James Jarche was a pioneer of modern news photography: a tireless hack with an uncanny way of being in the right place at the right time. Colin Jacobson considers his neglected legacy
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The Independent Culture
PRESS PHOTOGRAPHERS are not by nature shy or introspective, and James Jarche - one the first of the breed - certainly wasn't. In his day, he was something of a celebrity. Yet although some of the pictures he took remain vaguely familiar - Winston Churchill at the Sydney Street siege, or a policeman chasing naked urchins in Hyde Park - he himself is largely forgotten.

This is curious, for there was much in Jarche's life that was memorable. He was born in 1891, to French immigrant parents, in Rotherhithe, among the docks of east London. His father was himself a professional photographer, who spent much of his time taking pictures for the police of corpses fished from the river or seamen discovered near the wharves with their throats cut. By the time he was seven, Jarche was assisting him.

He was also throwing himself with great gusto into life in this tough, volatile environment. Encouraged by the local stevedores, he eventually became a talented wrestler. At the age of 18 he was World Amateur Middleweight Champion. He also developed a skill as a ventriloquist, mimic and magician - his party piece was doing imitations in German, French, Italian and Spanish, without knowing a word of any of them.

But the photography he had learnt from his father offered the greatest potential to satisfy his natural curiosity, and the expansion of the Edwardian "ha'penny newspapers" drew him towards journalism. In 1909, he submitted a photograph to the Mirror, and it was published. In 1910, working for a picture agency, he waited for two days and nights in a damp field near Dover to photograph the aviator Bleriot completing his epic cross-Channel flight. His career really took off in 1912 when he joined the Daily Sketch, where he stayed as a staff photographer until 1929. Subsequently, he worked for over 20 years for Odhams Press, both for the Daily Herald and, later on, for the magazine Weekly Illustrated (later Illustrated). He ended his career at the Daily Mail, retiring in 1959.

Most newspaper picture departments keep day-books which record every story a photographer has covered. Jarche's entries in the Daily Herald archives give a dizzying sense of his energy - and a bird's-eye view of early-20th-century history. Dipping in at random, we find that his camera looked at the manufacture of penicillin, learning to type, taking X-rays at St Bartholomew's Hospital, making fireworks, electrical demonstrations, developing the jet engine, dancing the can-can, digging for coal, unemployment at Govan shipyards, life in Hyde Park, copper-works in Swansea, beauty contests at the seaside, chemical laboratories, motor-racing, expanding the London Underground, ramblers in the countryside, Roman pageants, Kipper Girls in Scotland and Father Christmas at Selfridges. Add to this the fashion, the news stories - Amy Johnson and her airplane, King George V's coronation, the launching of the Queen Elizabeth liner - and the hundreds of celebrity portraits, and you begin to get an idea of what a prolific career he had, and of why his work is significant: if not as photography, then as history.

Most press pictures at that time were arranged rather than caught in a candid manner, because camera equipment was so cumbersome, and Jarche rarely veered from that tradition. Indeed, much of his work on the Herald had a relentless jollity to it. One of his most surprising and funny pictures shows sound-effects men at work backstage at a theatre, but even this, one suspects, was set up to describe the humour of the idea rather than the innate visual comedy of the situation. Even his more socially-concerned images, such as that of a group of unemployed workers on Clydeside, have the feel of posed, preconceived illustrations rather than observed reportage. But sometimes he had no choice but to abandon this kind of intervention - when photo-graphing Winston Churchill at the Sydney Street siege, for instance, or Crippen and Ethel le Neve at the time of their trial, or King Edward VIII at a steelworks in Wales. Interestingly, these are among his best-remembered images.

When Jarche joined the Weekly Illustrated in 1934, he began to be influenced by a talented group of refugee photographers from Nazi Germany, foremost among whom was Stefan Lorant, later editor of Lilliput and Picture Post. Jarche found himself working with photographers such as Felix H Man and Kurt Hutton, who had helped to pioneer the concept of the photographic essay in German magazines, using the lightweight (and silent) Leica camera. Lorant and his proteges had turned upside-down the notion that photography's role was merely to illustrate the text; they developed a style in which the pictures themselves told stories, and the arrangement of images and text was crucial to the meaning of the journalism.

With characteristic enthusiasm, Jarche entered into the spirit of the thing, darting around assignments with a miniature Leica, quite enjoying the derision of some of his more traditional ex-buddies. The last laugh was his, for it was in this period that he produced some of his best journalistic work. This included stories on the Clydeside workers who built the Queen Mary; on unemployment in Jarrow, and the Duke and Duchess of York's visit there; and, in 1934, on the Welsh coalminers, when reputedly he was the first person to use a flashbulb underground (clearly a testament to his powers of persuasion when one imagines the miners' trepidation).

Under Lorant's gaze, Jarche seems to have thrown off his tendency to photographic showmanship, resisting his urge to set up or control events and, instead, just gets on with it. The results were beneficial - yet Lorant did not include Jarche in his team of talented photojournalists at Picture Post magazine, which was launched in 1938. Perhaps Lorant recognised that, for all his experience, Jarche was not really a visual storyteller, but a one-picture man.

By and large, Jarche played safe in his work. He was at ease with the world, and did an extraordinary range of press work, but he seldom challenged the status quo. His portraits of the rich and famous veered on cheesy, and were never challenging; clearly, his subjects liked him and cooperated with him, but charm is not always the best recipe for a telling picture. We remember him as a photojournalist rather than as a photographer.

Jarche took up his trade in an era when, according to the eminent journalist Hannen Swaffer, "the press photographer was regarded as an animal almost beneath contempt. Where he had come from nobody knew." He died at a time when the colour supplements were establishing themselves in the national consciousness, when a newer breed of backstreet boys, such as David Bailey and Don McCullin, were coming to the fore with an altogether more abrasive and incisive approach. He was very much a child of his time, curious about everything but never quite throwing off the shackles of a kind of press photography which expected direct, simple and recognisable, visual messages that made the reader feel comfortable.

Ultimately, Jarche should be seen as the consummate professional, a photographer who developed his own method of working when there were few available guidelines, someone who could turn his eye to any subject and produce a successful picture for the page.

One anecdote serves him well. When photographers were banned from a high- level summit meeting between Lloyd George, Foch and Briand, the resourceful Jarche managed to gatecrash the event through the back garden. He approached the leaders, whereupon Foch pointed his stick at him like a rifle, shouting, "Voila la presse!" Jarche managed to take a few frames. This was a triple whammy; he outwitted the spin-doctors of the day, his photograph was splashed over the front page of the Sketch, and the French government made a multiple- print order. Not bad for a lad from Rotherhithe.

Colin Jacobson is senior research fellow at Cardiff University and editor of 'Reportage' magazine.