Picture Post Anniversary Series 5: Bert Hardy
Hulton Archive celebrates the 75th anniversary of Picture Post magazine in October 2013, and in this monthly series we’re taking a look at some of the key players who helped create the magazine’s lasting reputation as a leader of 20th Century photojournalism.
The 19th of May, 2013, was the centenary of the birth of one of Britain’s finest and possibly best loved photojournalists – Bert Hardy. Unpretentious and good humoured Hardy was self-taught, with an eye for a good story and a pretty girl, and nobody’s fool. More than anything he possessed a brilliant, innate ability for light and composition, honed through solid craft and sheer hard work.
Hardy left school at 14 to a job delivering prints for a local chemist but soon realised being behind the camera was a more lucrative place to be. Unusually for the time, Hardy worked with modern small-format Leica — the faster shutter speeds facilitated early morning shots on his beloved cycling club outings and he was soon regularly appearing in Bicycle Weekly. Less unusual was that the agency he worked for took all the credit and most of the fees.
Hardy left and, after a brief spell running his own agency, was offered a staff position at Picture Post in 1941. Even so, Picture Post was also reluctant to credit its photographers, in part because several were émigrés from Nazi Germany.
Nevertheless within the year Hardy became the first photographer ever to carry a by-line in the magazine for his extraordinary coverage of fire fighters in the Blitz. However it was not until he returned from war service with the Army Film and Photographic Unit in 1947 that his career with Picture Post really began.
Hardy’s own upbringing in dire East End poverty gave him a natural empathy for his subjects. His intimate coverage of the slums of Glasgow — going into family homes — contrasted sharply with Bill Brandt’s cool, distanced treatment, and resulted in the image that perhaps defines Hardy’s work – the Gorbals Boys. Classic stories on British life began piling up – Elephant and Castle, Tiger Bay, Liverpool, Birmingham and Tyneside.
Hardy excelled at social documentary, but also covered numerous overseas assignments including turmoil in Burma, Greece, Spain and Yemen. During the Korean War, fearing losing the available light, he almost singlehandedly led the US landings on Inchon – only to be told later they’d attacked the wrong beachhead. Less dangerous but more controversial was his coverage, with journalist James Cameron, of human rights abuses by South Korea. The story famously led to the sacking of Editor Tom Hopkinson and is often cited as the beginning of the end of Picture Post. Incredibly hardworking and prolific Hardy shot almost 900 photo-essays, causing a fellow staffer to remark, “It sometimes felt as though Bert Hardy was Picture Post.”
Although retained by Hulton Press after the magazine folded in 1957, Hardy was already eyeing up the posed, glossy world of advertising photography. His dynamic reportage style using real ‘models’ pooled from friends and family, was a shot in the arm to the industry. He won an advertising award for his photography for the cigarette campaign ‘You’re Never Alone with a Strand’ despite the campaign itself famously bombing with the public.
Hardy retired to a duel life of farming and lecturing on photography, with his second wife and Picture Post sweetheart Sheila, a constant support and champion. Hardy’s images appeared in Edward Steichen’s ground-breaking Family of Man exhibition, 1955, and he was awarded the Encyclopaedia Britannica Award (then the UK’s leading photography award) four times. He died in 1995 and is honoured with a memorial plaque in St Brides, the ‘journalist’s church’ in London’s Fleet Street. In 2008 a Blue Plaque was erected by popular vote at his childhood home Priory Buildings in Southwark.
Editor’s note: Sarah McDonald is a Curator of Editorial Imagery for Getty Images, based at the Hulton Archive. Next month she’ll focus on Picture Post photographer John Chillingworth