Bert Hardy: The Complete Photographer.
Photos by Bert Hardy, all of them.
All above photos are by British photographer Bert Hardy, 1913 – 1995. He was almost to the year an exact contemporary of the marvellous French photographer Robert Doisneau, 1912 – 1994. A Channel on You Tube with examples of Robert Doisneau’s work has, at the time of writing, attracted 40,699 views. A Channel on You Tube with examples of Bert Hardy’s photos, posted in 2016, has attracted 111 views at the time of writing.
At present – October 2018 – there are over twenty books listed on Amazon UK of collections of photographs by Robert Doisneau. There is just one book currently in print that features some of Bert Hardy’s work Bert Hardy’s Britain available from Amazon UK. In fact, Bert Hardy’s Britain, published in 2013, is the only book in print available anywhere in the world, that features Bert’s photographs.
STOP PRESS October 19, 2018. Bert Hardy not listed on the Wikipedia entry for the ground-breaking The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955. He had three photos in the exhibition. See story further down.
Bert Hardy was born in May, 1913 a year and one month after Robert Doisneau. Robert’s Dad died when he was four, and his mother died when he was seven. He was brought up by an unloving aunt in the working class district of Gentilly, just the other side of the Paris city boundary. Bert was the first of seven children that his Mum and Dad had, and the family lived in one room with a scullery in Priory Buildings, Blackfriars, London, a stone’s throw from the Elephant & Castle district on the south side of the Thames.
Leaving school at the age of thirteen in 1926 he got a job at a place called the Central Photo Service, by chance rather than design. His aunt had seen a “Lad Wanted” sign when she was charring (cleaning) in the London Strand area. It turned out his job was to help a young Scottish girl develop and print rolls of film that he was to collect from some Chemists in central London. He and her were the total staff, the owner being elsewhere in the building.
” (Re. the chemists) I went round twice a day, walking or jumping on the back of carts to save my bus fares. In between rounds, the Scottish girl taught me how to develop and print, and also some other interesting activities you can get up to in a darkroom. I was a quick learner.”
He goes on to describe the primitive set-up and equipment in the darkroom, and then describes the photos that he and the Scottish girl processed.
“Apart from the usual ‘happy snaps’, an astonishing number of people sent in naughty pictures. There were one or two chemists in Soho from whom we expected that sort of thing: pictures of prostitutes for their clients, and we adjusted our rates accordingly. But there was a chemist’s at the top of Northumberland Avenue from which we quite regularly collected films sent in by a famous surgeon.
The surgeon’s pictures were always beautifully taken on a quarter-plate camera on roll film, six pictures in a roll. All the pictures were of popsies: beautiful creatures with nothing on doing the most terrible things, but always wearing marvellous hats. And the last picture on each roll of the film was always of the surgeon himself: a stout gentleman with no clothes on, and the tiniest little withered thing between his legs.
I don’t suppose he appreciated what an opportunity for blackmail he gave. Instead, we charged him double and printed up copies for ourselves.”
Working in the darkroom rubbed off on him and he bought in a pawn shop what he described as an old second hand plate camera – which would make it a turn of the century item. The first photograph he made money from, selling to friends and others, was taken of King George V and Queen Mary, resting the camera on the head of one his sister’s to steady it.
He also photographed his family.
As his self-taught photo skills developed so did his passion for competitive cycle racing. He began to sell photos to The Bicycle for a good rate.
Bert left the Central Photo Service in 1939 and started working for a professional photo agency that supplied photos to the national daily press. His camera skills and his eye for a photo story got noticed and he joined the top British photo news weekly Picture Post on 3 March 1940.
Bert was straight away involved in covering stories connected to the Second World War from the British perspective, getting front page coverage.
Whilst he was working for Picture Post he received his call-up papers in 1943 (war service in the armed services). His editor Tom Hopkinson tried to get him deferred, arguing that he was valuable as a war photographer with Picture Post. No luck. He had to go in the army and was assigned to the Photo Unit, and had the indignity of being taught as a beginner, and was issued with a sub-standard camera for war work.
