The golden age of photojournalism is recalled in George Rodger exhibition

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The Independent Culture

George Rodger, one of the co-founders of the Magnum picture agency whose launch in 1947 heralded a golden age of photojournalism, is to be celebrated in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North.

Rodger was at the vanguard of a new breed of photojournalists and helped set up the agency to document the biggest news stories in picture format. The group's stated aim was to create "a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on around the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually".

To celebrate the centenary of Rodger's birth, the museum, in Manchester, is to present a major exhibition of his wartime work, a few miles from his birthplace in Cheshire. "Contact: George Rodger's War Photographs", which opens next month, showcases 100 works by the self-taught press photographer.

The images convey Rodger's compassion for the victims of war while also giving a sense of war's absurdity. One picture shows a group of people at the entrance of a public shelter watching enemy planes over London, with some pointing their walking sticks at the sky in wonder.

Rodger had been travelling the world to capture scenes of war through the lens of his Leica IIIa camera since the start of the Second World War. He shot everything from war graves in the Egyptian desert and wounded soldiers in Burma, to London in the Blitz and De Gaulle's celebration parade in Paris.

As a photographer for Life magazine, he travelled to most major war zones, photographing what he saw for an American audience. Starting in 1930s London, his pictures record his growing horror at conflict.

In 1945, he became the first photographer to enter the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. The widely circulated images of its emaciated survivors and piles of dead bodies inspired public anguish when they were published in Life, illustrating the realities of death camps to the masses for the first time in picture form.

When Rodger set up the Magnum agency two years later with some of the most remarkable war photographers of his time, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David "Chim" Seymour, he helped to nurture a collective of photographers who would make their pioneering work into an art form.

The exhibition documents the emotional effects of war on Rodger who, for years, had witnessed the most extreme of human events. He eventually tried to escape them after 1945 he was so scarred by what he had seen, particularly at Bergen-Belsen, that he abandoned war photography.

However, he soon returned to the medium, travelling to post-war Africa and the Middle East which were still in a state of relative crisis. His coverage of Palestinian refugees and the Mau Mau in Kenya has since been regarded as just as poignant and powerful as the images he caught of the London Blitz.

The featured works, displayed as prints, lightboxes, projections and banners, will be supplemented by interviews, wartime publications and personal objects lent by Rodger's family including his tin hat, and his Kodak vest pocket camera.