn’t need to express pleasure or pain about it, except pain about his traveling.  It was just there, it was a basic fact.’Phoebe Pickard recalled: ‘…once he was doing the photography it was all that mattered, no matter how long it took’.  Norman Scarfe offered a slight caution: ‘It was a very curious thing that he had a slight disregard for the business of photography…..but he took great pleasure in successful photographs – he would never have done it otherwise.’Scarfe also recalled that it was not always a pleasure for Edwin: ‘I used to get letters occasionally saying, “Oh God, I’ve spent three days in the darkroom”, but not really – who likes doing what they have to do?’

But Edwin knew what he wanted and his own worth.  There is a telling 1970 letter  from Edwin to J. R. Churcher at the Ministry of Works.  He has requested permission to photograph Lancaster House and has been offered stock photographs instead, which he refuses, replying: ‘However, as I am making all the photographs for the book, and as photographers do have a sort of invisible signature, I do not think the publisher would want me to accept your offer.’


These records, comments, views give some insight into Edwin Smith the photographer and, although they are partial in both senses of the word, they allow us to offer some tentative conclusions.

First, Edwin the photographer and Edwin the man are indivisible – his character influenced his whole approach to photography.  His pictures embody his individuality and his warmth; his relationships with his collaborators and the people he met during his work were shaped by both his sociability and his impatience.

Second, his work was driven by a curiosity about the world and a voracious visual appetite for everything from the grand to the ephemeral, an appetite that enabled him to see and photograph his chosen subjects in ways unique to him.  He showed one world in the big picture and another in the details and merged the two on the printed page to reveal places anew.

Third, technically his approach was a combination of the simple and the complex – simple technique in the field using the right equipment for the job (‘cooperating with the inevitable’) and complex work back in the darkroom to achieve the required print.  The creativity was innate, but he also mastered the craft of photography and was more often that not a perfectionist in its execution.

Fourth, he worked hard, was passionate about photography and had a justified sense of his own worth, despite his protestation that he was a photographer only by ‘necessity’.  Photography was an essential and enduring part of his life.


  1. Friend and supporter of an artistic community in Southwold.
  2. A family friend who knew him from her early years.
  3. John Henderson’s parents were friends of Olive and Edwin; Edwin photographed John as a baby.
  4. Arranger and adaptor for the first production of Gordon Jacob’s Job, on which Edwin assisted in 1966.
  5. Psychiatrist, medical campaigner, conservationist and pioneer in the movement against nuclear weapons.


Brian Human
Updated 14 May 2009
(based on a series of interviews conducted in 1989)

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