Moments of Transition

The photographs of Grace Robertson

Grace Robertson at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 1953, photographed by Thurston Hopkins © Thurston Hopkins/The Grace Robertson | Thurston Hopkins Archive.

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.’[1]

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’ [2]


She returned home and ‘in a state of great excitement and dragged some copies of Picture Post from a cupboard. I spread them over the floor. Everywhere faces stared back at me: war criminals, statesmen, tribal chiefs, evangelists and, again and again, the faces of ordinary men and women. There was even a picture of a food queue in Berlin. I crouched there for some minutes letting the messages sink in: this is it, I said to myself, this is what I want to do, take pictures like these.’ [3]


This ran against the expected roles of women in the period. Robertson noted that young women could become teachers, nurses or secretaries, but this was only a fill-in until they got a husband. Determined to avoid this fate, she submitted her first story to Picture Post in 1948. Wishing to avoid recognition as Fyfe’s daughter, and furthermore, resist biases against her gender, she submitted her work under a pseudonym: Dick Muir. She was famously rejected with a slip stating: ‘Persevere, young man’. Her second submission was met with further encouragement: ‘These show promise – try again’. Despite the gender barriers Robertson faced, she eventually secured her first published Picture Post story on 12 August 1950. The story about Chinese artists titled ‘An English Summer Through Chinese Eyes’ commenced her career as a freelance photojournalist for the magazine. This moment coincided with a dynamic period of social change for women as they renavigated their roles in society and the workplace after the Second World War.

Portrait of Grace Robertson by Thurston Hopkins, 1950s © Thurston Hopkins/The Grace Robertson | Thurston Hopkins Archive.
An English Summer Through Chinese Eyes, published Saturday, August 12, 1950 (Volume 48, Issue 7) © Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A Schoolgirl Does Her Homework, published Saturday, March 31, 1951 (Volume 50, Issue 13)© Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesFeaturing her sister, this was the first story by Robertson accepted by Picture Post, but was published after An English Summer Through Chinese Eyes.

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:


‘When you went on an assignment for Picture Post you were very aware that you were expected to bring back a story, one with a beginning, a middle and an end, and not just a lot of photographically interesting images which you hoped would match the text.’; ‘Before stating photography you discussed the plan of action, and at the end of the day’s work you reviewed that had been accomplished and what had yet to be done.’ [4]


While Robertson’s freelance career with Picture Post was relatively short – she produced fifty photo essays for the magazine, of which thirty-six were published - her photographs epitomize the skill, care and empathy required to construct convincing photo essays for twentieth-century audiences. With light weight cameras, usually a Rangefinder Leica strapped around her wrist, she aimed to capture photographs which perfectly encapsulated a moment and a story - through gesture, or a look - working quickly to gain her desired shot. Robertson actively sought stories connected with women at all different stages in life:


‘I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made women tick.’ [5]


As a woman photographer, Robertson frequently had access to daily activities and inner worlds that were closed from her male contemporaries. She produced stories on topics including Turkish women baths, women dance troupes and maternity wards, either on commission or as self-initiated stories inspired by her own experiences. A rarity at the time, the photographs document womens’ lives and there is an inherent intimacy about the photographs, depicting natural, relaxed moments of comradeship between women. Throughout her life, Robertson was open about her practice as a woman - the casual sexism, difficulties working with painful periods, and the barriers of working mothers, and women in general, in a largely male dominated industry.

By 1957,
Picture Post was struggling to survive economically. At the time of its closure on 1 June 1957, the magazine’s owner, Edward Hulton, attributed the magazine’s collapse to the emergence of television. Although Tom Hopkinson disagreed with this conclusion, believing that the magazine’s demise was caused by internal indecision and a loss of faith in its original values. Nevertheless, by its closure, the magazine had secured its impact on British photography, influencing future generations of photojournalists. Collectively, many of Robertson’s photographs present a positive view of Britain moving beyond the struggles and limitations of the war period.

Grace Robertson at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 1953, photographed by Thurston Hopkins © Thurston Hopkins/The Grace Robertson | Thurston Hopkins Archive.
Two female reporters in their office, UK, March 1952 © Grace Robertson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A contact sheet showing scenes at a sweet shop after rationing was ended in Britain after World War II, April 1953 © Grace Robertson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shearing Time in Snowdonia, published 11 August 1951

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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.


Robertson’s photographs of farmworker Pyrs Williams, and a group of farmworkers hurriedly handling sheep, capture the intense physical demands of this form of labour. Elsewhere, a photograph of a farmworker almost in silhouette on top a hillside, presents a scene of calm grandeur. Robertson later described this assignment as one of the most idyllic of her career. One of her favourite photographs from this series shows a newly-shorn sheep being thrown into the stream in Hafod y Llan, delicately held in the air by its tail. This moment reminded Robertson of the earlier sports photographs of 1930s photographer Martin Munkacsi:


“I had read a quote from him in which he said that every action, in sport or in anything else, has a moment of stillness. As I watched the sheep I realised that, indeed, there was that moment: there was a fraction of a second as they went out, before gravity took over and they dropped.” [6]


It was Robertson’s intuitive ability to capture such moments of stillness, irrespective of the subject matter, which often make her photographs so captivating.

Miss Bluebell Takes Her Girls To Italy, published 9 February 1952

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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.


Robertson noted the women came from a range of backgrounds. She felt her images of these young women working together, seeking to establish their reputation abroad, and travelling - which had long been impossible because of the war - were significant in showing society moving away from the class-ridden, war affected society.

