Taken from Article:
When Edwin Smith died in 1971 he was famed as a recorder of the nation’s traditional landscape and architecture.
Born in 1912 in Camden, London, Smith showed an artistic aptitude throughout his schooling, and in 1928 he won a scholarship to study architecture at the Northern Polytechnic, Holloway. Moving, two years later, to study at the prestigious Architectural Association, Smith’s clear intention was to design rather than document the nation’s buildings. However, his father’s abandonment of his family led to Smith’s premature departure from the course. This, compounded by his dissatisfaction with modernism, resulted in his increasing reliance on photography to make a living.
Smith had been fascinated by photography since buying his first Kodak Box Brownie at the age of fifteen, but must have initially found this development disappointing. Nevertheless, through the artistic circles in which he mixed, he began to win regular commissions from British Vogue and also the Marcus Brumwell Stuart Advertising Agency.
While much of his early commercial work was affected by the requirements of his employers, once free of the tyranny of the art director there were hints of the brilliance to come. The 1930s saw Smith voraciously experimenting with different styles, cameras and techniques. Inspired by the great French photographer of quotidian life, Eugène Atget, and by other realist photographers, Smith produced a number of fascinating studies in his twenties. Fairgrounds, shop windows, nick-knacks and passers-by featured heavily, the beginning of a life-long obsession with recording popular culture.
John Betjeman referred to him as ‘a genius at photography’, so it is ironic that for most of his career he considered the art form at best a necessary commercial adjunct to his principal passion – painting. Some of this can be attributed to the low regard with which photography was held by painters, but mostly it can be put down to his chronic self-effacement. Whatever the reason, it did not affect his application to the task. A photographer with a unique ability to sense the prevailing mood of a place, it was no accident that Smith earned the soubriquet ‘the English Atget’. (read more)