Words - Personality Stories - Hopkinson – The King of Photojournalism (1994)


Hopkinson – The King of Photojournalism (1994)

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 business.

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 The Street.

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 family.

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 safelight.

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 magazine.

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 frontispieces.

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 rewarding life.

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 their noses!

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 today.

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 civilised.

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!”

© Copyright John Chillingworth