Mother’s Day Off, 1954

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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.


In 1954, Grace Robertson produced one of her most well-known stories, documenting a women’s pub outing from Bermondsey in inner London to the British seaside town of Margate. Robertson initiated this story, and it was originally turned down by Picture Post management, who felt that the idea didn’t have broad appeal. Robertson continued with developing the story regardless, spending three evenings with the group of women to gain their trust and acceptance.


On seeing the completed photographs, Picture Post published nine images on 26 September 1954 under the title ‘Mother’s Day Off’. Many of these images are remembered today for their merriment and seemingly carefree abandon. However, such a summary oversimplifies Robertson’s aims for this story - which was an attempt to break down social barriers by showing the lives of working-class Londoners at a turning point of history.


Robertson was only 24 years old when producing this series, and consequently, these photographs represent the intersections of intergenerational female experiences. This theme is especially present in a photograph that depicts a little girl peering through the glass of a pub window, looking at her elders, and perhaps symbolically, her future.

Childbirth, 1955

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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’. [7] 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.


The series depicts the birth process without censoring the undeniable pain of the experience. A close up, cropped to the face, depicts the woman’s face contorted in agony. She is shown mid-shout, her mouth ajar and brow furrowed. This is contrasted against studies of the woman peacefully sleeping, her arm languidly resting on her face. During the experience, Robertson recalled the woman noting: “It’s just hard work, you know…like labouring on the roads, but there you only take home a few shillings…I’m taking home a baby’. [8] The series concludes with the woman seeing her newborn, Robertson capturing her expression, a mix of pure joy and exhaustion.

Later life

As Grace Robertson admitted, she produced the story on childbirth without having yet experienced it herself. This would come later. In December 1955 she married Thurston Hopkins - a fellow Picture Post photographer - marking the start of a life-long, collaborative relationship.

The following year, she was commissioned to produce another ‘Mother’s Day Off’ for Life magazine. She subsequently shot several stories for them and was later approached with an offer to become a Life staff photographer, a role which would require Robertson to live in the US for three years. As Larry Burrows said to Robertson, ‘it is really very simple Grace… you’ve only got to choose between Life magazine and life.’ [9] As Robertson recalls, it confirmed that as a woman, ‘I can’t have my cake and eat it’. [10]

Nine months into her marriage, she chose life. Hopkins and Robertson had two children together and after the birth of her first child, Robertson turned away from professional photography, retraining as a primary school teacher.

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.” [11]

‘Battle of the Tabloids’ originally commissioned for the documentary film Picking Oakum, 1989 © Grace Robertson/The Grace Robertson | Thurston Hopkins Archive / Courtesy of Channel 4

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.

Reflecting on her career, Robertson commented:

“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." [12]

Grace Robertson on honeymoon, photographed by Thurston Hopkins, c.1955 © Thurston Hopkins/The Grace Robertson | Thurston Hopkins Archive.
Grace Robertson, photographed by Thurston Hopkins, 1999 © Thurston Hopkins/The Grace Robertson | Thurston Hopkins Archive.

Public program

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

Thursday 21st October 2021, 7pm

Online Event

Taking its title from the rejection slip Grace Robertson first received from the magazine, this talk will explore her contribution to Picture Post, and its representation of British women and children in particular. Presented by the curator of the Getty Images Hulton Archive, Melanie Llewellyn will also be sharing details on a new edit of Robertson’s unpublished material, as part of a project expanding the representation of Picture Post’s female photographers. Melanie Llewellyn will be introduced by curator Catlin Langford.

Find out more and book
here

© Elinor Carucci / Three generations, 2016

Elinor Carucci – 1986 till today

Monday 8th November 2021, 7pm

Online Event


In this talk, Elinor Carrucci will discuss different bodies of work, including editorial projects created in collaboration with magazines. Her talk will focus on her most recent book Midlife – a vivid chronicle of the passage through aging, family, illness, and intimacy. This period of life is universal to everyone, yet this narrative — in all its nuance — is strikingly absent from our cultural dialogue. Midlife invites us to witness and reflect on the experiences we all share contending with the challenges of life, love, and change. Elinor Carucci will be introduced by curator Helen Trompeteler.


Find out more and book here

Acknowledgements

Produced with the support of Getty Images Hulton Archive


Catlin Langford and Helen Trompeteler would like to thank the following individuals and organisations for their support of this online exhibition and associated public program:


Joanna Thurston-Hopkins, Melanie Llewellyn, Elinor Carucci, Michael Pritchard, Verna Jaffe, Claire Stone, Victoria & Albert Museum

FOOTNOTES

[1] Grace Robertson, Sunday Telegraph, 8 August 2010

[2] Grace Robertson, A Sympathetic Eye, (University of Brighton, 2002) p. 5

[3] Grace Robertson, Photojournalist of the 1950s (London: Virago, 1989) p. 8

[4] Ibid, p. 16

[5] Robertson, Sunday Telegraph, 8 August 2010

[6] Interview by Leo Benedictus, ‘Grace Robertson’s best shot’, 7 June 2007

[7] Grace Robertson, Oral History of British Photography, British Library

[8] Robertson, Photojournalist of the 1950s, p. 21

[9] Grace Robertson, Oral History of British Photography, British Library

[10] Ibid.

[11]Grace Robertson quoted in ‘Moving Pictures’, The Guardian, 19 September 1991

[12] Robertson, Photojournalist of the 1950s, p. 217