Words - 20th Century Greats - Charles E Brown


20th Century Greats series (1999)

Charles E. Brown, 1896-1982

As a young magazine photographer, John Chillingworth met dapper, gentlemanly Charles E. Brown only once. His skills seemed, then, to be so impressive that he appeared to walk an inch or two above the ground, but then, airborne with a camera he was truly great!

It was in 1911 that an enterprising fifteen year-old camera enthusiast in Southfields, South London, saw an Edwardian gentleman balloonist in trouble.

Instead of gaping open mouthed, he primed his simple camera, chose his moment, made an exposure and rushed with his glass plate to the offices of the Daily Mirror, one of the few newspapers of the day that use photographs on a regular basis.

For his trouble, he received the princely sum of half a guinea (55p). The young lad who was, by 1914, to embrace press photography with panache and good taste, was Charles E. Brown. He was destined to become one of the century’s finest air-to-air photographers.

In his time, he set standards to which every other aerial photographer aspired and was held in awe by RAF photographers whose training, thorough as it was, did not include aesthetic ideas and artistic flair.

The route to fame
Photography for the press was, from its earliest days, often a proving ground for a wider creative canvas. So it proved for Charles Brown, because in 1921 he became a freelance.

In 1924, he was commissioned by the newly created Southern Railway to produce a picture series that covered every aspect of the company’s operations. In the same year, he took one of the most enduring poster pictures of the century.

Until that time, railway holiday posters were the domain of the poster artist. Brown changed all that with his endearing image of a little boy clutching a suitcase looking up at the driver of a massive steam engine. The caption read, “I’m taking an early holiday ‘cos I know summer comes soonest in the south”.

It was used unchanged from 1924 until the outbreak of the WWII. Later, he found a new challenge amongst the clouds.

Air-to-air artistry
Photography from the open cockpit of string and canvas biplanes had been practised by RFC photo-reconnaissance photographers like the late, great Haywood Magee during the first world-war.

Magee became an illustrious photographic journalist whilst Brown, a successful freelance, had turned his back on Fleet Street. Accepting commissions from aircraft manufacturers like Supermarine, De Havilland and Fairey Aviation to help market their new models, there was only one place for him to be - airborne.

Soon, the Royal Air Force public relations department gave him many commissions, realised the potential of dramatic air-to-air photography for recruitment and other publicity purposes. It was an association that was to continue until his death at the age of eighty-six.

Throughout the 1930’s his reputation as an air-to-air photographer grew and with the outbreak of WWII, his workload increased. He was hired, not only by the Air Ministry, but the Admiralty and War Office as well.

It was then that he started using colour. In 1942, the US magazine, ‘Flying’, commissioned a picture series on the RAF. Colour film was in such short supply in the UK, that the editor sent 100 sheets of 5”x4” Kodachrome sheet film to enable him to complete the job.

Post-war, his association with the RAF continued, gathering professional accolades on the way. Still fiercely independent, he worked, with three assistants from a converted house in Worcester Park, South London.

An Honorary Fellow of the RPS, he retired in 1965 when, in an unprecedented gesture, the Air Ministry allocated him an RAF retirement home at Storrington, Sussex.

The RAF Museum at Hendon had bought his entire collection of negatives and prints. The museum, in association with Airlife Publications Limited has published three volumes of his incomparable pictures, appropriately named, ‘Camera Above the Clouds’. They make a magnificent epitaph to a 20th Century Great.

© Copyright John Chillingworth