Edwin Smith inspired poetry - Catching Light by Shaun Belcher

Selected poets have been inspired by our hugely popular Edwin Smith photography exhibition to compose verse that sits alongside their favourite Edwin Smith images…

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“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)

Kodak Box Brownie No.2 Model F. 127 Roll Film 1927

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INSPIRED BY CAMDEN TOWN BEDROOM (1935) © EDWIN SMITH / RIBA LIBRARY PHOTOGRAPHS COLLECTION

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.

[i] Edwin Smith redeemed the Kodak Box Brownie by collecting Corn-Flake packet coupons probably in 1927  (ELWALL, 2008) 

ICA IDEAL 205 Glass Plate 9x12 1935

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INSPIRED BY Opticians london (1935) © EDWIN SMITH / RIBA LIBRARY PHOTOGRAPHS COLLECTION

A present from Marx and Nash[i], 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[ii] experimenting with solutions, final prints

Days mixing it with emigrants and socialites, Focal Press tricks, ghost images.[iii]


[i] 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 Elwall points out that not released until 1936. (ELWALL, 2008) p.13.

[ii] 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. (ELWALL, 2008)

[iii] Smith co-wrote and published a series of Focal Press guides from 1938-1940.(SMITH, 1940)

CONTAX II 5cm Sonnar Lens  35mm 1936

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INSPIRED BY kentish town (1936) © EDWIN SMITH / RIBA LIBRARY PHOTOGRAPHS COLLECTION

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[i], 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[ii], Germany calling. 


[i] Elwall reports the trip Smith made with his sponsor Sir Albert Talbot Wilson MP, a fervent pro-Nazi, to Germany at this time. (ELWALL, 2008)p.19.

[ii] The German airship Hindenburg 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, 

THORNTON-PICKARD RUBY Quarter Plate 1904

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INSPIRED BY st lawrence, bradford - on - avon, wiltshire (1950) © EDWIN SMITH / RIBA LIBRARY PHOTOGRAPHS COLLECTION

Post-War, Deep England after Evans[i], 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[ii], 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.


[i] 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.

[ii] 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. (ELWALL, 2008)

GRAFLEX SPEED GRAPHIC Roll Film 1960

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INSPIRED BY fylindales yorkshire (1969) © EDWIN SMITH / RIBA LIBRARY PHOTOGRAPHS COLLECTION

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,[i] 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.[ii]


[i] 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)

[ii] 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 

ENSIGN AUTORANGE 820 120 roll film 1955

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INSPIRED BY STUBBLE BURNING - LAST FILM DEVELOPED (1969) BY ROY HAMMANS © EDWIN SMITH / RIBA LIBRARY PHOTOGRAPHS COLLECTION

‘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.[i]

[i] 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)

ShaunBelcher200x200

Shaun Belcher is a poet, artist, art lecturer and songwriter and currently a student of Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University. After finishing Art College, Shaun moved from his birthplace Oxford to Edinburgh in 1994 where he joined the Shore Poets. His poem The Ice Horses provided the title to the groups 1996 anthology. He then returned to Oxford and founded online music review magazine Flynshoes, finally relocating to Nottingham in 2002, where he resides today. Shaun released his album Moon Over The Downs in 2003, a collection of Americana songs in aid of cancer research. His interest in folk and alternative country music continues and he still performs as alter ego 'Trailer Star' today. Salt published a pamphlet of Shaun's poetry entitled 'Last Farmer' in 2010, which led to a number of performances in London, Oxford and Manchester. 

Bibliography 

ELWALL, 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.

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