Picture Stories is a new documentary about Picture Post – a photo magazine that was sold in Britain between 1938 and 1957. Leslie Byron Pitt caught up with director Rob West to talk about influences, photography, and tough decisions.
LESLIE BYRON PITT: So I’m really interested to know a little bit about yourself and just how you got into doing something like this. It’s a fascinating story. And it’s before my time, so to hear about it – it’s really interesting.
ROB WEST: I’m glad you’re interested. In a way part of the thought about making the film was to try and to explore the world of Picture Post, which has to some extent been forgotten for younger generations, so that the history of that part of British photography was not forgotten. I’ve been sort of aware of Picture Post magazine for quite a long time, but I was surprised, really, by how little there was out there in terms of documentary, in terms of any modern day exposition, and I thought it’d be interesting to look at it, particularly through the eyes of modern day photographers, in terms of how it’s influenced them, how they perceive that generation of photographers.
And I also thought it would just be interesting to bring the whole story of Picture Post, which is an amazing story in itself, to modern audiences, so that people were more aware of that feature of our history, and how it’s fed through into modern day street photography, modern day documentary photography, some of the things that we take for granted in photography today but people are less aware of how that came about, how some of those influences came into this country from other countries, other photographic traditions and so on. So that was really the thought. Obviously I’m very keen that the film should be seen by people of all ages. Not just people who might remember Picture Post, but people of younger generations who may know nothing about Picture Post, but have an interest in photography, and how photography has evolved over the last fifty, sixty, seventy years.
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LBP: Let me just ask a little bit about your filmmaking career – just how did you get into filmmaking?
RW: Well, it started on a very small scale. I started getting interested in the idea of making little short documentary films about one thing or another. It took me to various countries in the world. I was doing some filming with a charity that I’m quite involved in. And then a few years ago, I had the idea to do a longer documentary based on a book called Tales From the Two Puddings, which is about a pub in the East End of London in Stratford. And it’s telling a rather different story of sixties London than the one we’re familiar with.
I mean, everyone knows about sixties London, the Beatles and so on. But it was telling what I think is quite an interesting slice of social history. And I thought it was interesting. It’s based on the memoirs of the landlord at the time, Eddie Johnson, a fascinating little series of stories about his time there. So I thought, well, that’s been a great experience to make a full feature length film of that kind, but I wasn’t necessarily intending to make anything major beyond that. But as it happened, I was thinking a little bit around photography and around the history of British photography, and was reminded of Picture Post and made some inquiries, and to my surprise, found there was a willingness to make a film of this kind.
And so we started on the journey of talking to photographers and reaching out and seeing what Picture Post means to them. And not surprisingly, quite a lot of them were very aware of Picture Post, in some cases fairly directly influenced by Picture Post; grew up, in some cases, with old copies of Picture Post. And in some cases, just aware of it as part of the tradition that they follow today, be it street photography, be it various forms of documentary photography, it has in one way or another, I think, been very influential, either explicitly or implicitly, for many, many photographers.
LBP: Were there any singular stories of Picture Post that you really wanted to focus on but didn’t have the time? Or you couldn’t find a way to put into the narrative?
RW: Inevitably, it had to be a considerable work of compression, because Picture Post covered many years, literally thousands of stories, and not only stories that were published, but there’s a huge number of unpublished stories as well. And within the archives they have literally hundreds of thousands of either photos, or contact prints or negatives from all of these stories, many of which one were never published, or indeed those that were published, only taking quite a small selection of photos. So inevitably, when making a film, you’re cutting out an awful lot of good, interesting picture stories. Picture Post covered the whole of the Second World War and the aftermath of war, and therefore a lot of Picture Post stories are directly about war reporting, about armies over Europe, about all of that. But it also covers other things, like celebrity and fashion and so on.
