Words - 20th Century Greats - Eric Hosking


20th Century Greats series (1999)

Eric Hosking OBE (1909 – 1991)

It is said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. After the loss of his left eye, Eric Hosking confirmed that prophetic scenario.

The first professional wildlife photographer in Britain, his specialisation in birds, was to bring him world-wide acclaim, but he never sought ‘kingship’, just perfection in his field of photography.

Fortunate to survive childhood, when illnesses made his school attendance an optional extra, his love of bird watching made him determined to live life to the full. Leaving school at the age of fifteen, his headmaster was glad to see him go, saying “Hosking, you will never make anything of your life”.

Like the predictions of many an educationalist, his observation was somewhat wide of the mark!

An early start
Unexceptionally, at the age of eight, he was given his first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie. Saving hard, at ten he was the proud owner of a plate camera. His first job at fifteen was in the motor industry, for which he was ill suited. Having sustained a painful industrial injury, he may have been relieved to find himself unemployed at the age of twenty, when his employer went into receivership.

Having decided to become a freelance wildlife photographer he had a lucky break. An old school friend was, by then, a sub-editor on a national newspaper. For his picture of a child at the London Zoo standing beside an elephant seal, the Daily Despatch paid him the princely sum of two guineas (roughly two pounds and ten pence).
Eric Hosking was on his way!

The one-eyed turning point
It was in 1937, as he climbed to his hide in rural Wales, that he was clawed by a Tawny Owl and lost the sight of his left eye. The bleak future closed in, but when he learned that Walter Higham, a bird photographer whose work he admired had only one eye his spirits rose. Twenty-four hours after leaving hospital, he climbed back into the same hide!

Throughout the 1930’s he supplemented his income with pictures for the Press, lectures to schools, clubs and societies, even London cabaret. He was not averse to photographing weddings and children and for a time he helped Marcus Adams, by taking his ‘outdoors’ commissions whilst the ‘master’ worked in the studio. There was even a request from the Duchess of York (now the Queen Mother) to photograph her daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.

The great innovator
As he honed his skills, building his library and his reputation as a wildlife photographer, Hosking battled with the problem of slow panchromatic emulsions. In 1935, he was the first natural history photographer to experiment with Sashalight flash bulbs and in the following year he took the first-ever flash photograph of an owl with its prey.

Despised by ‘serious’ natural history photographers, Hosking found the Leica camera he bought in the same year to be a particularly useful addition to his armoury.

Pioneering a decade later Hosking, with specially built electronic flash, he photographed birds in flight at 1/5000th of a second. Finding his reaction times far too slow he asked scientist Philip Henry to make him the first automatic shutter release in Britain, for photography of birds in flight.

It was not until 1963, that he made his decision to work exclusively with the 35mm format. After testing a number of cameras, in 1974 he changed to Olympus, using the evolving system right up to the time his death at eighty-one.

As his reputation soared, the quality of his work went with it. Having photographed virtually every bird in Britain, he was invited by the big names in ornithology to join them on many major expeditions throughout the world.

Deservedly feted for his photographic skills, as with his many other talents, carried with modesty and charm Eric Hosking was, undeniably, a great gentle man of 20th century photography.

Images from his massive library, spanning six decades, are still in great demand and, thankfully, his son David is a chip off the old block. You can be sure that when 21st century photographers are reviewed, the Hosking name will still be there!

© Copyright John Chillingworth