Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith

Due to the recent ‘Late Tuesday’ event at RIBA I was able to at last go to their exhibition on Edwin Smith since they kept their doors open until 10pm. There was a great buzz in the beautiful Art Deco building and it provided the perfect setting for showcasing Edwin Smith’s work. Edwin Smith’s photography career began with some work for Vogue but it was once he was commissioned to do a set of architectural photography that his strengths really became apparent. Throughout the exhibition it is clear that not only did Smith love the simplicity in the stark lines of a building he also enjoyed celebrating curiously English aspects of the scenes he encountered.

The ability to give a building life by juxtaposing small figures against the architectural landscape means that Smith’s photography continues to surprise even when it appears to be most familiar. I was interested to learn that Smith had used colour photography in the past but felt that it diminished the images as well as taking away his autonomy as a photographer since the prints had to be developed in a laboratory. In fact, having seen some of his colour prints which do survive, I felt that the addition of colour to his composition made even the simplest image almost overwhelming to look at.

The exhibition was well laid out, although it is only in one room, and I expect it was busier than normal when I visited due to the ‘Late Tuesday’ event. I definitely left with my interest piqued and only wished that I could see a greater selection of the thousands of Edwin Smith images which RIBA currently holds in its archives. It seems a shame that although he was famous throughout his lifetime he has rapidly been forgotten. His informal documentation of a range of life and culture has clearly been influential on a newer generation of photographers and the photographs still seem fresh and relevant today. I hope that this new exhibition at RIBA brings Smith’s name out of the shadows once more.

The exhibition is free to all and is worth making a detour for! If you get a chance it is also definitely worth having a look around RIBA which has an exquisite Art Deco staircase as well as other interesting events on and Edwin Smith prints hanging throughout the building.


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