Back in October 2014 (now three years ago) I was on the first term of a Creative Writing M.A. at NTU.
I was also with uncanny timing commissioned (the first and so far the only time I been commissioned) by R.I.B.A. through Apple and Snakes to write in response to a lovely collection of Edwin Smith Photographs at R.I.B.A. that autumn.
I missed my course deadline but fulfilled the commission and promptly left a course that frankly I should not have been on at that time. The £500 fee almost covered my first term fees!
The RIBA website has ‘mislaid’ the entire project basically so I publishing whole thing here instead.
Here is the work which is one of the best things I done so far and as I not as flavour of the month as certain other poets hasn’t been seen since unless you delve deep into my obscure back catalogue.
Apple and Snakes put up a blog post of the recordings we all made as well..again not heard much of that from RIBA either they probably ticking various ‘engagement’ boxes.
Listen to all the poems here: http://applesandsnakesblog.org/blog/edwinify-yourself#more
I am indebted to Roy Hammans who actually developed the last image after Smith’s death who provided informative advice throughout and is probably the single most knowledgeable person about Smith and his work.
EDWIN SMITH – Catching Light
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”― Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, Berlin Stories, (1945)
- Kodak Box Brownie No.2 Model F. 127 Roll Film 1927
Camden Town Bedroom 1935
Trembling in a gloomy Camden Town bedroom surrounded by brown paper
The teenage boy gently prises the camera from the leather case, undoes the catch
Traces the word BROWNIE[i] along the fake leather strap, caresses the box
The textured cardboard leatherette warm to the touch, he raises it to his eyes
Spins around to catch a glimpse of lace curtains breathing in and out
Then a pause, stops breathing, squints through spectacle glass and a blurry lens
No film, just retina, lens and glass glinting, quiet suburban air between the wars
Shutter pressed, the first image, undeveloped, untaken, unrecorded.
- ICA IDEAL 205 Glass Plate 9×12 1935
Opticians London 1935
A present from Marx and Nash[ii], same fake black leather case but much stronger
A hint of steel, hands now more relaxed, a world at his fingertips
The box finally clicks open, bellows a tiny lung, rangefinder, spirit level
Suddenly in Vogue, a London Atget spinning around fairs, cafes, Oxford Street
Zeiss Ikon Tessar 135mm f4.5 precision German lens and Compur shutter
The shop windows buzz with reflections, his spectacles stare back after
Nights spent in Lund Humphries[iii] experimenting with solutions, final prints
Days mixing it with emigrants and socialites, Focal Press tricks, ghost images.[iv]
- CONTAX II 5cm Sonnar Lens 35mm 1936
Kentish Town 1936
N.B. The curators got this wrong is in fact in East End probably Limehouse or Whitechapel as the Poster behind the gent is for a show at Hackney Wick and architecturally Kentish Town simply doesn’t match this setting.
Modernism in Kentish Town, a lens named after the sun, Sonnar
The lure of speed, futurism, the 35mm film spooling out of the movies
Twisting on that light yellow filter, ½ a second at F4, the march of progress
Back to black-outs, air-raid fears, black shirts, Agfa Isochrom, Kodak Nikko
The thrill of a world intoxicated with power[v], dancing on a ledge, never falling
Café de Paris, Heppenstall, Orwell, men talking in gangs carrying knives
His finger presses the shutter on Laura Knight and Coco, the ballet, the fairs
Spin Pennies from Heaven, Zeppelins over the docks[vi], Germany calling.
- THORNTON-PICKARD RUBY Quarter Plate 1904
St Lawrence, Bradford –on-Avon, Wiltshire 1950
Post-War, Deep England after Evans[vii], ash in the mouth, misericord darkness,
Light trickle slowly through lens, cat-one, cat-two, cat-three, whispered
People have become ghosts, 27 and a half minutes[viii], divining, digging into time
A mahogany box worn to a gleam in a suitcase, mahogany tripod, Leeds, England
So solid, a step back from the sirens, modernist black and white, the emblems
Slow drizzle and fade, tilts into spires and thickets, empty barns, rigs of the time
His glinting spectacles at the viewfinder, crouching like a sniper, waiting
Hiding his camera under vestry tables, a quiet man in a corner, hooded.
