Picture Post‘s Bert Hardy at the Portfolio Gallery, Edinburgh. LISTINGS: GLASGOW 49 EDINBURGH 50 MUSEUMS 53
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He became a photographer ‘by sheer luck’ and turned out to be one of Britain’s most important social documentarists this century. Miranda France previews Portfolio’s retrospective exhibition
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of Bert Hardy‘s work.
When he left school aged fourteen, Bert Hardy could have become anything really. But the first ‘BOy Wanted‘ advertisement he answered was to work in a film developing and printing works. With no real ambitions beyond that ofsupporting his family, Hardy nevertheless took naturally to photography and began to teach himself the basics on old plate cameras. It was when he got his first 35mm camera that he began to think he might have talent. Then Picture Post was launched in 1938 and Hardy got a few photographic sequences published. Later he
would became one of Britain‘s most valued. and most effective social documentarists.
During his career, the bulk of Hardy‘s work was done at Picture Post, where he was a staff photographer from 1941 until its closure in 1957. though some of his most striking images date from his national service as Army Photographer during World War Two. Art is always more memorable than artists and the familiarity of Hardy's pictures has long surpassed his fame as a photographer. Everyone knows Bert Hardy‘s photography. but few recognise it as his. His versatility and the range of moods and themes which characterise his work are very much apparent in the exhibition ofsome 30 prints, starting on 12 January at the Portfolio Gallery.
Take, for instance. Hardy‘s 50s documentary photographs of The Gorbals. some of which have almost passed into the British folk tradition. they seem so alien to our present experience. The famous Maids in Waiting — two women sitting on a railing on a windy Blackpool day— is totally different but equally evocative of its era. There are plenty offavourite, nostalgic images.
More intriguing, however, are the lesser known ones. While the Gorbals pictures are veiled by the gloom of an unmistakably 50$ grey day. some photographs in the exhibition seem to defy their dateline. In one picture, of a sailor picking out lewd postcards from a rack at the seaside and another ofsailors hob-nobbing with girls in a wartime dance hall. the clarity and vibrancy of the subjects‘ features gives them a modern look.
Picture Post‘s original captions make an appealing accompaniment to the photographs. so earnest are they in their endeavours to inform and instruct. The caption to a picture of a woman hop-picker having a pint at the end of the day reads ‘At night there‘s dancing or the pictures. Or ifyou prefer it, you can get a bit ofyour own back on the hops, and perhaps oblige with a song‘. The woman is, needless to say, obliging with a song. In another picture, a parson helps a little girl to retrieve some belongings from the wreckage ofa bombed house. In the parson‘s own words the caption warns ‘The devastated East End is no place for children’.
There is nothing exotic about Bert Hardy. While the British became used to looking on photography as something which should teach us about other cultures and landscapes, he was photographing ‘barrer-boys‘ in Hull and dockers in London, back-to-backs in Birmingham and small shops in Piccadilly. When Picture Post folded, Hardy went into advertising and then retired from serious photography although, it seems, he still takes the odd cute animal shot. He says it is ‘ordinary people‘ that interest him. and Hardy’s people —the ordinary pe0ple of the 405 and 505— are mostly gone now. That makes his work all the more precious.
Bert Hardy ’3 photographs are on show at the Portfolio Gallery, 43 Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh, From Sat 12 until 9 Feb.
“The List 11- 24 January 1991