“Arthur Smith Exposed” – A review of the Arthur Smith lecture to Durham Photographic Society 29th November, by John Cogan
Betty and her Arfur…
I was introduced to Betty for the first time recently. A woman of some discernment I am sure,
though somewhat challenged in the follicle department. This problem she seems to mitigate by
wearing an assortment of head gear, most of which she has bought from charity shops. Thus
there is no logic to her millinery chic apart from being miserly and charitable at the same time.
Quite how, therefore, she comes to be the companion of such an expansive and generous man
will probably remain one of the great mysteries of life along with the Marie Celeste and Kentucky
Arthur Smith, Betty’s constant companion (in spirit if not in reality), is an amiable soul with a
big heart and great eccentricity. Ebullient might be another appropriate “E” word for him.
Eccentric, ebullient and experimental; there now, we have a trio of appropriate “E” words. Add
“Experienced” and we have a quartet.
Eccentric is certainly what Arthur is when you consider his final prints. Betty’s Bloomers is a
bread shop. What the French might call a boulangerie. Sunday morning and there is Arthur and
his muse with a bloomer loaf. Ribald comments aside this image was made for the fun and the
joie de vivre. However, how many of us would be seen in the car park of a bakery, early on a
Sunday morning with a half-naked woman who wears a pair of large, pink bloomers, a mop cap
of sorts and a loaf of bread? It’s about as challenging as Angy Ellis wanting us to strip off with
nothing but a 35mm prime lens between her and our embarrassment. Well, I say 35mm
advisedly. Some of us might warrant a 300mm zoom and others (no names, no pack drill)
merely a 10mm pancake.
Ebullient: yes, he chats away in that self-mocking style of his and we succumb to his humour.
Threaded through each bit of his narrative are pearls of wisdom and wise insights.
Experimental I would certainly say he is. You don’t need to be “pin sharp” or obsessive about
thirds and the internal structure of an image if it says what you want it to say. Many of Arthur’s
images will remain warm memories of the evening, especially the tree in the snow. There are two
versions; one slightly blue whilst the other is a wee bit sepia. Behind the solitary tree the sun
shines through what looks like a combination of mist and swirling snow. It is a gentle adoration
of the time of the year and an image made on a bitterly cold day. It has an ageless feel to it.
Those of us who know the work of the artist Roland Hilder’s might readily call to mind his
paintings of the English countryside in winter with their starkness and subdued grandeur.
Arthur’s images and his choices are eclectic. Nothing seems to be beyond him nor the subtle way
he works. I admire a man who has never used a Layer in PhotoShop. I no longer feel quite
alone. The difference being that I am sure it won’t be long before Arthur masters that particular
facility and then what an explosion of work. Over the length of the evening you come to feel
that this is the autobiography of experimentation. Arthur, for all his avuncular appearance, is the
epitome of the absent minded professor who just happens to know exactly what he’s doing and
develops the magic potion. Every print becomes the next step as he expands his fund of
knowledge further and further, wider and deeper. His use of the enlarger and old printing
methods, combined with scanning and a multiplicity of other skills probes the possibilities and
sets a trail that others will, As a tribal kin of Captain Kirk Arthur will boldly go where no man
has gone before but whether Betty will be with him as his Uhuru is another question.
Darkrooms, once the monastic cells of the acolytes amongst us, confined to the back of our
minds as our partners (of whatever gender) sighed in relief that the bottles of chemicals could be
consigned to the garage and the perfume of the developer finally obliterated by a squirt of
Fabreeze. Well, as John Attle placed one of Arthur’s photograms on the display I feel sure I
caught the ghost of a smell; that distinctive odour of Johnson’s finest. Ah, the memories that
came flooding back. But Arthur went back to the delights of a past age when such processes were
not only fashionable but the cutting edge of photographic practice. We all need an Arthur to
make us see not only one of the ways forward but how a look back over our shoulder can provide
the necessary impetus. With or without Betty, I, for one, found the evening a mind-stretching
and enjoyable time. Thanks Arthur!
John Cogan ARPS
Editor’s note: Betty, otherwise known as Manic Betty, is a rather beautiful mannequin famously
carried around in Arthur’s car and appearing, to huge acclaim, in many of Arthur’s photographs.