Trend of an era

    Picture Post was the 1950s in magazine form, the record of post-war England. Its great talent was Thurston Hopkins — who photographed the biggest stars and wasn't afraid to illuminate the dark side of life

    Between 1950 and ’57, Hopkins was the star photographer on Picture Post. If this means nothing to you, then you were either too young to read and look, or prejudiced against black-and-white photography, or you were born without a sociocultural soul. Picture Post was the journal of record of post-war England. It was the English 1950s in magazine form. To be a star photographer on Picture Post was to hold this nation’s soul in your grasp. And Hopkins, a small man with Japanese proportions, once held a sizable slab of it in his. “Picture Post was a name people trusted,” he agrees breezily. “Rather like the BBC. The old BBC.”

    To meet Hopkins, I had boarded a time machine and travelled back through the entire reign of the present queen, back to her princess days, to the early 1950s. All I really did was take the 8.17 from Victoria, change at Lewes and fetch up at Seaford, at the fish-and-chips end of the Sussex coast. But the change of atmosphere between the beginning of this short voyage and the end was almighty. Hopkins lives slap in the middle of Miss Marple country, in a leafy cottage by the sea. Bicycles. Garden gates. Roses. I’d been greeted at the station by his fabulous wife, Grace Robertson, an enlarged Joyce Grenfell and a photographer on Picture Post. Grace is the daughter of Fyfe Robertson, the witty deerstalkered reporter whom ancient readers will remember from the black-and-white news reports flickering in the corner of the room in the early days of television. Robertson is more than 6ft tall. Hopkins is at least half a foot shorter. Yet the two of them fit as snugly into each other as the two halves of a yin-and-yang badge. They met in the lift at Picture Post. He introduced himself by complementing Robertson on her work. Of course he did, the old smoothie.

    Hopkins’s first love was art. He’d trained in it, and a few years before war broke out, landed a job at a Fleet Street picture agency, adding commemorative borders to photographs of the then Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. The expectancy was that when Edward became king, these embellished photographs, to which Hopkins had been inventively contributing colonial natives and imperial dreadnoughts, would be worth a mint. Alas, Mrs Simpson happened instead. Hopkins admits merrily that he owes 
    his career as a photographer to her. When Edward chose Mrs Simpson rather than the crown, the agency was left with a useless selection of commemorative photographs of a non-king. The boss of the agency confronted Hopkins. “I haven’t got anything for you to do. Have you ever used a camera?” He hadn’t, so the boss lent him his.

    The first set of pictures he recalls successfully getting into focus were of Douglas Fairbanks Sr on the set of an Alexander Korda movie. It took him a whole day to get that focus right. When the war broke out, a friend recommended they both apply for the army’s photographic unit. He was stationed in North Africa, where he had to look after the cameras in reconnaissance planes. He was never a war photographer, as such. “It was frustrating for a photographer, because there wasn’t enough to do on the ground. Wherever you went, you saw copies of Picture Post. I remember seeing them blowing about in the sand. And I thought, ‘This is what I’d like to be doing.'”

    The picture agency he’d worked at was blown up in the Blitz, and all his work was destroyed. This made getting a job at Picture Post tricky. So Hopkins mocked up a full dummy edition of the magazine, for which he not only took all the pictures but also wrote all the articles. That impressed them. Picture Post photographers were expected to master two kinds of story. Purely documentary ones, where you shot what was there, and where speed was the essence; and studio setups, which you planned in detail, like a film director. Hopkins did both. But I reckon his genius hinged on being able to blur the divide between the two. Even his quickest documentary pictures, shot on the run, have the look of a film still about them. You can always imagine a bigger story line unfolding around them. He was in Liverpool doing one of Picture Post’s signature slum stories when he stepped into an alley and saw an old woman bundled up in rags walking towards him. Snap. That was that.

