Words - Personality Stories - Chillingworth – The Genuine article!


Chillingworth – The Genuine article!

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 became.

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, today!

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 ambition.

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 publishing history!

Siamese kittens
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 Edinburgh.

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 death-throes.

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.

Past Perfect
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 Deutsch Collection.

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 History’.

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 lane’.

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!

© Copyright John Chillingworth