We thought it’d be good to try and focus in particular on what we call photography of ordinary life. One of the things that was innovative about Picture Post was the way it gave prominence to ordinary people doing ordinary things, to showing ordinary Britain back to British people. And that is very innovative, both in terms of what it says about photography, but also as a social and political thing. The very idea that what was then called ordinary people had as much importance, significance and so on as celebrities, as politicians. Their experience and their struggle, in many ways was important to think about, as part of an underpinning of social and political change that took place after the war.
You can’t really think about a National Health Service unless you think it’s important that everyone has access to proper health service. Can’t really think about welfare, having a comprehensive welfare system and so on, unless you think that’s important, unless you think ordinary people matter. So I think in that sense the picture stories, photography, very much underpinned a social idea that ran through the magazine and ran through a lot of the editorial of the magazine. So to me, that is the most interesting part of Picture Post, which is not to at all exclude some fantastic war photography. There’s all sorts of other interesting stuff, but in terms of trying to focus the film, in trying to focus on a few iconic picture stories and be a little bit selective about them, that’s particularly what the focus of the film was. So that’s really how we try to select a few of the – in most cases – better known picture stories, but some that we thought were most representative and also had something to say about Picture Post as a magazine.
LBP: I liked Grace Robertson appearing. Her story in the ‘women’s day out’ segment is so interesting to see from the modern point of view. Is there a particular segment of Picture Stories that you’re particularly fond of? Is there something that you really enjoyed digging into?
RW: We had the great privilege of meeting Grace Robertson. And unfortunately she died earlier this year. But it was a great privilege to meet her, because to be able to talk directly to one of the last surviving Picture Post photographers, and talk with her through making that particular fantastic picture story, but also hear a lot from her about what it was like to work there, her experiences of some of the other photographers on what it meant. She was unusual in the sense of being a woman photographer at a time when opportunities for female photographers were not great. And so she was very much a pioneer. And we had to cut a lot of that interview out. And that’s a shame. What we are going to do, because there’s loads of material that we gathered in making the film, we’re going to try and make some of the other material available in other ways. So that, where we can, if people are interested in particular themes and topics, we can try and use some of that material slightly more expansively.
But yeah, in general it was fascinating. It was an education really, just to explore and delve into each of these photographers and find out both more about their particular work, their approach to photography, but also something more about the way in which they did their jobs, often in these really difficult conditions. Putting together a magazine in the middle of the Second World War, when there were bombs, literally bombs, landing all around the Picture Post offices, and the scene of absolute devastation, as Grace Robertson says. And the very end with paper rationing, and with censorship as well. So with all the difficulties, they had to actually just put together a magazine, and do it on a weekly basis, and then obviously distribute the magazine, not only in the UK, but also it got sent out to the forces overseas, had a very wide distribution during the Second World War. To carry on the magazine through those years was an extraordinary achievement in itself. And the fact that it had real quality to it, both in terms of photography and in terms of the writing and discussion and thought to it through those war years, I think is an extraordinary thing.
LBP: How long did the film take to produce?
RW: I think I started on this process about three years ago. Obviously, everything takes time and the pandemic hasn’t made things easy. But you know, in a way, I think with a project like this, time is a good thing to have because you find things out later on in the process. Often things come out or emerge later on in the process as you go through things. And actually, sometimes finding bits of archive footage or discovering things about people that aren’t necessarily obvious from public accounts, that can take time. So it’s not a bad thing to have a bit of time to work on something like this.
LBP: Why do you think it took so long for some of the photographers within Picture Post, and Picture Post itself to have this chance to be celebrated?
RW: Good question. I suppose part of it may be that the people’s attention moves on. And so people are fascinated by Don McCullin. One, Don McCullin, as I understand it, used to pick up copies of Picture Post when he went to the barber. He was clearly very influenced in his early work, if you look at some of his early work, by some of the things that he would have seen in Picture Post, so there is a continuity, and of course younger generations have been very influenced by Don McCullin. I think McCullin’s interesting in the sense that he has that mix of what we might call documentary photography, British life and British landscapes and so on, mixed in with war reporting, this extraordinary, tense war reporting. And in a way, you can look back to some of the Picture Post photographers such as Bert Hardy, and Haywood Magee, and to some extent Kurt Hutton, and they exactly have that same mix of other kinds of street life photography and dramatic war reporting too. So I think he’s very much in that tradition.
