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 IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin, Berlin Stories, (1945)

 

 

  1. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. 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]

 

 

         

 

 

 

 

 

  1. 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.

 

 

 

 

  1. 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.

 

 

  1. 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]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. 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)

 

 

Bibliography

 

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.