Photo Histories
The Photographers' History of Photography


Since Photo Histories was launched in 2007 the web site has drawn positive comments and reviews from media commentators including David White, Jim Johnson, Peter Marshall, Trent Nelson and Roy Greenslade – all of whom kindly gave permission for their remarks to be reproduced here.


David Hurn

I came into photography in the 1970s, and completely missed the great input that David Hurn made into creative photography in the UK in the 1960s, meeting him for the first time in the early 1980s, when I had a short argument with him in the questions following a talk he gave on one of his shows.

The show wasn’t one of his better efforts, and his reply to my question appeared to me to be entirely based on commercial rather than artistic criteria, so I’ve perhaps never warmed to the man as I should, though I do have his Wales: Land of My Father (2000) on the main bookshelf in my living room (along with a volume by one of the many photographers whose career was intimately bound to his, Josef Koudelka.)

Had I started in photography ten years earlier I might have got to know him better, and if I had been ten years younger I would certainly have yearned to attend the course that he ran from 1973-90, the School of Documentary Photography at the Gwent College of Higher Education in Newport, Wales.

David Hurn is now 74, and his latest book, Writing The Picture with poet John Fuller was published by Seren on June 5th 2010. You can read more about his remarkable life in a feature by Graham Harrison on Photo Histories, where there is also a link to the book, as well as to the title sequence from Barbarella in which a space-suited Jane Fonda weightlessly disrobes.

Harrison attributes former student Dillon Bryden as stating that David’s course engendered the work ethic and a very particular code of understanding, and although in many ways a strength, particularly in giving its students a way of making a living, it was perhaps also a weakness, pushing them down a particular route. But it was certainly a great shame when this vocationally oriented course was lost in the scramble for university and degree status.

In his piece, Harrison writes “David Hurn says the art establishment in Britain remains staggeringly snobby about photography, and is particularly resistant to photojournalism and documentary photography.” Despite the work of Hurn and others this remains only too true. Although he and other photographers did serve on the Arts Council in various ways, photography has never really got a serious look-in, though for a year or so in the 1970s it seemed it just might.

You can see some of David Hurn’s pictures on his Magnum page, and also worth reading is a blank">piece on Hurn by the late Bill Jay, another vital figure in British photography in the late 1960s through _Creative Camera and Album magazines. This starts:

While still in my 20s, I showed David Hurn my photographs, the results of more than seven years of struggle to be a photographer. It took him about 30 seconds to look through the lot and deliver his judgment: boring. “Derivative”, he said. “You won’t make it.”

We have been friends ever since.

British photography might have had a rather different story had Jay not, as Harrison relates, been turned down for a post at the National Portrait Gallery.

Peter Marshall, >Re: Photo, June 9th, 2010 …»


David Hurn interview on Photo Histories – epic

“He is the Magnum photographer whose flat in London was a creative haven for photographers during the 1960s, and whose documentary photography course at Newport in succeeding decades became the most successful course in photographic education in Britain. As a new book of his photographs is published, David Hurn talks to Graham Harrison about photography, photographers and of a life enriched by friendship.”

The wonderful Photo Histories site run by Graham Harrison has done it again. Graham’s combined an insightful interview with fascinating history, vivid context, and a few (too few Graham, too few) great photographs. You really must read the piece, it covers so much.

I can’t really do it justice here at all… click a link .

Great work Graham, thank you.

David White, Duckrabbit blog, June 8th, 2010 …»


The Unseen Bert Hardy

It was a full house at the Photographers’ Gallery last night for Graham Harrison‘s talk on ‘The Unseen Bert Hardy’, and one from which I’m sure every member of the illustrious audience – including quite a few who had known the man – went away with their view of Bert Hardy changed, and wanting to see more of his unknown and unpublished work.

I think we all have a view of him – that perhaps comes in part from how he used to talk about his work – which sees him metaphorically as a skilled British craftsman in blue dungarees, a wooden folding two foot rule in his top left pocket and a pencil tucked behind his right ear – as well of course as a Contax around his neck, and the kind of attacking attitude you’d expect from a schooling in a gym on the Old Kent Road. Of course he was born a working class lad south of the river, just off the Blackfriars Road (he got a blue plaque there last year and of course has a seat in St Brides), he was a highly skilled technician – and as many of his published pictures and some of the new work last night attest, had both a great feeling for light and also the technical ability to use it, particularly what in the old days used to be called “contre-jour“. But he was more than that.