But to answer your questions, so far as I can, I’m not quite sure. We do seem to have slightly forgotten about that earlier generation, which is one of the reasons why I think I made the film, but I think part of it is just that people’s attention shifts, don’t they, they tend to shift to what you know. To some extent we react against some of the traditions. I think you could say some photographers love it today, well known photographers like Martin Parr, that they are, in some ways, consciously reacting against that tradition of photography. I think you can see a complete continuity. But anyway, it’s a good question. Why are we not more conscious of them?
LBP: There’s a really good line in the film, which just says that you’re never going to get anything like this again. And that’s what I found quite interesting. It’s just like – no, you’re not going to see this. Everyone has a camera phone, but we don’t look at things in the same way.
RW: I think, if I’m interested in thinking about what photography is about, as you say, we generally take somebody’s photos without even thinking about them these days. And, yeah, there’s this sharp contrast between that and the Picture Post photographers who were – the camera was not a usual thing for everyone to have those days. And of course they were restricted to film, so that every photo had to be a more thoughtful thing. What seems very ordinary now, this moment – it seems ordinary to us, but of course to future generations it’s going to seem extraordinary. It’s going to seem, in some subtle, unknowable way – it’s going to seem unique and extraordinary.
I’m going to be interested to see what people make of the film and what reactions they have to the film. But what I hope is it makes people reflect a little bit about the nature of photography, and what it’s there for, and how it does, in a way, fix moments in time. And if it helps photographers to think a little bit about that, and what their motivation is in doing it. I think it’s interesting, because there isn’t so much in a way of the picture story these days. There are some magazines that do consciously try and do picture stories, but on the whole that type of journalism is not with us. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an interest in capturing stories.
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LBP: For me, the last really prominent photojournalistic image that really hit home was Saffiyah Khan defying the EDL. That picture of her just smiling in this jeans jacket, with this EDL supporter right in her face. That was a couple of years ago now. And I’m just wondering, do you think these powerful social images are becoming, especially for Britain, more few and far between?
RW: I’m not sure. Possibly part of the problem is that there’s so many images being created on a daily basis, and the modern day picture editor – I mean, I know a couple of picture editors, and they really just have to look through so many images every single day that it’s maybe quite hard for certain images to cut through as being those iconic images. But having said that, it may be that in future certain images will carry through and will be looked back at in some way as iconic, or meaningfulness expressing this is what life was about in 2021 So, I’m not really sure. I mean, I suppose so, yeah. I think that is part of the problem, there’s just such a multitude, which is really hard to pick through and say what matters and what doesn’t matter, what is enduring and what isn’t. And of course, the very nature of digital photography, there is a kind of vanishing. Most things don’t get printed off, so they don’t actually remain as these kinds of artefacts unless you actually consciously print them off, put them in a frame and so on. So I don’t know, really is the answer, but again, I think it’s just interesting to reflect on that. What is different? And what continues?
Instagram is the nearest you could have to a very modern day equivalent to a picture story. But of course, by saying that, immediately you think, well, it doesn’t feel that it has much permanence to it. It feels, inherently, Instagram is ephemeral. It’s really just saying, ‘look at this today, and tomorrow I’ll show you something different’. And so it doesn’t feel as if it’s got a permanence to it. But again, who knows?
LBP: As a documentary filmmaker, who are your filmmaking influences?
