The story of Bert Hardy and the Picture Post
“I can't remember exactly when I first came across the story of Bert Hardy and the Post. If you work in journalism, they're part of the air you breathe. Without the Post, there is no Sunday Times Magazine, no Horizon or Arena, and without Hardy, there is only the kind of photojournalism which gets taken from outside. Hardy died in 1996, and his colleagues on the Post are going or gone. Before the last participants have vanished, I want to make them better known”. Bella Bathurst
Bert Hardy was the man who shot the 20th Century and Tom Hopkinson was the man he shot it for. Hardy was a photojournalist, the greatest photographer you’ve never heard of, and Hopkinson was the editor of Picture Post, a magazine so successful that at one stage it was read by over two-thirds of Britain. Together with the greatest writers and photographers of the day, they put together a magazine which changed Britain. They founded the Osterley Park Battle School (which provided the inspiration for Dad’s Army), altered the rules on press censorship and influenced the future direction of the Welfare State.
Hardy set the photographic style for the magazine, and his clear, affectionate, classless style has remained the template for all photojournalism since. Together, he and Hopkinson finally rubbed out the line dividing ‘proper’ photographic subjects from improper ones. Hardy saw six wars, two Royal coronations, the Queen, Mountbatten and every Prime Minister for three decades. During the Second World War he covered the Blitz, D-Day, the Liberation of Paris and the entry into Belsen. But his speciality was raising the everyday into the exceptional.
There had been nothing like the Post before and there is nothing like it now. Those who ran it were funny, courageous, charismatic, and worked entirely according to the Fleet Street principle that everything was possible as long as you could get away with it. Fittingly for a group of people who provided so many stories, the people who made the Post are themselves an astonishingly good one.
What do you think of when you think of the Second World War? Are the images which spring to mind of the Home Front – St Paul's rising through the smoke, women in bread queues, children playing on bomb sites – or do you see the trucks, the beaches, the lines of trees and broken men? Are the images you think of in colour, or in black and white? If you think about it, where do your images come from? Do they come from Pathé, or are they Picture Post? Practically speaking, there were only three sources of news during the war. The BBC provided radio, Pathé provided the cinema newsreels, and Picture Post provided everything else. If you have an image of war, then there's a very strong chance that it belongs originally to the Post. Established in 1938, the Post became so successful that we still see the Second World War through its editorial filters. Within two months of the first issue it was selling a million copies, after six months it was 1.7 million, after a year it was said to be read by half the population. After two, it was four-fifths – as close as any media organisation has ever had to a monopoly in Britain.
It employed the best writers and the best photographers to cover the biggest stories of the 20th century, and it did so with such success that when the Ministry of Information threatened to withdraw the magazine from troops stationed in the East, the Post turned the threat around and used it to change government censorship policy. There had been nothing like it before, and there is nothing like it now.
The Post set out to be the first genuinely classless publication in British history, read and trusted from top to bottom and from left to right. Most newspapers of the time still followed a strictly Court & Social approach to reporting in which the rich ran the country and the poor committed the crimes. The Post's founder Stefan Lorant aimed, 'to appeal to the masses, the common man, to the workers, to the intelligensia. To print the truth and to do it honestly, to enlighten the readers of subjects on which they have little knowledge; never talk down to them; never underestimate their intelligence; but share with them a common knowledge, to learn together.'
Led by Lorant's previous magazine experience and by the home-grown Mass Observation project, the Post offered their readership a view of Britain in which a story on Justice for Spinsters was given the same amount of space as a series of photographs of RAB Butler nodding off at a lecture. Or, as the Post's memorialist Robert Kee later put it, 'It was not those travelling on the transatlantic liner the Queen Elizabeth who counted, but the men who built her: the rivetter, the boiler maker, the engine room worker, the joiner. Such individuals were to be photographed as if they might have been subjects for Rembrandt.'
Lorant and Hopkinson's energy and charisma drew the best writers and photographers of the day. George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Laurie Lee, Robert Graves, John Osborne, Somerset Maugham, Dorothy Parker, Cyril Connolly, Rebecca West, HG Wells, Evelyn Waugh and William Saroyan all contributed stories, while its staffers included James Cameron, JB Priestley, Robert Kee, Anne Scott-James, Fyfe Robertson, Humphrey Spender and Bert Lloyd. At various times Bill Brandt, John Deakin, Brassai, Gary Winogrand, Inge Morath, Robert Capa, Daniel Farson and Humphrey Spender all photographed for the magazine, interspersing their work with the work of staff photographers including Bert Hardy, Kurt Hutton, John Chillingworth, Thurston Hopkins, Gerti Deutsch, George Rodger and Grace Robertson. Editor Tom Hopkinson chose to use women in senior staff positions all the way through his tenure, not just as a response to wartime conscription but because he saw their contribution and talent as equal to the mens'.
