Moments of Transition
The photographs of Grace Robertson
The twentieth century was an illustrious period for picture magazines, whose combination of topical photographs, carefully executed texts, and visually arresting layouts, shaped national opinions on all aspects of society. From 1928 to the late 1950s, such magazines included Münchner Illustrierte Presse and Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung in Germany, Vu and Paris Match in France, and Life and Look in the United States. In Britain, Illustrated and Picture Post became primary sources of information and entertainment for the British public. Founded in October 1938 by Stefan Lorant and Tom Hopkinson, Picture Post soon became central to the British national psyche. By the summer of 1939, its circulation was 1.7 million a week. During his subsequent tenure as chief editor of the magazine from 1940-50, Hopkinson ensured social concerns and a collaborative ethos guided its creation. Grace Robertson later recalled of this visually-led magazine era: ‘We as a nation were talking to each other through pictures in magazines.’
Grace Robertson’s early experiences with photography
Photography was a mainstay throughout Grace Robertson’s family life. Photographic magazines were regularly in the house, including Picture Post where her father, the journalist Fyfe Robertson, worked. Such knowledge of photography, and its conventions and power, surely influenced Robertson’s decision to become a photographer. Her decision was clarified on one rainy day, as Robertson recalls:
‘I noticed two women talking together outside the butcher’s shop. For two or three years I’d been looking at women talking and I hadn’t noticed anything in particular…Suddenly I realised that, if I’d had a camera, I’d be looking at a Picture Post photograph’ 
Breaking barriers: women and photojournalism in the 1950s
By 1950, Picture Post had already broken new ground as one of the few mass-circulation publications which regularly employed women photographers. Grace Robertson’s predecessors included Gerti Deutsch, Edith Tudor-Hart, and Merlyn Severn, the first woman to be employed as a full-time Picture Post staff photographer. Their success was particularly significant given the lack of formal opportunities for photography education available to women. For example, Robertson attributed her only training to the ‘keen and sometimes harsh eyes’ of Simon Guttmann, the founder of Report photo agency and an influential figure in modern photojournalism. Pioneering appointments to the editorial staff of Picture Post included Anne Scott-James, its first Women’s Editor (1941-45). The head of its darkroom was Edith Kay, a Jewish refugee, who like Stefan Lorant had brought her professional experience to England from Germany. Robertson later described the magazine’s day-to-day collaborative practices which relied on picture editors, photographers, researchers, and writers working together in unison:
Shearing Time in Snowdonia, published 11 August 1951
Grace Robertson was attracted to photographing self-sufficient communities united by a common purpose, and consequently her first important commission for Picture Post was fortuitous. In 1951, Robertson was assigned to produce a story on Welsh sheep-shearing in Snowdonia. Working with journalist David Mitchell, she spent four days in the mountains alongside the shepherds as they worked. Shearing takes place in late Spring and early Summer, at a moment which marks an essential stage of renewal in the agricultural year.
Miss Bluebell Takes Her Girls To Italy, published 9 February 1952
Compared to the male-dominated sheep-shearing series, ‘Miss Bluebell Takes Her Girls To Italy’ was focused on the women’s experience. With writer Jenny Nicholson, Grace Robertson accompanied the ‘girls’ on their travels. It was among many stories Robertson chose to meet and work with other women. As women, Robertson and Nicholson were certainly able to gain greater access to the Bluebell Girls, possessing an inherent understanding of their experiences and emotions as young women. Robertson captured a sense of the women’s camaraderie, particularly in studies of the women interacting as a group, applying makeup, reading in bed, cooling down after a performance or seeing tourist sites; there is a casualness about the photographs. Other works are more formalised arrangements, showing the women exercising, their legs suspended in mid-air. The photographs have strong shape, something Robertson sought to produce through her compositions.
Mother’s Day Off, 1954
In the post-war years, older women were also facing change to their close-knit communities - including in London, where gentrification boomed as new housing estates were built in and outside of the city. Such developments were, in part, a consequence of a new national optimism, promoted culturally a few years earlier by the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Similar to Mother’s Day Off, Picture Post were initially wary of Grace Robertson’s story ‘Childbirth’ in 1955. The article was turned down twice for fear it would offend their ‘middle aged women readers’, this is despite an arguably more graphic series by Merlyn Severn depicting a home birth, published in Picture Post in 1946. But ‘middle aged women readers’ was not Robertson's intended audience. Instead, she hoped the story would illuminate expectant mothers. At this time, there was a general air of ignorance around the birth process, both among women and men. As Robertson recalls, ‘we really ought to know what happens’.  The story was accepted by Picture Post, gaining great interest and praise by her colleagues. Yet, as Robertson went to photograph the mother and her newborn to complete the story, she learned it was ‘killed’ and would not be published - likely for fear of offence. While unpublished at the time, photographs from the series have since featured in a range of publications. The photographs depict Roberton’s mastery in capturing and composing shots in an intense situation.
Robertson’s inclusion in the Channel 4 Television series Five Women Photographers (1986) led to a renewed interest in her work. The monograph Grace Robertson: Photojournalist of the 1950s followed in 1989. In this same year, Robertson resumed her photojournalism career through a commission to take photographs on the set of ‘Picking Oakum’. Directed by Bronwen Evans, this drama-documentary was devised and performed by six women ex-prisoners, who explored the injustices they suffered at the hands of the courts, prison system, and media. This project also explored the broader experiences of women prisoners at the turn of the century. A selection of Robertson’s photographs from this series were exhibited at the Clean Break Theatre, London. Speaking at this time of this commission, Robertson remarked:
“Everybody, even Thurston, seemed to have forgotten I’d ever been a photographer. It was as if that part of my life had been wiped out…
…Once everyone had got used to me, and trusted me, I was invisible. I loved the feel of just standing there holding this familiar camera, experiencing that frisson of tension I need to take good photographs.” 
Subsequent later commissions included photographing nonagenarians in 1992 for the BBC2 television series The Nineties, which led to an accompanying publication and an exhibition at the Royal National Theatre, London. This was one of many solo and touring exhibitions which occurred throughout the 1990s. In 1995, Robertson became a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and in 1999 she was awarded an OBE.
Robertson remained committed to documenting the lives of women and championing women’s work. Notably, she used her award from the Wingate Scholarship to focus on her project ‘Working Mothers in Contemporary Society’. She was acutely aware of the issues facing women, and the barriers imposed by gender, class and motherhood. Today, issues of gender and class continue to create bias and prejudice in contemporary photography and thus Robertson’s investigations of these themes and her perseverance to sustain a life in photography have contemporary resonance.
“I sometimes ask myself if, given the opportunity, I would want to do it all again. Yes, of course- providing I was young and very full of energy. The changed photographic climate of today undoubtedly presents fresh problems for anyone intent on making a career in photojournalism, and photojournalism alone. But I can think of no more exciting challenge than having to go out, day after day, with a camera to record the contemporary scene, helping to make a small contribution towards an understanding of our complex, and frequently exasperating, society." 
Two public events accompany this online exhibition, hosted by the Royal Photographic Society in partnership with Photo Oxford. These talks reflect on the historical contexts of Robertson’s work and on themes within her work that contemporary practitioners similarly express.
© Grace Robertson / Picture Post / Getty Images
Persevere Young Man: Grace Robertson and Picture Post
© Elinor Carucci / Three generations, 2016
Elinor Carucci – 1986 till today
Produced with the support of Getty Images Hulton Archive