When Sir Tom Hopkinson
died in June 1990, generations of photographic journalists mourned the
passing of an editorial giant, the likeness of whom will never be seen
again. One of his protégés, John Chillingworth, still appreciates the great
man’s faith, which enabled him to join the elite team of ‘star’
photographers on the staff of Picture Post, the seminal picture magazine of
the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.
When the eulogies were over and the memorial service past, the life and work
of Tom, the editor, leader, inspiration and enigma lived on in the hearts
and minds of those of us who knew him.
It was in 1940 that he stepped out of the imposing shadow of Stefan Lorant,
the founding editor of Picture Post, to take up the reins of the most
important magazine publishing phenomenon of its time.
In the ensuing ten years, his values, principals and professionalism had
created a team of writers and photographers from a kaleidoscope of
egocentric, self-seeking talents, who were later honoured in the annals of
journalism and photography.
The charisma of the man who was the antithesis of the cigar chewing, eye
shaded editors who drank their way through the 1940’s movies, was so subtle,
so incisive that some of the ‘clever’ people who crossed his path spun off
into obscurity or politics, but for others their guile was turned into an
inspired talent, in the hands of that master craftsman of the magazine
It was in 1943 that I took the traditional ‘messenger boy’ route into Fleet
Street and, ignoring a stern parental warning - ‘never follow in your
father’s footsteps’, The Street was the only place I wanted to be.
Central London was a dangerous place at that time. Bombs dropped, fires
started, people died, yet life went on. Newspapers were published and
magazines appeared, but to work in ‘the print’ was a problem for any
youngster with little more to offer than a willingness to learn. In
addition, you could not work unless you were in the union and you could not
join the union unless you worked in the print!
A union official himself, my father, one of Fleet Street’s radio
transmission pioneers, relented and told me to go to one of the print union
offices. There I met an old friend of his and soon, armed with a three line
letter, queued for appointments with harassed personnel managers up and down
At Hulton Press, housed in a tall, slender Victorian building between The
Evening Standard and Express News Photos, I was accepted as a messenger –
when the next vacancy arose.
Only months later, as the eighteen year-olds were conscripted, I vacated my
seat on the messengers’ bench leaving Herbert Hardy, much later Chairman of
Associated Newspapers, fuming with jealousy, envy and anger as I was whisked
into the ‘outer sanctum’ of Hulton’s National Weekly.
It was then that my world opened up from a mindless treadmill existence to
one of limitless possibilities. I made the tea and trimmed the prints in the
modest darkroom of Picture Post.
But, in war-time London, there was more to life on the country’s leading
picture magazine than the job titles we held. Drawn together by some of the
invisible force, to be there was to be a member of a talented, tempestuous
Some obituary writers have tried to define the phenomenon, other attempted
to capitalise on it, but the real explanation was know to Tom alone.
He had many of the qualities of a King. He seemed imperious, but
approachable and could never be manipulated. Quick to praise and fair in his
admonitions, he was an editor who would only accept the best from staff and
freelancers alike. Journalists and editorial assistants whose careers
started or were shaped under his editorship all used the experience to their
professional advantage time and time again, but his influence on the
photographers whose pictures he used in the magazine was not just profound,
it was revolutionary.
At the time, as I came to know the individual narrative quality of picture
stories by gentle Kurt Hutton, (my own mentor in photography), by fiery Hans
Baumann, bouncing Leonard McCombe, kindly Hayward Magee and others, I was
aware that they had only one thing in common; they responded to their
editor’s quiet, inspirational briefings and analysis of story options with
pictures that had the same journalistic qualities as those demanded from the
writers, with whom they invariably worked as a team.
The standards set by those pioneers of magazine photography with the small
format camera appeared to be, without exception, creative and highly
professional. Many of their images, accepted today as masterpieces of
photographic art, I first saw at the negative processing stage, as I
inspected their films under the dank, dark green of a panchromatic
Twenty years later, theorists had to start a major photographic education
‘industry’, in a vain attempt to unravel just a few of the secrets of those
Hopkinson inspired picture makers.