Somehow during his time in the army he managed to supply photos to Picture Post. At that time British press and news magazine photographers did not get a credit byline next to their work, so his photos being anonymous, he could get away with it In France post-D Day, and still with the army, photographer George Silk of Life and Robert Capa were working as war correspondents.
“I met up with them. They both knew me and told me they liked my work. They stayed in some luxury at the billet obtained by the canny officer in charge of public relations, who was very talented at that sort of thing: but when they invited me to come and have a drink with them, I wasn’t allowed to – the Mess was for commissioned officers and war correspondents only.”
Bert saw and photographed atrocities by German forces on Belgium civilians; went in on the first crossings of the Rhine, was at Belsen at the time of its liberation and concluded his time with the army in Europe by taking a photos of the Soviet Marshall Zhukov with Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery near Frankfurt. Although in May, 1945 the war was over in Europe, he was still in the army. He was a sergeant.
He was next posted to the Far East, where he continued taking photographs, including the hanging of Japanese war criminals. It wasn’t until 8 September 1946 that, still a soldier, he arrived back in Liverpool on the troopship Monarch of Bermuda. He then had to travel through the night to Number 77, Military Demobilisation Unit, Guildford, where a £2 ‘mess fee’ was extracted from him. (At the time, about a third to a half of an unskilled workers weekly wage.) As he wrote “By nine o’ clock that morning, fleeced, I was a citizen again, plain Bert Hardy”.
A few days back in England and Bert got in touch with Tom Hopkinson, the editor of Picture Post, who immediately offered Bert his job back at Picture Post, at £1000 a year. Bert said he wasn’t sure, as the price offered might not cover his expenses. A few days later Tom came back with an offer of £1,500 a year. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.. It was good to be back at work for Picture Post at a period when the paper was at its greatest”.
Within a month of working on photo stories in England, Tom Hopkinson sent him out East again, this time working for Picture Post and an assignment in India, covering the opening of the Indian Constituent Assembly after independence from Britain. He and a journalist were granted an interview with the new Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru.
“Nehru was a fine man for whom I had a tremendous respect, but people’s characters only emerge in their actions, or in certain facial expressions… (as the journalist was talking to Nehru) I was shooting away quietly when Nehru absently-mindedly picked up a rose from the bowl of his desk and sniffed it. I took the picture instantly, it was what I wanted.”
In the post-war 1940s and into the 1950s Bert covered everything, to racial tensions in London’s Notting Gate, emerging star Audrey Hepburn, Cardiff’s Tiger Bay area, downtown Liverpool, Tito and his wife in Yugoslavia, the village life and grape harvest in a French village…. He loved working with available light – he was a genius with it and with his darkroom experience he knew how to get the best out of a difficult negative.
The photo of the loving couple with the light streaming in, in the Elephant & Castle area of London is one of this writers favourite Bert Hardy photos, and has been for many years. However, reading Bert’s own story about it, in Bert Hardy: My Life, it’s not quite as it seems. Working on the Elephant & Castle story Bert was only a stone’s throw from where he was brought up in Blackfriars. Wandering around with his camera a woman shouted out “‘Ow about taking a picture of me love?” Looking at some run-down buildings he asked her what they were like round the back. “Bleedin’ awful. Come and see for yourself.”
“Following her down a narrow passageway to a tiny yard about ten feet square… I saw, through a window, a young couple half-lying on a sofa just inside. I asked “What’s it like inside?” She said, “Come and have a look”.
I went inside and asked if I could take a few pictures. They seemed totally unconcerned. When I set up my camera and tripod, they watched me blankly, without moving. In the end we discovered the reason: the girl was a prostitute and the man was a Canadian who had been released from prison the day before; they had spent a hard night in bed celebrating his release.”
It turned out that his guide Maisie, who had told Bert to take her picture, was also a prostitute, and she was a great help to Bert and A.L.Lloyd, the Picture Post journalist, whilst working on the story.
The two of them had just returned from doing a feature for Picture Post on the Gorbals slum tenements in Glasgow. One of the photos that Bert took, and is well known for, was also his favourite picture.
