Thursday, 30 August 2007

Edwin Smith

Although Edwin Smith made a name for himself as a photographer and writers as diverse as Sir John Betjeman, John Piper and Cecil Beaton praised him as "a genius at photography", "a great artist" and "an understanding and loving connoisseur of his subject", he became a photographer by chance not choice.
Trained as an architect, he thought of himself as a painter: it was only in the last year of his life, when lecturing at Bristol, that he wryly admitted to being a photographer. It was because he did not wish to feel wholly committed to the camera that he refused to install running water in his darkroom until 1967, made do with an antiquated enlarger and only acquired a relatively modern camera, a second-hand Linhof, in 1970. His favourite camera throughout his career was a massive mahogany and brass half-plate veteran of 1904 called the Ruby. It accompanied him on all his travels even after pressure of work had compelled him to resort to more easily portable equipment, hand cameras of the bellows type, at least twenty years behind the times.

Chance plays a major part in all our lives, but seldom so conspicuously as in Edwin's, perhaps because his guiding principles in both art and life—"Bend with the stream" and "Co-operate with the inevitable"—offered little resistance to the whims of fortune. Passionately concerned with every form of visual expression, Edwin was struck by some reproductions of the work of Atget which he saw in the library of the northern Polytechnic in Holloway, where he was a pupil. He decided to get a camera. It was a simple Box Brownie acquired with coupons given away with packets of cornflakes. Despite its limitations Edwin was intrigued by the medium and a year or two later his interest was encouraged by a friend's gift of a quarter-plate camera. It was old and defective and while putting it in order Edwin learned a lot about its possibilities. With it he took some close-ups of ferns, dog daisies and hedgerow plants which already bear the impress of his style. At that time he knew nothing of developing and printing and the photographs were processed by a local Camden Town chemist. Edwin called for them on his way to a party. Among the guests was Paul Nash who looked over Edwin's shoulder when he was showing the prints to the donor of the camera. Generously ready as he always was to help the young and attracted by the freshness of these images, Nash not only enabled Edwin to use the darkrooms of Lund Humphries after office hours and thus to learn the grammar of his craft, but recommended him to the editress of Vogue. It was in this periodical, most unsuitably, that in 1935 Edwin's work was first published. Two of the photographs he took at the Henley Regatta for Vogue are included in this exhibition. Edwin always said the whole episode was the result of a mistake, the editress having wrongly understood his name to be Chetwynd-Smith. As soon as Edwin made it clear that he was just plain Smith the commissions came to an end.

But the photographs had been noticed and from then on the demand for them never stopped. Edwin never once sought work, but without ever having intended it he eventually became an almost full time photographer. The process was gradual and at first it was the publishers of newspapers and periodicals who asked for Edwin's work, reproducing photographs taken for no other reason than to record a particular visual experience. The fairground and circus photographs shown in the present exhibition represent a major interest of these early years. Between 1935 and 1938 Edwin made a comprehensive record of the exuberant, fantastic world of the fairground and circus, many of the traditional elements of which did not survive the forties. A few of these were used by the press; most of them have never been seen.

Edwin always had an amused and sympathetic eye for the poetry of the commonplace, for things seen casually in the street, in shop windows, in pubs and in humble interiors and his photographs of these subjects brought him a number of commissions. His pictures of the street life, the terraces and shops of Camden Town, where at that time he was still living with his mother in the two rooms in which he had grown up, attracted the attention of Sir Arnold Wilson who in the summer of 1936 asked him to record the lives and work of the Newcastle colliers. One wonders what the patron's reactions were to the fruits of this expedition, a small selection from which can be seen in this gallery. For the photographs do nothing to confirm Sir Arnold's political extremism. Edwin's delight in the Newcastle scene was, as with all his subjects, predominantly visual, kindled, as always, by the timeless, aesthetic qualities of tone, light and rhythm. He photographed the people who were part of this urban, industrial scene without any sense of the 'concern' or 'commitment' which his patron felt and about which we hear so much today. Through instinct with his warm humanity, affection and humour these images express complete tolerance and acceptance of the situation. Among others who noticed Edwin's early work was the director of the Focal Press. For him Edwin wrote several books on photographic technique and one of these, entitled, ironically enough for one who never resorted to tricks. All the Photo Tricks, is still being reprinted. Leonard Russell, editor of The Saturday Book was another admirer and Edwin's long association with this popular annual brought him to the attention of many publishers.

Before 1950 photography took up no more of Edwin's time than two or three days a week at the most. It seemed to offer an ideal solution to the problem of earning a living while leaving ample time for painting and print-making. Edwin's knowledge of the painting and graphic techniques was astonishing - later he edited two standard works on the subject - and whereas the most makeshift equipment was good enough for the darkroom, only the best was accepted in the studio. Edwin loved all the materials and appurtenances of the painter's art, always ground his own colours and throughout his life kept a collection of canvases, boards, paper, powder colours, inks, pastels, brushes and pencils big enough to stock a shop. Despite the tremendous pressure of his later years he never ceased to think of himself as a painter and always managed to do at least two drawings every day when he was not travelling.