Part of his reputation comes from the comparison with Bill Brandt, and the famed Gorbals assignment in particular. It’s perhaps hard to understand why Picture Post (PP) sent Brandt on the job in the first place, because his rather splendid de Chirico-like views or the tenements are perhaps exactly what you would have expected of the man.

When PP panicked on seeing his pictures, they sent Bert to rescue the story. Or rather, as Graham Harrison pointed out, they sent the ‘two Berts‘, photographer Bert Hardy and writer Bert Lloyd. Lloyd, another south Londoner, had started collecting folk songs while working in Australia in the 1920, joined the Communist party in the 1930s and worked – often with Hardy – on stories for PP from around 1945-50, and was one of the pioneers of the folk revival, presenting folk as a live working class from rather than the effete activity of largely upper-class folk collectors. They worked together, “Lloyd engaged the subjects in conversation and Hardy photographed them” as it says below the poster for a show of Hardy’s work from Tiger Bay there fifty-one years after they were taken in 2001. The page also raises the question:

For generations, people in “Tiger Bay” have objected to how they have been represented by photographers, writers, journalists, social scientists and others. But they like Bert Hardy’s photographs of themselves and their community. Why is this so? What sort of documentary practice is this that local people find so alluring?

I’d like to think the answer is that it is one that is made by people like them who get down beside them and work with them, something that has very much to do with both Berts.

Over his 16 years at the PP as its Chief Photographer, Bert Hardy shot over 800 stories and over 500 were published. 23 of those made the cover. He didn’t waste film and there were very few failures. When he was able to develop his own films, they were finer grained and I think sharper than those from the lab (and of course after PP, he went on to set up Grove Hardy, and there were several photographers present who had used them to print their work – including David Hoffman and Homer Sykes – as well as one of the printers who used to work there.)

Perhaps what came most clearly from the “unseen” work was a suggestion of a very much more complex photographer. As well as the warmth of vision, the humanity, the empathy with his subjects, there was an appreciation of the surreal – an aeroplane flying across the wallpaper behind a group at airforce training, a long row of people in lice-proof calico suits being sprayed, a half-naked yoga pose in front of so very conventionally dressed ladies and men on a line of sofas and chairs along the wall behind.

The talk was recorded, and I hope will be made available somewhere, either on Harrison’s Photo Histories web site or on the Photographers’ Gallery site. I hope what we have seen is just a first instalment and that Harrison will be able to go on and look at the rest of Hardy’s work in the archive to produce an exhibition and a book.

Peter Marshall, >Re:Photo, November 11th, 2009 …»


Bert Hardy Talk

Years ago I remember going to hear Bert Hardy talking about his own work at the Photographers’ Gallery. It was an entertaining evening, but a rather predictable one, as by that time he had a rather carefully worked out script that he followed almost word for word about his life and work on every occasion. It was good to go and see him and watch him perform, but there was little if anything new in the actual content.

The selection of pictures too was predictable. Not least because back in the “good old days“, the “golden years of photojournalism“, photographers worked for hire and the publication owned the pictures, which in the case of Picture Post, disappeared into the Hulton empire. Getty, not an organisation I usually have much praise for, deserve credit for having preserved material that might otherwise have been lost from the Hulton Archives.

And on November 10th, 2009, Graham Harrison is giving a talk, The Unseen Bert Hardy, showing images recently rediscovered in that Picture Post collection at the Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW, at 7:00pm. The PG also has a nice little selection of his images for sale on line, although the thumbnails are a little misleading. Harrison, whose Photo Histories site I’ve mentioned before and should visit more often (don’t go there unless you have a lot of time to spare!), was able to look through hundreds of original Picture Post contact sheets and find many Hardy pictures and stories that were never used.

There is a taste of what is in store in Doorstepping a city: how Bert Hardy captured life in Barcelona during the Franco dictatorship on Photo Histories. Spain was under the powerful thumb of Franco’s fascist dictatorship and times were tense as a general strike was taking place in Barcelona as Hardy arrived. Some of his pictures were published together with a story by James Cameron in ‘Barcelona: city in ferment‘ on April 15, 1951, but the others have just sat in the archive until now.

