Words - Personality Stories - Stefan Lorant – Godfather of Photojournalism


Stefan Lorant – Godfather of Photojournalism

(Book Review)

Author: Michael Hallett
Published by Scarecrow Press, Inc
£33.00 (Amazon)

There are few photojournalists left whose lives were even indirectly affected by the late Stefan Lorant, the man whose influence upon photographic journalism, today, was the result of his restless genius and massive ego!

Unaffected by his charismatic image, author, Michael Hallett, first met the almost ninety year-old Lorant when he came to England in response to an invitation from the National Museum of Photography, Film and TV.

The result of that brief encounter and the content of Hallett’s subsequent article for the British Journal of Photography started a literary relationship, which proved to be a revelation.

It has taken until now for the result of his in-depth exploration of Lorant’s inner workings to reach publication. His discoveries blossomed into a revealing biographical account of the life of the professional ‘loner’ who, almost single-handedly, changed the face of European magazine publishing, long before Henry Luce dreamed up the highly successful ‘Life’ picture magazine concept in the US.

Based upon interminable hours of conversation during visits to Lorant’s his home in Lenox, Massachusetts, Hallett has done much to demystify the living legend, which the old mercurial ‘reprobate’ believed himself to be.

As a virtual hermit in the magazine publishing world, where teamwork is a key element, Lorant had used his mental dexterity to create the illusion that he could walk on water. To do so,he used every element of his background as a photographer, silent film director and ‘pictures-on-a-page’ pioneer to survive and prosper against the odds, time and again.

For example, in January 1938, the hard-nosed henchmen of quintessentially British publishing day-dreamer, Edward Hulton, achieved the impossible. They persuaded the brilliant Hungarian-born editor, Stefan Lorant - author of ‘I was Hitler’s prisoner’, to reconsider his outright rejection of a lucrative editorial contract, after their naïve paymaster had expressed admiration for Fascism!

Close to bankruptcy at the time, Lorant was rapidly placated by the prospect of ‘real’ money and power. He happily sold Hulton his charming little monthly magazine, Lilliput, for a cool £20,000 and paid his considerable debts!

At the time, the young Hulton believed he had given Lorant a free hand to create a Conservative weekly in the Spectator mould. Instead, the mercurial Lorant set about re-inventing the picture magazine format he had perfected amid the political turmoil of post-WW1 Germany. The result was to become, for almost two decades, the UK’s most charismatic weekly picture magazine.

In Lorant’s time at the helm (1938-1940), as creator and editor of Picture Post, he was the ultimate ‘godfather’, often irritated by the fact that he could not publish the magazine without the trappings of an editorial staff.

The layout of the pictures, the style of the captions and the grudgingly conceded space for words, were based on the numerous German and Hungarian magazine layouts, which that he had created in the 1920’s.

For those aficionados who believe that photojournalism began with the ‘class of ‘62’, Lorant’s life-story will come as something of a shock. Those photographers, with whom Lorant would trust the early Picture Post assignments, were fellow refugees for Hitler’s Germany and it was their professionalism, which was to rub off on young innocents, like myself, in the final decade of the magazine’s existence.

This neatly presented book expands on the life and foibles of a man to whom publishers, editors, photographers and the public at large owe much, because he stepped on to the photographic stage at the very time when photographers had been liberated by the advent of the 35mm camera.

That and moving pictures on a cinema screen implanted an appreciation of the classic picture sequence, which enabled Lorant to create his high-impact layouts on the printed page.

Lorant would have been hell to work for, but when you have absorbed his life story, which extended far beyond the dawn of photojournalism, you may regret not having been touched by his genius.

Michael Hallett’s 199-page biography of the godfather of photojournalism is both detailed and honest. The text is presented in short, crisp, readable ‘chunks’, which unfold Lorant’s tumultuous life story in a very personal way.

The layout of the twenty-two pages of pictures is clearly influenced by the Lorant ‘formula’. Predictable and, in part, somewhat self-indulgent, they provide a window on the world of the man whose stamp of personality did much to influence the evolution of European narrative photography. Now, its secret power rests only in the minds and memories of ‘the last of the few’ – like me!

Charmed by his mercurial genius, I exchanged friendly postcards with him from time to time and when we met on one occasion, he growled some good advice. “Get rid of that beard Chillingworth, it makes you look old!”

© Copyright John Chillingworth