Film Reviews

Picture Stories – Documentary Review

Picture Post was a magazine that was sold in Britain between 1938 and 1957.  It was founded by Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian refugee, once editor of the Munich Illustrated Press, and imprisoned by Hitler for his anti-Nazi stance.  Once in Britain he employed a range of photographers and journalists, many of them German, and sporting anglicised names better to fit in and work in the UK.  The magazine he founded had a range of influences, but the stand-out was the American magazine Life; something that can be seen in the colour scheme employed on his work.

Director Rob West has created Picture Stories, a 73-minute work, to tell the story of a magazine no longer known to many in this country.  A citizen would likely have to be in their mid-70s, at least, to remember it being on sale, and only photographers and journalists from younger generations will be aware of it, if it had an influence on them.

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The film starts with a reasonably dry telling of the magazine’s origins, but even this slow beginning is never less than interesting.  Picture Post filled a gap in public discourse and in delivery of outside experience that would no longer be familiar to us.  In the run-up to war, it spoke out against the appeasement strategy of Neville Chamberlain, and began to speak out on social issues as the war got underway, advocating for a safety net for the poor; in fact minimum wages throughout industry, full employment, child allowances and a national health service.

22nd January 1955: A trio of Jamaican immigrants walking the streets of Birmingham. Original Publication: Picture Post – 7482 – A British Colour Conflict – pub. 1955 (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Where the film comes alive is with the revelation that Lorant was forced to leave the country in 1940, deemed an enemy alien by Churchill’s Government.  Fleeing to the United States, Lorant gave up ownership to the conservative-leaning Edward Hulton, with Tom Hopkinson, a liberal, taking over as editor, creating a tension that would come to a head in 1950, with owner and editor butting heads over the latter’s plans to post details of abuses of political prisoners by South Korean armed forces.

At its peak, the magazine had a circulation of 1,950,000 copies a week.  The film contextualises that, with no televisions at this stage, Picture Post‘s developing style of photojournalism – the layout and content of articles is discussed at length by a range modern photojournalists – was the only way a citizen could get a glimpse at the lives of others.  The naturalistic photography style was aided by technology moving away from the static camera using a plate, and on to handheld 35mm.  We are told how the photographers would walk and cycle London (and later Newcastle, amongst other places) capturing life as unobtrusively as possible, and using these images to make its points about social conditions, or sometimes just to capture life in wartime and post-war Britain.

Premium Rates Apply. A couple relaxing in a basement in the Elephant and Castle, South London. The quarters are crowded but life goes on, many of the people who live there hoping that soon they will have another home offered to them. Original Publication: Picture Post – 4694 – Life At The Elephant – pub. 1949 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Getty Images)

At 73-minutes Picture Stories has sufficient time to give us the full history of the magazine, plenty of examples of the photographic work contained therein, decent exploration of the social and political conditions in which it thrived, and the changing environment in which it declined.  With Hopkinson gone in 1950, the magazine moved more away from social commentary, and more towards capturing images of the beautiful – young women increasing taking a central role in photo shoots that had little to do with life in Britain, and everything to do with trying to get images of them in as few clothes as they could get away with.  Add to this the advent of TV, and suddenly people were getting their views of British life elsewhere, and with the lead times on the magazine being so long, it could not match the immediacy of television commentary.  Circulation dropped to under 600,000 by the mid-1950s.

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West has taken time to get as many surviving witnesses as possible – with Hopkinson’s daughter being a stand-out contributor – and where this isn’t possible, a mixture of archive interviews, with Picture Post photographer Bert Hardy being particularly good value on the reasons for the magazine’s decline.  Grace Robertson, also one of the photographers, gives detailed commentary here, seemingly close to her death at the age of 90 earlier this year.  The only nit-pick that could be made is that the film makes at least one claim it simply doesn’t have the time to evidence: namely that of playing a significant role in the fall of Churchill, and election of the Labour Government in 1945.  To claim credit for such a transformative change needs a little more than just assertion – if such evidence exists, of course.

In summary, though, Picture Stories gives almost everything a viewer interested in British social history could want: we get the chronology, technical commentary on what worked about the magazine’s format, an acceptance of some of the flaws in the processes – with admissions of staging photos in some cases not shied away from, and a flawless research process that has unearthed almost every conceivable voice from which we’d want to hear.  Recommended.

Picture Stories is screening at select locations from 15th September, and will be available on Digital Download from 30th September.

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