In 1950 Thames and Hudson commissioned Edwin to take the photographs for a big book on English parish churches. The subject was entirely congenial. Twenty years later Edwin said that the village church had given him some of the most poignant visual experiences of his life. He has described his procedure and it is worth recalling, for it remained much the same whenever he was confronting an architectural subject. When Edwin arrived at a church he would dump his equipment behind a pier, under a bench or perhaps under the collecting box table until he was ready to begin work. He was never seen with his camera draped about his person. It was always discreetly satchelled or, if it was the Ruby, carried in a large suitcase. Edwin would spend some time strolling round the outside of the building, then savour the interior, enjoying not only the immediate pleasures of the eye but thinking also of the needs of the camera. Usually he became excited by a number of possibilities and always worked in the lighting conditions that existed at the moment when he decided to start. He never used photographic lamps except for individual works of art and did not possess any until the late sixties. Interiors invariably necessitated the use of a black cloth over the head and exposures which might last from 10 seconds to many more minutes. The passage of the seconds was measured not by a meter, but by a whispered incantation: "Cat one, cat two, cat three, cat four . . .", while the photographer smiled encouragingly at his subject and, with spectacles pushed up onto his forehead, fixed it with his short-sighted gaze. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of this use of long exposures in dim interiors was the series of photographs Edwin took in Westminster Abbey at the beginning of 1970. Among them was the jewel-like head of William of Valence which figures in the present selection. So that he should be able to work undisturbed Edwin spent the best part of a night in the great, dusky building, his only companions the effigies of the illustrious dead. It was a thrilling experience, enhanced, when the final prints emerged, by the revelation of details of capital and boss, lineament and dress which eluded the human eye in the full light of day.

The Thames and Hudson book was a huge success and from that time Edwin was deluged by commissions for similar books. His work took him all over England many times and to every part of Europe. Such extensive travel was in itself extraordinary, for Edwin never left home from choice and when I first met him had not been away from London for several years. He would set out on a project with great reluctance. Yet once the break had been made he gave himself up to the visual impact of the journey and worked with the utmost dedication. Generally his authors and publishers supplied him with lists of subjects. They often turned out to be ludicrously unpictorial and Edwin would waste no time on them, directing his lens only onto what moved him. He never developed his plates or films until he returned home and thoroughly enjoyed the uncertainty of not knowing, sometimes for two or three months, whether his work had prospered.
Edwin never thought of photography as an art. To him it was a miraculous recording device. At the time of his death photographic galleries were still almost unheard of and he would have thought it eccentric and pretentious to exhibit photographs. When asked to show some of his work at the Cambridge Festival in 1970 he agreed but felt he was indulging a wild caprice on the part of the organisers. His view of photography remained what it had always been and was expressed in a passage he wrote in a revised edition of All the Photo Tricks in 1971:

"The man who lives in his eyes is continually confronted with scenes and spectacles that compel his attention or admiration and demand an adequate reaction. To pass on without pause is impossible and to continue after purely mental applause is unsatisfying; some real tribute must be paid. Photography, to many of its addicts, is a convenient and simple means of discharging these ever recurring debts to the visual world."

Nevertheless Edwin's photographs, like those of every sensitive witness with a lens, are so much more than factual records: they are revelations not only of those hidden details which delighted him but of the magic and mystery with which light and shadow can invest the most commonplace themes and, above all, of his own warm, emotional and transforming response to the visual world.

With his special knowledge and love of architecture it was not surprising that his books should earn him a considerable reputation as a photographer of buildings. But it was landscape which finally became most important to him. He had always been stirred by the fleeting effects of light and weather, winds and water which he felt that only the camera could capture. Even with his first primitive camera Edwin took photographs of trees and plants and of patterns shaped by storms, tides and frost. In his Bristol lecture he singled out his landscape photographs as his particular testimony. In them, he said, he had perhaps managed to convey something of infinity.

Olive Cook
© The estate of Olive Cook

Neo Romanticism

Particularly this piece "O Lady ! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live :
Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud !"

Read this poem listening to Harold Budd - The Room of Accidental Geometry

Well ! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,
This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade
Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,
Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of this Æolian lute,

Which better far were mute.
For lo ! the New-moon winter-bright !
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o'erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh ! that even now the gust were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast !
Those sounds which oft have raised me, whilst they awed,

And sent my soul abroad,
Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give,
Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live !

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

In word, or sigh, or tear--
O Lady ! in this wan and heartless mood,
To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo'd,
All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green :
And still I gaze--and with how blank an eye !
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars ;
Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen :
Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue ;
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are !

My genial spirits fail ;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast ?
It were a vain endeavour,

Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west :
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

O Lady ! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live :
Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud !
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah ! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

Enveloping the Earth--
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element !

O pure of heart ! thou need'st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be !
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.

