There is something to learn from Edwin Smith’s attitude to photography. His partner Olive Cook, said “Edwin never tried to impose his will on a theme: it was again a question of ‘co-operating with the inevitable'”.

Edwin Smith, ‘the man who lived in his eyes’ 1, took up photography in 1932 at the age of twenty after looking at some work by Atget. This is unusual, as an appreciation of Atget’s work tends to be hard-won, as I have suggested in another post. But of course, as is the case for some other great photographers, Smith was first and foremost a painter and therefore had a cultured eye.

The man who lives in his eyes is continually confronted with scenes and spectacles that compel his attention and admiration and demand an adequate reaction. To pass on without pause is impossible and to continue after purely mental applause is unsatisfactory; some real tribute must be paid 2

Olive Cook’s Preface (page 7) to ‘All the Photo Tricks.

His debt to Atget comes through in his Villa Garzoni photograph, and indeed many of his photographs are devoid of people, although not the signs of people:

Villa Garzoni Collodi, Tuscany © Edwin Smith, RIBA Library

Smith was a traditionalist eschewing new camera technology (his favourite camera was mahogany and brass half-plate Ruby) and unusual framing positions. At a time when 35mm reportage photography held sway and architectural photography was experimenting with stylised wide angle viewpoints Smith remained anchored to a more naturalistic expression of images, preferring natural light and ‘normal’ vantage points.

This attitude was not born from a refusal to participate in photography’s progression from 19th century sensibilities. Rather, if I am reading between the lines correctly, Smith was more interested in the purely visual, not some transcendental notion of the image.

‘Gates’, Hardwich House Park, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk’ © Edwin Smith

The idea of ‘co-operating with the inevitable’, as he was fond of saying, sums it up well. I can imagine Smith walking through life, looking for views that somehow were in ‘sympathy’ with him. It is this attitude, this feeling of sympathy that I find so interesting, but difficult to get across.

Perhaps an approximate concept is J.J. Gibson’s ‘Affordance’. It is not a private perceptual experience that comes from a scene that opens up in front of you, although indeed that will happen as you walk with your eyes. An affordance is independent of an individual’s ability to recognize it or even take advantage of it. Affordance is a relational state of affairs which the environment offers and whose recognition depends on a person’s intentions and capabilities. Tracking through an affordance feels like ‘cooperating with the inevitable’.

Edwin Smith was particularly adept at recognizing these relational states of affair. Some of my favourite Smith photographs can be found at my pinterest page.

  1. All the Photo Tricks; Edwin Smith; Focal Press 1973; Preface by Olive Cook
  2. How many times have I feasted on a visual experience only not to have a camera on me? Reputedly, Smith never went for the shortest walk without a camera.

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