The Journey of a Lifetime: Photographs by George Rodger

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The Independent Culture
GEORGE RODGER, unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, two of his fellow founders of the Magnum photo co-operative, had no idea of himself as either a photographic artist or a bright young spark courting danger. Born in Cheshire in 1908, he came to photo-journalism rather reluctantly, as a writer who couldn't trust anyone else to illustrate his words, and he never sought to make masterpieces. He has, however, occasionally achieved them through professional persistence, his warm feelings for humanity and an entirely natural and uncomplicated idea about what makes a good picture.

Although many of his famous images were made in Africa after the Second World War, his experiences during it, together with his photographs, constitute an epic, beginning on the cliffs of Dover awaiting the German invasion, recording the Blitz on London for American Life magazine, then embarking on a journey of 100,000 miles from French Cameroon to Burma, via Chad, Libya, the Sudan, Egypt, Abyssinia, Syria, Iraq and Iran. He pursued the war through Algeria, Sicily, Italy (where he first met Capa), Normandy, Paris, Belgium, Holland and Germany, ending with ecstatic celebrations in Denmark. At the Rhine crossing he heard Churchill telling the British troops 'You are now entering the dire sink of iniquity,' which he thought rather too orotund, but he soon found himself driving through a flat and undistinguished wooded landscape which suddenly became a scene of unimaginable horror: piles of rotting corpses of people who had been starved to death or murdered by the Nazis - 17,000 in the previous month alone, and those who couldn't absorb nutrition still dying at the rate of 300 a day. It was Belsen. He felt disgusted with himself for composing images of such human degradation, and the experience made him determined never to photograph war again.

After Magnum was founded in 1947 he went on assignment for them in Africa, but then decided to travel its length and breadth looking for his own stories. He covered 21,000 miles on his free-ranging trek from Johannesburg to Khartoum with his first wife, Cicely, during which he famously photographed the Nuba tribe in the Southern Sudan. He loved them instantly, not knowing that the enthusiasm for photographing them that his pictures provoked would later play a part in their oppression by the Islamic Sudanese government.

Rodger went on working into his seventies, though much of his later work went largely uncelebrated. Now 86, with the problems that presents but immensely spirited, he is enjoying the recognition his current exhibition is giving him, and looking forward to a major book of his work published next month.

After a V2 rocket attack on London in 1944. The most alarming of German weapons used on the capital, V2s struck without warning, often causing heavy casualties in the streets. Here Rodger caught the immediate aftermath of an explosion, with the dust still unsettled, a woman being dug out of her ruined house and a gutted tram. We are spared the sight of the inevitable corpses, but there is no photograph of the bombing of London more immediate and atmospheric. Opposite: Lyons teashop 'Nippies' boarding their windows up in the Strand, 1940; and people watching a daylight air-raid on London from the entrance to a shelter, 1940.

The Hausa of Chad demonstrating their horsemanship in 1940, quite early in Rodger's almost two-year journey. He was an expert horseman himself and in Syria would try, though without success, to photograph a cavalry charge from his own galloping steed. He also fancied himself a little in exotic desert costume of his own devising, though it's certain that he had none of T E Lawrence's hang-ups. Opposite: Rodger followed the Americans through Sicily and Italy, where he photographed an eruption of Vesuvius. He met Robert Capa at this time, who fired him with enthusiasm for the co-operative that would be Magnum, and below they are seen together at a villa near Naples.

Driving along in the March sunshine with victory and peace in sight, Rodger suddenly came across the Belsen concentration camp, the abomination which would affect him for life. He photographed it as dispassionately as he could,

including the murderous guards, male and female, while resolving never to photograph war again. He wrote: 'Under the pine trees the scattered dead were lying, not in their twos or threes or dozens, but in their thousands. The living tore ragged clothing from the corpses to build fires, over which they boiled pine needles and roots for soup. Little children rested their heads against the stinking corpses of their mothers, too nearly dead themselves to cry.' The little boy walking down the road on the opposite page was perhaps a new inmate. His name was Sieg Masdaag, a Dutch Jew, and he was identified by an aunt who saw the photograph in Life magazine and retrieved him from the Red Cross. The picture below shows Rodger with Masdaag in 1981, over 25 years later. He was happily settled in Amsterdam and just wanted to forget the terrible business.

Humanity and inhumanity: the photographic journey of George Rodger' is published by Phaidon on 18 August; an exhibition of his pictures is at the Royal Photographic Society, Bath, until 10 October. His full retrospective opens at the Barbican next May.

(Photographs omitted)

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