Disclaimer: This is my personal account of my visit to one of RIBA’s photography exhibition, which inspired me in many levels. I would like to apologise if I had some facts wrong, and please advise me on them if you found them.
I had a great opportunity to attend a photography exhibition titled Ordinary Beauty at Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) near Regent’s Park in London recently. It displayed the works of an architect, painter and photographer, Edwin Smith.
Edwin Smith (1912-1971) lived in Britain around the second world war. He trained as an architect, but grew fond of painting, and had an interest to photography. He started off photographing everyday objects and sceneries, and that interest became a passion.
He amazed me as he not only turned daily activities into beautiful pictures, he was also able to promote conservation of ruined buildings post-world war. He went around Britain capturing beautiful images of the damaged, and the left-over undamaged areas of the buildings, and managed to convince the government and the people to start rebuilding instead of demolishing them.
In addition to inspiring me with beautiful images of ordinary lives, to the point of almost crying in joy, it gave me a few points that I could take home. It encouraged me to continue exploring and trying new things with my camera. The pictures and storied told me that I am, indeed, in the right direction, which made me really happy.
(1) Most of the photos, coming from that era, were black and white. He did try some colour photography, but he did not like the results.
Personally, I have tried black and white, but never really practiced with it, neither have I read up about it. It’s not like I’ve never seen nice black and white photographs. A good friend of mine shot some portraits in black and white, and they were beautiful!
Maybe I should try those out one of these days. My sister and I did actually plan for a black and white photo shoot but we have not managed to do it yet.
(2) Since I have been in the UK within two weeks prior to visiting the exhibition, I tried to photograph old buildings wherever I went. The weather was often good enough that there were bright sunlight with almost-clear blue skies. At times, it was too cloudy.
Many of the buildings are situated along narrow lanes, so shadows is a problem. It is hard to get a clear image of the darker areas without over-exposing the sun-shone areas. It is also not easy to under-expose the dramatic dark clouds without making the buildings too dark that we can’t see any details of the old architecture.
Edwin Smith showed me that it is possible to do both – capturing the effects of those cloudy skies towards the general appearance of the area or the buildings. He also made it possible to use the shadows to our benefits.
Anyway, what is Britain without its clouds?
(3) What if I tell you that you could feel the emotions of the photographer through the pictures that he shot? The awe, the amazement, the curiosity, the excitement or even the fear, could be felt through the images. It could be a photo of an entrance to a church or hall, the lights that go through those doors, or the vast landscape of a country, or the group of people crowding around a roadside stall, the groom looking at his bride walking towards him, or the heat of a war zone.
It could be a planned shot, or something impromptu that the photographer said, “hey, that’s nice!” and immediately shot the image.
That was how I felt when I look at beautiful pictures, and I felt it when I was in the exhibition hall, looking through the photos, one by one. I smiled a lot of times, and there was once, I almost cried.
I do find that the photos that I took, the product would match my mood during that particular time.
(4) There’s something special about capturing daily activities of different people. Mr Smith has photographed kids running in the alleyways, children sitting in front of their house having a chat before running again to their next game, people working in a restaurant, a woman hanging her laundry on a windy day, or people rushing to catch their trains in the train station.
It gives a sense of familiarity, fondness and even sweet memories to those seeing the images.
(5) As an architect, he has particular appreciation for buildings. This love for structures, with the human nature of wanting to leave a legacy, made him work for a cause: conservation of ruins post world war. He managed to save many buildings from demolition by his campaign, carried out, in particular, with his photos. Although some buildings were not salvageable, many were preserved and rebuilt, retaining the Britishness of the country.
It proves that if we do something with all our hearts and minds, for the greater good of the people, the product of our labour would be incomparable.
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I made this visit to RIBA on my day of departure back to Malaysia. I did not have much time, as I left home quite late. As much as I enjoyed it, I wish I was there earlier and longer.
It was an entirely inspiring exhibition. It made me strive to do more with regards to photography. It is a lovely feeling when you found that you’re doing something parallel to someone exceptional like this, although, of course, personally I have so much to learn still.