An exhibition ofthe photojournalism of Grace Robertson, doyenne of
Picture Post photographers,
opens at the Portfolio Gallery later this month. Kennedy Wilson picked
over the Post‘s past with her.
The world of Picture Post is very different from Mrs Thatcher‘s brash new world. Some ofthat make-do-and-mend austerity, tempered by unbounded optimism, is captured in Grace Robertson‘s pictures at Edinburgh‘s Portfolio Gallery.
Robertson, who worked for Picture Post in the late Forties and Fifties. was one of the finest proponents of the photo-essay — a series of pictures that told a story, usually accompanied by text written by a journalist. One ofGrace Robertson‘s most famous photo-essays appeared in 1954. ‘Mothers’ Pub Outing‘ shows a group ofworking class women on a charabanc trip — all paper hats, wrinkled stockings and toothy cackles.
A painful nostalgia pervades these pictures: such simple, uninhibited pleasure is a rarity today. Does Grace Robertson regret the passing ofwhat appears to be a simpler, more innocent time? ‘I do in a way. At the time I felt it was all a bit gloomy, always raining, nothing had a coat of paint and everybody wore dullclothes. . . but looking backl can see there were good things about it. The roads were emptier and people were more friendly,‘ she says.
Grace caught the camera bug in 1948 when she was standing in a food queue clutching her ration book. ‘As we moved slowly nearer the entrance to the butcher‘s shop my attention was caught by two women engaged in intimate conversation; their voices were low, their eyes sparkling with amusement. When one of them whispered in the other‘s ear, this brought on an explosion of laughter so intense that they had to clutch each other for support. I watched fascinated, without immediately understanding why. Then, out ofthe blue, I realised that they would have made a marvellous photograph which I could have taken iflhad a camera in my hand.‘
Grace recalls her journalist father, Fyfe Robertson: ‘My father was a very dominant man. I‘ve always been a very willing listener. But
12 The List 12 — 25 January 1990
when I was young I felt that ifwe went on a job he wouldn‘t remember we were a professional team — he‘d only see his daughter. I felt that I wouldn‘t be able to deal with the job and contend with my old man at the same time. It was very stupid and I deeply regret now that I don‘t have a single byline I shared with him.‘
When she first submitted work to Picture Post she used the pseudonym ‘Dick Muir‘. Initially rejected, she later became one ofonly two women photographers who regularly contributed to the magazine. ‘At first I was hesitant about stepping into this seasoned male photographers’ preserve, but I need not have worried. Although there was a brisk air ofcompetitiveness I was never aware of any jealousy, and a good job done was certain to receive its due,‘ says Grace. ‘1 was accepted by my colleagues partly because there were very few photojournalists who could handle that sort of photography. They really didn‘t care what sex you were as long as you could do the work.‘
But like other women of her generation Robertson questioned the role ofwomen and the society around her.
‘England in the Fifties was a country over which I felt class lay like a very wet blanket. As a Scot I found the rejection of one class by another difficult to understand.’
Tom Hopkinson, the former editor of Picture Post, recently wrote that Robertson‘s most memorable essays ‘are mainly ones concerned with her own sex‘. Is there a difference between what men and women photograph? ‘I once wrote a rather irate letter to the British Journal of Photographers saying it doesn‘t matter if it‘s a man or a woman, a good photographer will come back with a good story. But [was influenced by Kurt Hutton. Ifyou didn‘t know his work you might well say that it had a slightly feminine feel to it because it‘s very gentle. Obviously he liked people and has got in close and caught those gentle moments. I responded to Kurt‘s work very much and he inﬂuenced me more than any other photographer.
‘Possibly there is a tendency for women to concentrate on the slightly gentler aspects of human beings, I don‘t know,‘ she says. Her essay on the rugged life of the Welsh sheep shearers (1951), however, belies the notion so prevalent at newspaper picture desks even today, that women can‘t handle tough stories.
Robertson is unsure why there are more and more women around in photographic circles — either taking photographs, running galleries or publishing books and magazines. ‘Maybe it‘s just that women are beginning to get the courage of their convictions at last. There were practically no picture editors who were women in my day but there are quite a few now.
At Picture Post we weren‘t supposed to disturb the environment we went into: in other words it was more sensible to send me to do the women‘s Turkish baths just wearing a towel than it would be to send Bert
Hardy who would definitely have disturbed the environment,‘ she quips. Hardy is best known for his ‘Life In The Gorbals‘ series.
Robertson was bitterly disappointed when Picture Post refused to print a photo story of the birth ofa child in 1955 for fear of upsetting its dwindling middle-aged female audience. ‘Tom Hopkinson might have run the story in 1950, being a bit careful with the photographs, but by 1955 the circulation was dropping and they were hanging on to every reader they could.’
So what ultimately killed Picture Post in 1957? Robertson believes that ifthe magazine had been able to weather the years when advertisers turned to commercial television it might have survived. ‘Once the advertisers began to go, the money people began to come in saying don‘t do this, and don‘t do that, and made it almost impossible for an editor.‘
Although Grace Robertson is doubtful ifthe illustrated magazines could return, she‘s aware that they wouldn‘t have to hunt around for talent. How does she rate photojournalism today? ‘It‘s so different now. A large percentage of photojournalism tends to be a single image rather than the photo-essay. The Sunday supplements that took the place of Picture Post and Illustrated are in colour and they have to contend with the advertising. In my day the advertisements were mainly line drawings in the back and front of the magazine and they never encroached on the editorial side.‘
PIBIIIIIE P081 PHIIIIIBBAPHEB
The exhibition ‘Grace Robertson: Photojournalist of the 503’ runs at the Portfolio Gallery 20 Jan—1 7 Feb (see Edinburgh Art listings); the accompanying book is published by Virago at £16. 99.