Returning from army service, the furnace of photographic ambition burned
bright and hot for the Picture Post family’s former tea maker.
A photographer with the Royal Engineers, I returned to civilian life
believing that I had wasted three precious years. No longer fearing the iron
hand of the imperious Paddy Brosnan, Tom’s dedicated secretary; I went
straight to him and announced that I wanted to take pictures for the
He looked at me with those unforgettable, piercing blue eyes, paused for a
ten second eternity and gently told me to go back to the darkroom, find my
feet and return in three months with my pictures.
At that time the magazine was approaching a zenith, of which I had little
knowledge or understanding. Picture Post was, by then, recognised as the
conscience of the nation. Its editor had created a publication which made
the owner, Edward Hulton, seem like a latter-day ‘knight in shining armour’.
A man of money and obvious intellect, although excruciatingly shy and
surprisingly inarticulate with all but ‘his intimate circle’, Hulton watched
as the magazine flourished, despite his curiously obscure weekly
Six months after my demobilisation, it was Tom who enabled me to shoot
pictures in earnest. The first of my 400 Picture Post picture stories was
published and my real ‘on the job’ training began.
A Hopkinson briefing always made my blood race and my spirits rise and today
with hindsight, I know that the following two years were my ‘university of
life’. His editorship was the father of my ambition, along with the careers
of countless others with whom he had contact in his long, distinguished and
His acrimonious departure from the magazine in 1950 shook the Picture Post
‘family’ to the core. The principle of truth and the public interest
surrounding the treatment of North Korean prisoners of war would, today,
have been taken up and exploited by every responsible newspaper, magazine
and TV news editor in the world.
In 1950, with Conservative ambitions Edward Hulton, it seemed, fearing for
the loss of a promised knighthood, so he sacrificed his editor to save
embarrassing the government of the day.
Instead, it marked the beginning of the magazine’s slow, inevitable slide
into oblivion, under the control of a procession of incompetent,
uncomprehending editors, who appeared to have no vision beyond the end of
For Tom, later Sir Tom Hopkinson, editor, novelist, and university
professor, life moved full circle as, many years later, he was drawn back
into contact with the business of pictures.
His guiding hand was invaluable to the great Sue Davies as she struggled to
breathe life into the European photographic gallery scene and at the age of
83, he was invited by Chairman Brian Deutsch to become a non-executive
director of a new company named the Hulton Deutsch Collection Limited. Now,
it is part of the largest picture resource in the world.
Typical of the man he accepted, but there was a certain irony in his
decision to give his time free to a company that had purchased, amongst
millions more images, the complete Picture Post archive, with many of the
original classic picture stories still neatly filed and accessible. They are
the images upon which the very foundations of British photo-journalism stand
There was, however, a mellowing of Tom’s relationship with the media in the
autumn years of his life. Reviving my contact with him, at a time when
infirmity thwarted his earnest wish to influence the attitude of the media
moguls towards journalism and photography, our relationship was warm and
On more than one occasion he called me to say that sickness prevented him
from attending some high-powered media symposium or other. He insisted that
I attended to substitute for him.
Expressing opinions of which I knew he would approve, I found myself in some
amusing, occasionally forthright discussions, one of which led to the
managing director of the Sunday Times banning me from ever freelancing for
the newspaper again!
On another occasion, I recall expressing amazement when a young woman stood
up and announced that photojournalism was safe in her hands. Asked who she
was, I learned that she was the editor of ‘Hello’ magazine!
Recounting my ‘adventures’, Tom, as serious as ever, would occasionally
allow himself a chuckle, as we drank a Hopkinson-sized sherry in the living
room of his modest Oxford residence.
I am still aware that the standard of professionalism, which he demanded and
obtained in his ten years in the editorial chair of Picture Post, have been
used and passed on by photographers who knew him, in many different ways. As
our working lives evolved, the magazine industry has changed out of all
recognition, but Tom Hopkinson’s legacy remains. That, more than anything,
is important for publishing posterity and respect for his memory.
I recall observing at the time of his passing, “The King of Photographic
Journalism is dead – pretenders beware!”