Words - 20th Century Greats - Walter Bird


20th Century Greats series (1999)

Walter Bird (1903 – 1969)

Walter Bird’s portraiture, particularly of men was, in its time, regarded as second only to the great Karsh of Ottawa. One of the ‘giants’ of the London scene in the 1930’s, his impeccable taste ensured that his figure studies were unsurpassed, but post-war, his work was an inspiration to the many young photographers who followed in his wake.

In his time, Walter Bird was one of the country’s most distinguished photographers of important people. A shy and reticent man to the unacquainted; for those who knew him, his sparkling wit matched his subtle photographic style and uncomplicated lighting technique

Bird was originally destined by his family to be an engineer. Instead, he completed his education by studying at the Richmond Art School and later in Paris.

By using photography as a visual notebook for his early study of ‘life class’ nudes Bird unwittingly established the starting point for his romantic visualisation of the female form.

The blossoming of talent
In the cold, hard reality of 1930’s London, Bird opened a studio in Denman Street, Piccadilly. To help finance his experiments with early colour processes, as well as his association with the London Salon and RPS, he sought commissions.

Advertising was his ‘bread and butter’. His direct, uncomplicated lighting technique seldom used more than a Mole Richardson spot, a fill-in flood and a background light, but his images of beautiful women, famous men and theatre folk soon sent him into London’s professional ‘top ten’.

Using the long forgotten Vivex colour printing process, he created experimental images, many of which are as fresh and true, today, as they were at the time. Resembling the Carbro technique, the Vivex process was favoured by top photographers of the day, due to the high standard achieved by the company’s specially equipped laboratory.

Like many small companies, with the outbreak of WW II, Vivex went into liquidation and Walter Bird turned to Kodak materials for his colour work.

Already an ‘old man’, as far as the armed services were concerned, Bird spent the war years in the Crown Film Unit, adding greatly to his professional experience.

A powerful influence on portraiture
When hostilities ended, Bird returned to London, sharing a studio with theatre photographer, Houston Rogers. Later, joining fellow professionals in a west London studio organisation, his tasteful nudes, portraiture and advertising work continued to impress.

Then, in 1956, one of his friends in high places died. The Hon. M.W. Elphinstone, the Queen’s cousin, a fellow member of the London Salon and a director of Langham, one of the early manufacturers of electronic flash, left Bird in his Will, the ground floor and basement of one his grand London houses. An ideal location in which to develop his Society portraiture, Number 46 Queens Gate was, as today, one of the most expensive addresses on the whole of London.

He was always a great fighter for adequate photographers’ fees and Copyright Law. Moving with the times, he used both the 6cm x 6cm and 35mm format, but his favourite remained a whole-plate camera with a half-plate back.

At Queen’s Gate, Bird’s basement darkroom, with assistant Tony Short (himself a distinguished photographer in later decades) in charge, was a hive of industry. Printing on Warmtone Bromesco paper,
Tony would await Bird’s pencilled signature on the unexposed paper, before exposing and dish developing the prints. Each one, of course, would carry the distinctive Walter Bird signature reversed out of the image.

Walter Bird was also a familiar voice speaking for the profession on radio. Replying to a question about his professional life, Bird said, “I think a man who, every day, is doing something he really enjoys, cannot ask for much more. Two very important things have happened to me in life – one, I took up photography and the other, I got married!” The profession was the poorer for his passing.

© Copyright John Chillingworth