The Pool of London
Just over a year later in December, 1949 he and journalist Robert Kee did a story on the Pool of London. It is reproduced here, from the Pete Grafton Collection, as a representative example of Bert’s work. Picture Post, 3 December, 1949.
Some weeks before the Pool of London story was run by Picture Post its writer Robert Kee had been a Witness at the marriage of George Orwell to Sonia Bronwell in the University College Hospital, London, on October 13, 1949. Orwell was being treated for his damaged TB lungs. Orwell was too weak to stand and sat up in his hospital bed for the ceremony. His novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (June, 1949) had highlighted the dangers of totalitarian communism and totalitarian societies dominated by cult personalities, such as Stalin. The post-war 1945 period in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China alarmed him. He died in hospital from a burst lung in January, 1950, aged forty-six.
In August, 1950 Bert Hardy was again sent to the East, this time Korea, with journalist James Cameron.
Communist North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and communist China, had invaded South Korea on 25 June, 1950. The United Nation condemned the invasion and sent UN forces to repel the invaders. The UN troops were not effective at containing the invading communists until UN forces landing at Inchon in September, 1950. Bert Hardy and James Cameron covered the landings.
Whilst doing follow up stories in Korea they came across brutal treatment of prisoners taken by South Korean Forces, which Bert said reminded him of some of the scenes he had seen in German at Belsen in 1945. Making enquiries he and James Cameron were told the prisoners were not North Koreans, but political prisoners, people suspected of having ‘the wrong views’. “We wondered how young boys of fourteen could possible be ‘political’ prisoners…… At intervals a batch of them would be separated from the rest and herded into the back of a lorry which then drove off. Our impression was that they were being taken off to be shot. We were appalled, and decided that we must try and to do something about it. We went to the United Nations Office, and they didn’t want to know.”
They went to the Red Cross who referred them back to the United Nations Office, who said what their allies the South Koreans did was not their concern. “Jimmy Cameron and I were horrified by what we saw, and checked very carefully before sending back our story. We knew it would cause trouble, but not that it would also change Picture Post for ever…”
Their time in Korea over, they returned to London.
“When we reached London we found that Tom (Hopkinson, Picture Post editor) had been holding over our story on the North Korean political prisoners until we returned, just to make sure that everything about the story was quite right, and that we hadn’t distorted or missed out anything. In fact the story about the incident had already appeared in The Times, but Tom was still worried. The combination of Jimmy’s writing and my pictures would really bring what was going on home to people. Because of its implied criticism of the United Nations, it was bound to create controversy. Tom was concerned because Edward Hulton, the proprietor, was known to dislike controversy. He wanted to be absolutely sure about the story before he printed it.”
Bert and A.L.Lloyd (Bert Lloyd) meanwhile were assigned to do a topical piece on the annual British Bonfire Night.
“Bert Lloyd (A.L.Lloyd) and I were wandering around London looking for the best Guy Fawkes we could find… when we heard that Hulton had personally ordered the presses to be stopped at Sun Engraving in Watford, and the issue of Picture Post to be made up again without the story of the political prisoners.
… There was talk of mass resignations if this sort of interference in editorial policy happened again….. Tom was sacked for refusing to comply with Hulton’s request… In spite of all the talk of mass resignation, most of the others stayed put. By sacking Tom, Hulton was forced to make him a payment. But anyone who resigned would not get anything except the salary they were owed. Even for Jimmy and me, who had done the story, resignation was not a luxury we could afford. Tom called a meeting and advised us all to stay on. For the photographers particularly there were no other magazines to compare with Picture Post as outlets for their work…. Looking back on it, it seems quite clear that without Tom’s social commitment, Picture Post lost its edge and its popularity. Contrary to the opinion still held in Fleet Street, people aren’t only interested in pictures of pretty girls when they buy magazines.”
Bert continued to work for Picture Post until it went out of business in 1957, and continued to be the Complete Photographer that he was.
In a Picture Post feature he took several photos with a cheap box camera, to show that it was possible to take a good photo without needing an expensive camera. From this feature a photo of two chorus girls on the seafront railings at Blackpool became a well known Bert Hardy photo.