Joy, virtuous Lady ! Joy that ne'er was given,
Save to the pure, and in their purest hour,
Life, and Life's effluence, cloud at once and shower,
Joy, Lady ! is the spirit and the power,
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower
A new Earth and new Heaven,
Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud--
Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud--

We in ourselves rejoice !
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness :
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth :
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth ;

But oh ! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can ;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man--
This was my sole resource, my only plan :
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality's dark dream !
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream

Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth ! Thou Wind, that rav'st without,
Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches' home,
Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist ! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak'st Devils' yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.
Thou Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds !
Thou mighty Poet, e'en to frenzy bold !

What tell'st thou now about ?
'Tis of the rushing of an host in rout,
With groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds--
At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold !
But hush ! there is a pause of deepest silence !
And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,
With groans, and tremulous shudderings--all is over--
It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud !

A tale of less affright,
And tempered with delight,
As Otway's self had framed the tender lay,--
'Tis of a little child
Upon a lonesome wild,
Not far from home, but she hath lost her way :
And now moans low in bitter grief and fear,
And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear.

'Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep :
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep !
Visit her, gentle Sleep ! with wings of healing,
And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth !

With light heart may she rise,
Gay fancy, cheerful eyes,
Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice ;
To her may all things live, from the pole to pole,
Their life the eddying of her living soul !
O simple spirit, guided from above,
Dear Lady ! friend devoutest of my choice,
Thus may'st thou ever, evermore rejoice.

Defjection – An Ode 1802
ST Coleridge

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

On the sands

WH Hudson

...But, no, there was one more, one of those rare days when nature appears to us spiritualised and is no longer nature, when that which had transfigured this visible world is in us too, and it becomes possible to believe - it is almost a conviction - that the burning and shining spirit seen and recognised in one among a thousand we have known is in all of us and in all things. In such moments it is possible to go beyond even the most advanced of the modern physicists who holds that force alone exists, that matter is but a disguise, a shadow and delusion; for we may add that force itself - that which we call force or energy - is but a semblance and shadow of the universal soul.

The change in the weather was not sudden; the furious winds dropped gradually; the clouds floated higher in the heavens, and were of a lighter grey; there were wider breaks in them, showing the lucid blue beyond; and the sea grew quieter. It had raved and reared too long, beating against the iron walls that held it back,and was now spent and fallen into an uneasy sleep, but still moved uneasily and moaned a little. Then all at once summer returned, coming like a thief in the night, for when it was morning the sun rose in splendour and power in a sky without cloud on its vast azure expanse, on a calm sea with no motion but that scarcely perceptible rise and fall as of one that sleeps. As the sun rose higher the air grew warmer until it was full summer heat but although a "visible heat," it was never oppressive; for all that day we were abroad, and as the tide ebbed a new country that was neither earth nor sea was disclosed, an infinite expanse of pale yellow sand stretching away on either side, and further and further out until it mingled and melted into the sparkling water and faintly seen line of foam on the horizon. and over all - the distant sea, the ridge of low dunes marking where the earth ended, and the flat yellow expanse between - there brooded a soft bluish silvery haze. A haze that blotted nothing out, but blended and interfused them all until earth and air and sea and sands were scarcely distinguishable. The effect, delicate, mysterious, unearthly, cannot be described.

Ethereal gauze...
Visisble heat, air-water, and dry sea,
Last conquest of the eye...
Sun-dust, aerial surf upon the shores of earth,
Ethereal estuary, frith of light...
Bird of the sun, transparent-winged.

Do we not see that words fail as pigments do - that the effect is too coarse, since in describing it we put it before the mental eye as something distinctly visible, a thing of itself and separate. But it is not so in nature; the effect is of something almost invisible and is yet a part of all and males all things - sky and sea and land - as unsubstantial as itself. Even living, moving things had that aspect. Far out on the lowest furthest strip of sand, which appeared to be on a level with the sea, gulls were seen standing in twos and threes and small groups and in rows; but they did not look like gulls - familiar birds, gull-shaped with grey and white plumage. They appeared twice as big as gulls, and were of a dazzling whiteness and of not defintie shape: though standing still they had motion, an effect of the quiverieng dancing air, the "visible heat"; at rest, they were seen now as separate ojects; then as one with the silver sparkle on the sea; and when they rose and floated away they were no longer shining and white, but like pale shadows of winged forms faintly visible in the haze.

They were not birds but spirits - beings that lived in or were passing through the world and now, like the heat, made visible; and I, standing far out on the sparkling sands, with the sparkling sea on one side and the line of the dunes, indistinctly seen as land, on the other, was one of them; and if any person had looked at me from a distnce he would hafve seen me as a formless shining white being standing but the sea, and then perhaps as a winged shadow floating in the haze. It was only necessary to put out one's arms to float. That was the effect on my mind: this natural world was changed to a supernatural, and there was no more matter nor force in sea or land nor in the heavens above, but only spirit.

Afoot In England 1927