PHOTOGRAPHY / Night pictures

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The Independent Culture
THIS classic image, taken by Thurston Hopkins in 1953, has resurfaced in an exhibition of Hopkins's night pictures at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery. It was first published in Picture Post, as part of a story by the screenwriter Edgar Wallace, and has a mood, an atmosphere and a quality of light that photographers hanker after to this day.

Hopkins began his career in the 1930s as a graphic artist. A Fleet Street photo agency commissioned him to illustrate heraldic settings for an exclusive set of photos of Edward VIII. Then along came Mrs Simpson and Hopkins was out of a job. Instead of letting him go, his employer slapped a plate camera into Hopkins's hands, gave him a 30-minute course in how to operate it, and sent the sensitive young man into the streets to work alongside the toughest press-men around. At times he was the object of their derision, judging the exposure time by pacing out the distance from the subject back to his stake-out in the crowd. Little did they know the tyro was to become a master of his craft.

A few months and several hundred glass plates later, Hopkins's photographs were starting to be published on a regular basis. It was around this time that he was introduced to night photography, after being asked to capture the dazzling banners of neon lettering above the West End cinemas. He would set up his bulky camera and tripod on the pavement and settle in for the interminable exposures. It wasn't the bright lights outside the cinemas which influenced him, but the films being shown inside; especially French and American films noirs of the Thirties and Forties. If the opportunity to become a cinematographer had presented itself, Hopkins says he would have taken it.

It didn't, and at the outbreak of war Hopkins packed in his job in Fleet Street, spending the next five years as a RAF photographer. After being demobbed, he set his sights on becoming a proper photojournalist. Already turned away once by the renowned Picture Post magazine with the words 'you'll never make it', Hopkins tried again. This time he landed the job that would put him in the front rank of British photojournalists.

Most of the night pictures shown in the current exhibition were originally published in Picture Post, where he worked from 1946 to 1957. His assignments often took him abroad for weeks on end, but even at the end of a long day, he would indulge his love of shooting at night. He was working at a time when smaller 35mm cameras were revolutionising photography, enabling the snappers to work unobserved: 'With a miniature camera people on the street or at social gatherings didn't really take any notice of us, we could do more or less what we liked. To them a photographer was someone with a big press camera.'

A serious photojournalist, Hopkins admits not all his pictures were 'pure'. Set-up jobs were essential at times, and the man on the kerb was one of them. Cast, directed and shot by Hopkins, it was as close as the cinematographer manque ever got to making a film. (Zelda Cheatle Gallery, WC2, 071-836 0506, to 7 May.)

(Photograph omitted)