    Looking at his Picture Post work spread out on the carpet between us, what is immediately clear is that darkness was his staunchest ally. “I loved using the camera on the edge of darkness. Dusk. What Dickens called ‘the mongrel hour’,” he nods. Of all the magazine’s photographers, he was the one who used the slowest shutter speeds and revelled in holding the camera still for longest. He’d clamp his arm around anything immobile, and hang on. Lampposts were particularly handy.

    In fact, he even photographed Alfred Hitchcock for Picture Post. The noir master was arriving at the Savoy. As the taxi pulled into the hotel’s courtyard, Hopkins noticed a shop on the corner selling cutlery. On a hunch, he nipped out and bought a pair of scissors. Hitchcock was sitting in an armchair when he walked into the hotel. Hopkins passed him the scissors and asked if he could show how he had set about choreographing the famous scene in Dial M for Murder where Grace Kelly dispatches the would-be assassin sent by her husband. Hitchcock thought about this for a long time. Then slowly he got up. And began rolling about on the carpet acting out the great death with the scissors. He ended up spending the morning with Hopkins, and the photograph of him everyone remembers was taken at the British Museum, where Hitchcock’s saturnine bulk was rhymed with that of an adjacent stone lion.

    Another of Hopkins’s star shots appears to show the notoriously sullen Joan Crawford having her chest bitten by a vampire. It was taken in the penthouse suite of the Dorchester. She had just married a Pepsi millionaire and her people had set up a post-wedding meet-the-press to promote this union. A button had fallen off her dress and the thread was hanging down. She couldn’t pull it off, so she asked her assistant to bite it.

    Although he coped well enough with these official photo opportunities, Hopkins’s preferred approach to celebrity portraiture involved moving in with the stars and getting to know them intimately. Amazingly, they let him do it. He recalls spending a week in the Boltons living with Douglas Fairbanks Jr and his family, sharing their life. When his time was up, the whole family turned out to say farewell. “Goodbye. So sorry to see you going.” Try to imagine Posh and Becks extending such warmth or access to a photographer today. “People trusted Picture Post when you came knocking on the door. Picture Post believed you must never take a photograph if people objected to it. It wasn’t the day of the personality. Photographing a person just because they were famous wasn’t really a requirement.”

    I pass Hopkins a picture I’d enjoyed examining on my journey down here, of Diana Dors on stage in her underwear, working on the film Lady Godiva Rides Again. He has a good look. And doesn’t remember taking it. He doesn’t even recognise Diana Dors. He worked with her a couple of times, but all he can recall is that seeing her in the morning without her make-up was a bit of a shock. I hand him another memorable picture of a handsome couple in evening togs snuggled up in the back of a taxi. He examines it carefully. “I have no memory of that.” It’s Terence and Shirley Conran out on the town in 1955. Then there’s his delightful double helping of a curvaceous Soho model reflected in a window. He admits she’s cute. But is surprised to learn he took it.

    Now, this man may be 90, but he’s as sharp as a Gillette blade — the old Gillette blade — and his memory shows no other signs of failing. “One worked under such pressure,” he explains. “You jumped from one story to another, so you weren’t even around to see the contacts come through. At the end of a roll of film you couldn’t remember what you’d taken.” Let alone now, 50 years and several cultural epochs later.

    When Picture Post closed down in 1957, the entire staff found itself cast adrift in a changing world. The 1960s were soon upon them, and Hopkins found himself employed by a flashy new industry that was ravenous for photographers, called advertising. It was this “shabby” advertising work and not the forgotten Picture Post output, to which he has no ownership rights, that made him enough to live on when he retired.

    He’s one of our finest British photographers. It’s an honour to meet him. Yet he lives today at the end of the line, unknighted, unfeted, underappreciated, and that’s not right. But there’s too much of his chipper era in him to allow him to sulk. After we’re finally done with talking about his great photographic life, he takes me upstairs to his studio where, these days, he paints all day, every day — “This is what I live for” — and where a bold charcoal drawing of a bending nude is obviously Grace. Thurston and Grace have now been married for 40 years. He’s 90. She’s in her sixties. But Thurston Hopkins remains unable to keep the lust out of his art. The lucky bounder.