- GRAFLEX SPEED GRAPHIC Roll Film 1960
Fylindales, Yorkshire 1969
Movement, travel, portables, Made in New York, focal plane, press camera
The fruits of success, lease-lend to never had it so good, the wide angle
The New Europe, Ireland, Italy, Greece and France, the Ensign Autorange
Searching for the same mellow light, that photograph in the mind always
Then back weeks later to the darkroom in deepest England, the bleaching
Hours lightening shadows, clearing highlights with Potassium Ferricyanide,[ix] poison
Chemical arts, sleights of hand, shade in the palm of the hand, fission and fusion
His collecting eye adding the coin to the wishing well, staring at the sun.[x]
- ENSIGN AUTORANGE 820 120 roll film 1955
Stubble Burning – Last film developed 1993 by Roy Hammans
‘Co-operating with the Inevitable’ he called it, “bend with the stream”
Holding the Ensign Autorange up to the light it reflects in his spectacles
Bought in 1955 the last camera he held, English made, Walthamstow
The firm almost disappeared when in 1940 the offices in Holborn bombed
All surviving he stands with Olive to watch stubble burning in 1971
Squinting through a crisp and sharp Ross Xpres lens at the flaring
Feeling the silver body in the palm, the faux leather Ensign logo
Epsilon shutter pressed, a last image, taken, undeveloped, catches light forever.[xi]
© Shaun Belcher 2014
[i] Edwin Smith redeemed the Kodak Box Brownie by collecting Corn-Flake packet coupons probably in 1927 (EWELL, 2008)p.11.
[ii] Friend Enid Marx gave Edwin Smith a ‘better camera’ in 1935 shortly after he got married Olive Smith reports this as the Contax but as Ewell points out that not released until 1936. (EWELL, 2008)p.13.
[iii] Enid Marx was connected to The Royal College and Smith’s photographs came to the attention of Paul Nash who encouraged Smith and gave him access to the darkrooms at the publisher Lund Humphries. (EWELL, 2008)
[iv] Smith co-wrote and published a series of Focal Press guides from 1938-1940.(SMITH, 1940)
[v] Ewell reports the trip Smith made with his sponsor Sir Albert Talbot Wilson MP, a fervent pro-Nazi, to Germany at this time. (EWELL, 2008)p.19.
[vi] The German airship Graf Zeppelin made ‘spying’ raids probably equipped with aerial photography equipment of a high resolution on the 30th June 1936 and this was reported in Hansard on the 8th July 1936. The Parliamentary exchange highlights the naivety of some in Government which bordered on complicity. (Hansard, 1936)
[vii] Frederick H. Evans, British ‘Pictorialist’ photographer famous for the ‘Sea of Steps’ photograph taken in Wells Cathedral which Smith took a version of in 1956. A major influence on the Cathedral and Parish Church series.
[viii] Smith would time exposures using the cat phrase and replace the lens cap on exposures that could last up to 27 minutes thus removing all trace of human activity. (EWELL, 2008)p.52.
[ix] Smith mixed his own chemicals. After his death a large amount of Potassium Ferricyanide was found in his possession. The chemical is a poison and the Ilford Manual of Photography recommends disposing in drains with plenty of water to reduce the risk. Source: Roy Hammans note to article ‘Ways of Working’ on The Weeping Ash photography website. Accessed 31.10.2014. (HAMMANS, 2011)
[x] The Edwin Smith RIBA exhibition highlights the ‘trick’ Smith used during the Fylindales printing of placing a coin on the paper to ‘create’an image of the sun where none had been.
[xi] The circumstances of this last roll of film being left in Smith’s camera and only being developed years later are detailed on the Weeping Ash website. Source: ‘The Last Exposures’. Accessed 31.10.2014. (HAMMANS, 2011)
EWELL, R., 2008. Evocations of Place. 1st ed. London: Merrell:RIBA.
HAMMANS, R., 2011. Edwin Smith Working Methods. [Online]
Available at: http://www.fine-photographs.co.uk/index.php/life-work/ways-of-working
[Accessed 31 10 2014].
HAMMANS, R., 2011. The Last Exposures. [Online]
Available at: http://www.fine-photographs.co.uk/index.php/related-material/the-last-exposures
[Accessed 31 10 2014].
Hansard, 1936. GERMAN AIRSHIP “HINDENBURG.”. [Online]
Available at: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1936/jul/08/german-airship-hindenburg
[Accessed 31 10 2014].
SMITH, E., 1940. In: All the Photo-Tricks. London: Focal Press.