From the outset, the Post aimed to campaign. Its founder Stefan Lorant had been a prominent writer and editor back in his native Hungary, and had come to London as a refugee after having been imprisoned for six months by the Nazi regime for his Jewish ancestry and anti-fascist views. Back in Budapest he had already edited newspapers in English, German and Hungarian, and by the time he arrived in London in 1934 he had direct experience of both senior journalism and of Hitler's endgame. He and Hopkinson used the Post not just to report on the stories of the day, but to announce its implacable hostility to Nazism and to alert its readers to injustice or incompetence in all spheres. Frustrated by early wartime news censorship, Lorant printed two pages of blacked-out pictures describing the draconian restrictions on all reporting followed with a large image of the censors themselves. The Post also started its own Home Guard 'battle school' in protest at poor army training and spent much of the war thinking about what Britain should look like after it – research that ultimately contributed to the foundation of the modern welfare state.
In fact, for twelve years Hopkinson managed to pull off the rare trick of producing a broad-minded and inspiring publication with a strong campaigning agenda. In the end, it was an ideological difference (between Tom Hopkinson and the Conservative proprietor Edward Hulton) which effectively destroyed the magazine. In 1950 Bert Hardy and James Cameron brought back a story on UN indifference to human rights abuses during the Korean War which Hulton refused to run for fear of offending the political establishment. Hopkinson stood his ground and was sacked. ‘That was when the Picture Post started going downhill,’ said Bert Hardy later, ‘because we had some very good editors, but they weren’t Tom Hopkinsons.’
Though the Post continued for a further seven years, it did so in hobbled form. The Post's life might have been comparatively short – only 19 years – but the power and energy of its formula was such that it not only continues to influence photojournalism today but its version of the world has become part of our collective DNA. Our image of war is still the one the Post gave us – sharp, monochrome, often brutal, but full of electrifying detail: sleeping men cascaded like corpses down London's Underground escalators, jiving couples caught in a moment's flow, two mothers of evacuee children crying on the bus home, black lines of men patterning the white beaches of Dunkirk, Churchill pugnacious and Beaverbrook avuncular. It covered all aspects of the war and its aftermath, tracing the time not just through the movements of armies but through the experience of children or animals or those caught up in something too big to comprehend. The Post could occasionally be cutesy or twee, but it neither patronised its readers nor chased after one particular type. Hardy, Lorant and Hopkinson were the central figures at a defining moment. The group of men and women who became their colleagues gave us the 20th century and the first draft of our history. They were funny, unscrupulous, courageous, charismatic, and worked entirely according to the Fleet Street principle that everything was possible as long as you could get away with it. Fittingly for a group of people who provided so many stories, they are themselves an astonishingly good one. If we've got stuck with the idea that photojournalism is owned by glamorously damaged Magnum types – Cartier Bresson, Capa, Eve Arnold, Bruce Davidson – then that's less to do with any difference in quality between Magnum and the Post and more to do with Tom Hopkinson's abiding belief that the story came first, the reader came second and the ego of the writer or photographer came a very poor last. The Post wasn't about cults of personality, it was about making a magazine that a whole country wanted to read.
In retrospect, what's most striking about the Post's success is that no one has ever repeated it. Despite the near-total ubiquity of photography in the 70 years since the end of the Second World War, the emphasis has changed. People don't take pictures of ordinary life any more, they take pictures of fame and babies, high days and festivals, hen-nights and holidays. No news organisation would now be interested in buying pictures of someone doing the washing-up or waiting for a date or catching a train, and if there's no market for those kind of pictures, then people don't take them. We don't want to look at ourselves being normal any more, we want to look at the curated Facebook version. But the tiny, talented group of Post photographers was interested in everything: litter-pickers and dog- walkers, farmers and grannies, ordinary moments in extraordinary times. In 19 years, they gave us all of human life and the whole of the 20th Century. This is the biography not just of the Post itself but of Bert Hardy, Tom Hopkinson, Anne Scott-James, Humphrey Spender and the amazing men and women who, united under a single light in a dingy office in Shoe Lane, gave us both the war and the world beyond it.
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