RW: Oh, wow. I find it hard to answer. There’re just so, so many good documentary filmmakers, and I suppose I’m on a learning path, I’m just trying to learn from them and try and reflect a little bit of what I see as good practice in terms of filmmakers generally. People, all the greats, like Kubrick and so on. That respect for image, I suppose, in the making of this film. I’m trying to think of any particular films that I saw that have a big influence on this. Probably not. I mean, really, what I was trying to do in this film, to some degree was just give a primacy to the photo, and try and not be too distracting from those images.
One of the uncertainties I had in making it was how much people could tolerate just seeing a lot of photography. So I looked at a number of other photography documentaries to see how they approach it, because you have to be careful to vary the pace and vary the the type of imagery and so on. But it’s been interesting as an exercise in seeing that. How can you represent these, what are essentially printed visual pages? How do you represent them in a way that does justice to the photos and at the same time keeps a forward moving narrative that doesn’t seem like a succession of photos.
So yeah, I think the answer is I’ve been probably influenced by a lot of other photography,documentaries of one kind or another. There’s a very good one recently called Finding Vivian Maier. That film in itself brought her to life, made people aware of her in a way that wasn’t done before. I saw a lovely photography documentary about a photographer in Miami recently, and I can’t remember the name of the film. It was, again, beautifully done just as a kind of exposition of his life stories. So there’s surprisingly actually quite a number of photography documentaries out there. And very interesting. Well worth watching. Sorry that’s not a good answer to your question.
LBP: Are you an avid photographer yourself? Is it something that you partake in as a hobby? Or is it something that you leave to other people?
RW: Yeah, I leave it to other people. I enjoy looking at photography, but I’m not in any sense an expert. And part of the process of making this film was a big education. It’s been fascinating, just exploring this world and talking to people who know a lot more about it than I do. As well as meeting these photographers and getting a sense of what it means to them to be a photographer, and the whole craft and practice of being a photographer. Both what it meant to the Picture Post photographers and what it means to the modern day photographer. And clearly, things have changed, purely in terms of the profession of photographer. I don’t think it’s ever been an easy profession to be in. I think it’s always been a challenging profession, I think it’s always been, in some ways, an insecure and unstable profession. But nonetheless, I think it’s a fascinating one.
Of course, one of the great things about being certain types of photographer, of the kind of Picture Post photographer, is you really get to see the world, you get to see enormous amounts of different things, and you get access to an awful lot of things that you wouldn’t normally have access to. And when you study the kinds of assignments that some of these Picture Post photographers have, week on week, they had extraordinary different stories to work on, and an extraordinary variety of situations that they found themselves in. And in that sense, it’s an absolutely fascinating career to have, if you’re able to get in there and do that kind of work. And they really did see the world, and at a time when the world was a fascinating, difficult place.
LBP: What’s your next project? Do you have a next project in mind?
RW: Well, I’m sort of working up a few ideas. There’s one which may – inevitably when you’re in this kind of field, things may or may not come to fruition. You just hope something comes out of things. But for one reason or another, you start working on a few things, some of which come to absolutely nothing, and some may come to something. I’m working on an idea about exploration in the Amazon at the moment, which again has a kind of historical feel to it. But that may come to something; that may or may not. Part of it is the process in itself is an interesting one. And you need a bit of luck too.
I’m working as an independent filmmaker, I don’t have anyone particularl to answer to. And there’s advantages and disadvantages to that. But I think with any longer form documentary project, there’s quite a big research stage, there’s quite a bit of finding out what is possible. Talking to people and seeing whether they – in any project you need a lot of people to help you along the way, and to make things possible. And clearly, with Picture Stories, it wouldn’t be possible without a lot of people helping in one way or another, and agreeing for things to be done, and letting me film certain things. And I think that’s true of any documentary project, you actually need a lot of people to say yes. I guess everyone has their own approach to how they go about these things. But I think roughly speaking, there’s always a formative stage where you’re trying to see, is there something here that I can make something out of or not? And then at some point, you have to plunge in.
Picture Stories is screening at select locations from 15th September, and will be available on Digital Download from 30th September. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.