Recently described as a
‘golden oldie’, regular contributor to Panorama, John Chillingworth, is one
of the veterans of the UK photographic scene. When he prepared for his
current art gallery photo-exhibition, ‘Past Perfect’, memories of the ‘good
old days’ flooded back.
In 1944, at the ripe old age of sixteen, printing staff photographers’
pictures in the tiny darkroom of Picture Post, the long-dead national
picture magazine, it was a tranquil day. Suddenly, the whole building shook
to the blast from a too close for comfort German V2 rocket. We shrugged and
carried on printing.
Only later did I realise that had my ‘boss’, the legendary Edith Kay, not
been unwell on that day, I would have been on my regular trek, queuing for
fish for her charming cat in Farringdon Market, on the very spot where the
missile fell, killing 101 people.
My father, working in the rough and tumble of a wartime national newspaper
not far away, rang to see if I had survived. His anxiety was genuine;
because it had been his great ambition for me to do anything other than
follow him into ‘the street’.
Like every newspaperman’s son, in those dark days, the more I was lectured
on the evils of newspaper ‘barons’, the more determined to follow him I
I have little to regret, but after 61 years amongst the ebb and flow of
creative satisfaction, had I acquiesced to his wishes and apprenticed myself
to a plumber, I would certainly have been richer and more secure than I am,
Instead, taking the traditional route into the national newspaper world, I
became a messenger ‘on the bench’ at the Evening Standard. ‘Headhunted’ by
Hulton Press, the publishing company next door, I sat on another bench,
biding my time until the opportunity arose to make the tea and trim the
prints in the Picture Post darkroom.
I had stepped into another world. The darkroom was the ‘inner sanctum’ of
the magazine and, ‘adopted’ by three of the great pioneers of what is now
called photojournalism, my life and aspirations were to change forever.
An comic echo from the past
Forty-five years later and, at the time, a consultant to the Hulton
Picture Company, I was sitting with the newly appointed managing director,
trying to work out if he was ‘real’.
The telephone rang. The M/D told the caller that he was in the middle of a
meeting. “Who are you meeting,” came loud and clear from the telephone.
“John Chillingworth,” said the M/D. The telephone vibrated as the man at the
other end of the line bellowed, “Tell him I hate him, I hate him!*!”
It transpired that it was the awesome Herbert Hardy, one of Fleet Street’s
most powerful men. At the time he was managing director, perhaps even
chairman of one of the national newspaper groups. He explained, only
fractionally less aggressively, that I had ruined his precious teenage
It seems that when I had been elevated to the grand title of darkroom
assistant, Herbert, whom I could not even recall, was the next messenger boy
in line for promotion. He had his heart set on winning the same job.
Broken hearted, he had taken himself off to another publisher’s postal
department, where messengers awaited automatic promotion, as
eighteen-year-olds were conscripted into the armed services. The rest is
I returned to my job in the Picture Post darkroom after three wasted,
immediate post-war years, in His Majesty’s armed forces. There, I had been
armed with a Contax II camera, the lens of which had the optical qualities
of a milk bottle base and a Kodak View Camera, which should have been
retired to a museum.
With six statutory months in which to prove my worth – or take up a belated
plumbing apprenticeship, my future came sharply into focus.
To everyone, from the legendary editor, Tom Hopkinson, down to my darkroom
colleagues, I was still quite simply, John. During those six precious
months, I had proved my worth in the darkroom, but I constantly badgered
anyone who would listen for the chance to prove my worth with a camera.
Almost certainly to call
my bluff, Hopkinson, called me into his office, gently told me the facts of
photographic life and gave me an assignment which, if successful, would earn
me the opportunity to train, informally, as a photographic journalist.
Six months later, I joined the photographic staff, rubbing shoulders with
those same pioneers, Kurt Hutton, Haywood Magee, Felix H. Mann and the
returning war veterans, including Bert Hardy, all of whom had encouraged me
when I processed their films as a boy.
The catalyst for my acceptance had been my dogged determination to make the
most of Tom Hopkinson’s challenging brief. With hand-me-down cameras and
home-made lighting, I travelled once a week to darkest
Essex, to photograph the growth from birth to three months old of a pair of
pedigree Siamese kittens.
The result? By some miracle, three pages of pictures in the country’s
leading picture magazine.
Within two years, on the recommendation of Bert Hardy, (who had more
interesting fish to fry) I was to follow the Royal Tour of Canada, made by
the then Princess Elizabeth and the ever-truculent (with the Press) Duke of
The end of the golden age
Four hundred picture stories later, I walked away from the crumbling
edifice, which the old magazine had become, just six months before its final
Along with my somewhat emotionally charged departure, I had taken my highly
confidential knowledge of intrigue and skulduggery, which resulted directly
from the pathetic ineffectiveness of the seven editors who had tried and
failed to fill Tom Hopkinson’s shoes. The spineless inability of the
company’s management to address the real publishing problems of the time
must have been the final straw for chairman and owner Sir Edward Hulton.
It was the end of an era - the end of the golden age of the magazine picture
story. It was also a time when I was to realise just how unreal life had
been, with a derisory salary and the knowledge that there were dozens, if
not hundreds of ambitious young photographers out there, willing to do
anything to step into my shoes.
Learning many salutary lessons as a freelance in the following decade,
my worked was seen in advertising and industry, as well as in national
magazines and newspapers.
As the years passed, I seldom looked back, having found that I had other,
complimentary skills to offer. For a while, as a partner in an advertising
consultancy, I had discovered that I could write better and rather more
objectively than some of the ‘watch-me-as-I-walk-on-water’ copywriters, with
whom I previously worked as a photographer.
My one connection with the ‘old-days’ was an interest in the survival of the
Hulton Picture Library, which contained all of my early picture stories. It
was obvious that the BBC, subsequent owners, had no idea what the asset
meant, either in terms of value or of photographic history.
After the dedicated entrepreneur, Brian Deutsch bought it, for a time I
became a part-time consultant to the newly extended and renamed the Hulton
There had been a brief moment at the National Museum of Photography, Film
and TV when, amongst others, the surviving members of the Picture Post team
and some freelance contributors, were described as ‘Makers of Photographic
However, poorly selected management and ill-advised investment in dead-end
publishing projects were to bring the business to its knees, but not before,
in 1994, the company staged a significant exhibition at the Barbican Art
Gallery called ‘All Human Life’.
The images, spanning virtually the whole history of photography revived and
stimulated my interest in the visual content of my own working life.
Self-promotion, never having been part of my make-up and spare cash seldom a
virtue with which I could impress my bank manager, it was a tough task
creating an entertaining subject-specific exhibition.
When the West Country public saw ‘The Innocence of Childhood’ exhibition,
supported by Getty Images, the Hulton’s new owners, it gave rise to some
interesting emotional comments.
That was reward enough for me, but as the years rushed by, with my writing
skills firmly dedicated to the photo industry, I looked for another
opportunity to reach the public with my images from the ‘golden age’.
I can hardly say, “Whenever you are passing drop in”, but the ‘Past Perfect’
show, currently to be seen at the St Barbe’s Museum and Art Gallery in
Lymington, Hampshire, could be of interest. With its timeless mix of famous
and unknown faces, the show aims to take later generations down ‘memory
It will also show the young just how long ago the trail was blazed for those
oh-so-smart lads and lassies that, today, call themselves photojournalists.
If any of them attend, perhaps I should be there, tugging my forelock and
rattling the small change in my hat!