Every writer has a long shot, a labour of love, a project which obsesses them but which, for whatever reason, (style, money, kids, life) takes its time to catch light. This is mine. If I describe the story of Picture Post to people they either really get it, or they really really don’t. And, though I’ve now spent months, years, and many thousands of words on this, so far I just can’t quite seem to find the right angle of approach. But every time I return to it I know absolutely that it’s worth persisting – not just because it’s an extraordinary story about extraordinary people in extraordinary times, but because with every day that passes each one of them says more about this time, now.
Bert Hardy was the man who shot the 20th Century and Tom Hopkinson was the man he shot it for. Hardy was a photojournalist, the greatest photographer you’ve never heard of, and Hopkinson was the editor of Picture Post, a magazine so successful that at one stage it was read by over two-thirds of Britain. Together with the greatest writers and photographers of the day, they put together a magazine which changed Britain. They founded the Osterley Park Battle School (which provided much of the inspiration for Dad’s Army), altered the rules on press censorship and influenced the future direction of the Welfare State.
Hardy set the photographic style for the magazine, and his clear, affectionate, classless style has remained the template for all photojournalism since. Together, he and Hopkinson rubbed out the line dividing ‘proper’ photographic subjects from improper ones. Hardy saw six wars, two Royal coronations, the Queen, Mountbatten and every Prime Minister for three decades. During the Second World War he covered the Blitz, D-Day, the Liberation of Paris and the entry into Belsen. But his speciality was raising the everyday into the exceptional: two mud-coloured boys running through broken streets, two laughing girls on the seafront railings, the silhouettes of firemen high against the glare of bomb fires.
Those who ran the Post were funny, courageous, charismatic, and worked entirely according to the Fleet Street principle that everything was possible as long as you could get away with it. Pick up a copy now, and there’s still the same shiver of electricity present in every issue. Partly it’s because this really is the first draft of history, written, shot, edited, published and read by people who didn’t know Britain was going to win the war. They weren’t sitting there saying, ‘Of course, Hitler’s big mistake was to invade Russia,’ because back in 1939 nobody yet knew that Hitler made mistakes. This may be history, but this is now. Partly too it’s because of Picture Post’s omnivorous ordinariness – the adverts for Persil and hairgrips, the photographs of life-drawing models in wool-scented rooms watched by awkward men on utility chairs. And partly it’s the sense that behind all the thousands of stories, there’s the subterranean form of something much, much bigger looming up through the deeps, the outline of something truly surprising. Picture Post’s editor Tom Hopkinson was a journalist down to his DNA, but alongside the coverage of events and atrocities, he slid something else between the pages of every issue. He and his staff made the unilateral decision to see the bigness in people, to recognise that there are stories everywhere, to stretch the scope of their collective skills to their uttermost point, and to know without question that this place, their country, was infinitely worth saving. What makes the Post both so timeless and so utterly modern is its open-hearted curiosity. In the middle of a war, Hopkinson made a magazine based on love. Clever guy.