Peter Marshall, >Re: Photo, October 26th, 2009 …»


Photo Histories

I’ve just come across this publication which seems to be the brain child of Graham Harrison. While I have not yet spent too much time poking around the site, it seems like a very useful, high-quality undertaking. So go here and check them out.

Jim Johnson, (Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography, March 20th, 2008 …»


Online platform for photojournalists

A website that aims to record the stories and anecdotes from the history of photojournalism has been launched by Graham Harrison, a former photographer for Vogue and the Telegraph magazine. He explains “Photo Histories will document how some of the world’s most important photographers achieved what they did, and ask them what they predict for the future of our medium… It will also tell some of the great stories told by photographers that until now had been confined to darkrooms, bars and pubs.”

Roy Greenslade, The Guardian, December 3rd, 2007 …»


THE ITEM LIST, Only Great Things, 003

This is the best stuff I’ve seen, read, or listened to this week. Everything here is worth checking out and taking note of. Here we go…


No 2. Philip Jones Griffiths, Photo Histories

Philip Jones Griffiths, who’s seminal work Vietnam Inc. published in 1971, defines goals for the thinking photojournalist. As he says, “There are millions and billions of sheets of paper in the world and millions and billions of ball point pens and pencils, but there’s only a handful of poets, great poets”.

Trent Nelson, Trenthead, December 2nd, 2007 …»



Some months ago, Graham Harrison contacted me about a new on-line photography site he was setting up, looking at photography in an intelligent way, and invited me to have a look at the preview site. I was impressed, and offered to write something, though as yet I’ve not got around to it. Perhaps later…

Photo Histories is now up for all to read, and the content so far is impressive, with a great interview with Philip Jones Griffiths, who talks about “why the ideals of the thinking photojournalist forged in the 20th century should not be sacrificed for the dumbed down culture of the 21st.” His Vietnam Inc. (1971) was one of the most important books of the era, and one that moved me and others powerfully when it came out – and is still a fine example of why photojournalism is important. I also have a great deal of sympathy for his views on the current state of Magnum which you can read in the interview. While others – including myself – have written about his work and its significance, this interview does add some insights into the work and the man who produced it – and has a nice picture of him by Harrison.

Another photographer I’ve also written about previously is Homer Sykes, whose self-published books Hunting with Hounds and On the Road Again I reviewed at some length. (You can download a pdf file of the Autumn 2002 issue of the LIP Journal where my review of On the Road Again appeared in print – and both – along with features on photographers Berenice Abbot and Brassai mentioned below – are probably available on the ‘Wayback Machine‘ or its mirror from About Photography.)

In Photo Histories there is another detailed interview with Sykes, as well as a interesting set of pictures ‘Unknown Homer Sykes : The English 1968 – 78‘.

I met Homer again earlier this year, when he was back photographing Swan Upping on the Thames for the first time for many years. You can see some of my pictures from the event at My London Diary, but surprisingly I don’t seem to have mentioned him. The two of us were the only photographers who ran along the river bank to record the Dyers and Vintners men raising their oars to salute the Royal uppers at the end of the day. I hope he got the exposure better than I did in the wickedly contrasting light. I left the D200 to sort it out and it didn’t.

Other features on Photo Histories include some on key books from the history of photography, including Berenice Abbott‘s Changing New York and Paris de Nuit with pictures by Brassai. Perhaps these were a little disappointing in not really dealing with the images, more with biography and background matters, but still useful introductions. Perhaps it might be a useful addition to have features about key images or sets of images from them as well.

Graham Harrison has of course worked for some of the big names in British publishing, and at the centre of Photo Histories is a section called by that same title, which includes an article (originally published on EPUK) about the first Press Photographer’s Year Expo held this summer. At the end is a footnote:

After the success of the Press Photographer’s Year Expo it was sobering to see Stoddart’s stills used with effect throughout the C4 TV documentary The Rise and Fall of Tony Blair credited to Getty Images only.

Moral rights – including that of attribution – are something that photographers still have to fight for. The Photo Histories section also has a very nice insider story by Brian Harris about working with the late Don McPhee during the 1988 US Presidential campaign.

As well as his main site, you can also see more of Graham Harrison’s work in ‘The Oxford Year,’ though in the two years this has been going he seems so far to have missed those swan uppers!

Peter Marshall, >Re: Photo, November 29th, 2007 …»

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