STOP PRESS October 19, 2018. Wikipedia wipes out Bert Hardy at the ground-breaking Family of Man photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955, curated by Edward Steichen.
The MoMA online site, under the Family of Man entry lists the three selected Bert Hardy as follows:
Family of Man MoMA Checklist
- Section 25, Relationships. No. 300, England, Bert Hardy.
- Section 26, Learning, No. 343, Burma, Bert Hardy.
- Section 28, Religious Expression, No. 368, Burma, Bert Hardy.
The writer hopes to correct the omission of Bert Hardy from the Wikipedia entry on the Family of Man photo exhibition, New York, 1955, shortly.
Life after Picture Post
When Picture Post folded in 1957 Bert worked freelance for Odhams Press, and found that he was earning more money. Then he had a spell working for the Daily Express as their Paris photographer, and then he branched out very successfully into advertising.
“Advertising jobs began to flood in: when I arrived on the scene advertising photography tended to be rather formal. I introduced the 35mm camera and the inventive story-telling approach which had been so popular in Picture Post, to give a fresher, more candid look.”
One of his images, that he created, was for the 1959 promotion of a new WD & HO Wills cigarette, Strand.
It was a strong image, the lone man, never alone with a Strand. People of that generation remember it, even though they didn’t take up the cigarette, which bombed. No smoker of that era wanted to be seen as a lonely person. Perhaps an aspect of the image subliminally entered director Lewis Gilbert’s head when he did one of the final shots in Alfie (1966): Michael Caine alone on the Waterloo Bridge, apart from a dog that befriends him. And crossing the Thames, on the Waterloo Bridge and heading down Waterloo Road he would have come to the Elephant & Castle where he grew up, in poverty, like Bert Hardy. And like Bert’s aunt, Michael Caine’s Mum was also a char (cleaner). And like Bert Hardy he was in Korea, two years later in 1952, in the infantry, a conscript on the front line.
Bert Hardy earned a tremendous amount doing advertising photographic work, but he wrote that it was no substitute for working for Picture Post. In 1964 he and Sheila, his second wife, bought a farm, and he slowly eased himself out of the very lucrative advertising and promotional photography to retire and run the farm.
Retired, he still took the occasional snap, for his own pleasure.
At the time of writing, October, 2018, there is only one book of Bert Hardy photos currently in print: Bert Hardy’s Britain, Bluecoat Press, UK. £19.98.
There are two cautionary reviews of the book on Amazon.co.uk
“One of the UK’ s best known photographers and from Blackfriars in South London. As with some photographic books the design and more importantly the layout and repro are poor. The repro of the pictures is poor quality and why designers ever split a picture over two pages I will never know, it kills the original image!
As for the pictures, some are a bit of a mish mash and seem to be added to pad out the book. I don’t think even Bert would be happy with this.”
“This is a laudable effort, but it falls short in limiting the pictures to Britain, unfortunately leaving out some of his best work….
There are two out of print books of Bert Hardy’s photos available second hand. They compliment each other. Bert Hardy: My Life is his story in his own words, and it’s an extraordinary and fascinating story. It is full of his photos, often with details of how he took the photo. At the back of the book he also lists his favourite cameras and the one he had no time for when issued it by the British Army. The average price second-hand on ebay.co.uk is £24. It runs to 192 pages. Beware of sellers who are either not very bright, or are “at it”, who when listing it describe it as signed by Bert Hardy. There is such a one listed October, 2018 on ebay.co.uk with an asking price of £155. All editions have a printed Bert Hardy signature on the front page.
The second out of print book of Bert Hardy photos is from the Gordon Fraser Photographic Monographs series No.5: Bert Hardy, London 1975. It runs to 72 pages and the reproductions are not always up to the standard that we expect in photographic monographs published in the present decade. A reasonable price to pay on ebay.co.uk is £44 – £45.
Bert Hardy 1913 – 1995.
All Bert Hardy photos copyright either Getty or the Estate of Bert Hardy. With grateful acknowledge to both copyright holders. All other material: The Pete Grafton Collection.