Obituary: Stefan Lorant
Monday 17 November 1997
Stefan Lorant was the "godfather" of photo-journalism. He expressed ideas initially as pictures on the silent screen and then as pictures on the page. Picture Post, which he created, was one of the design icons of the century.
Before the first issue on 1 October 1938, a number of other pictorial publications, like Illustrated London News, the Sphere, the Tatler, the Sketch, and the Bystander were already on the news-stands, all catering to the upper classes. Picture Post appealed to the common man. Within two years Lorant brought its circulation to 1.7 million, with an estimated readership of half the adult population of Britain.
His success was due to his gift for recognising the value of pictures and presenting them in a simple and logical manner. He also had an acute political awareness of developments within a Europe in turmoil. Picture Post came out on the side of humanity, on the side of decency, on the side of common sense. As editor Lorant had complete control of the creative process, from balanced choice of subject matter to a total integration of text and illustration.
He was born Lrnt Istvn in Budapest in 1901, and came from a well-to- do middle class family. His father, as a young man, worked in newspapers and later became manager of Erdelyi, the Budapest photographic studio used by the royal family and the upper classes. Lorant's teenage years were set against a background of political extremes and unrest, which had a profound effect on him. In 1919, aged 18, he graduated from the Academy of Economics and left Budapest, not prepared to live under the Fascist dictatorship of Admiral Horthy.
Without a visa to enter Germany he was caught on the Czechoslovakian border town of Bodenbach on the Elbe. Helped by a young contributer to the local Bodenback newspaper - who he only later recognised as Franz Kafka - he obtained employment across the river in Tetschen as first violinist in a silent movie house. After six months he had saved some money, obtained a border pass into Germany and bought a rail ticket to Berlin.
It was mid March 1920 and his arrival coincided with the first day of the Kapp Putsch. Lorant took the next train to Vienna. From then until the spring of 1925 he worked in the emerging silent movie industry first in Austria and then in Germany. He recalled, "At first I was a stills photographer doing pictures for publicity, then I became a cameraman, a scriptwriter, and finally a director - all within a single year." His first film, Mozart's Leben, Lieben und Leiden ("Mozart's life, loves and suffering"), established him as one of Europe's leading cameramen. He gave Marlene Dietrich her first film test and turned her down, and began his long friendship with Greta Garbo .
By 1925, in Vienna and Berlin he had made 14 films, some of which he wrote, directed and photographed. He had learned to tell stories through pictures on a screen. Now he was to use that experience to tell stories with pictures on a page.
In 1925, having mastered German, Lorant began writing articles for various Berlin newspapers including the Berliner Zeitung am Mittag (BZ) and Morgenpost. Over the next 13 years he was to successfully edit eight pictorial publications: Das Magazin (1925), Ufa Magazin (1926), Bilder Courier (1927-28), Munchner Illustrierte Presse (1928-33) in Germany; the Pesti Napl magazine (1933- 34) in Hungary; Weekly Illustrated (1934), Lilliput (1937-40) and Picture Post (1938-40) in England.
He had an excellent eye for a photograph and published work by emerging photojournalists including Brassai, Andre Kertesz, Martin Munkcsi, Dr Erich Salomon - who all became close friends. As editor of Munchner Illustrierte Presse, a large pictorial weekly, he encountered Hitler, and recalled with disgust "his clammy, soft hands". Hitler became Chancellor at the end of January 1933; on 9 March 1933 the Nazi troops marched into Munich and five days later Lorant was placed under protective custody. He was kept in prison for six and a half months, never charged with any crime, never taken to court and never told why he was imprisoned. After 196 days he was released and immediately left Germany for Budapest.
It was the publisher of the Budapest morning newspaper the Pesti Napl who had kept Lorant's case alive while he was in prison. On his release the same editor invited him to create and edit the paper's new Sunday pictorial magazine. The large format, 11 1/4 x 16 inches, allowed him to present pictures in a way that would engage the reader.
During his time as editor from December 1933 to March 1934 he was able to recover from his prison experiences and to write his diary, which was published in England in 1934 as I was Hitler's Prisoner (it sold more than a million copies). The experience also provided him with the blueprint for what was to become the first popular pictorial magazine in England. Within a week of his arrival in England, he was hired by Odhams Press to start Weekly Illustrated, selling for 2d.
In Weekly Illustrated and later in Picture Post Lorant's layouts function best as double-page spreads, with all the elements of individual photographs, text and captions balanced and brought together. There are exceptions: major photo essays may start on a right-hand page, a single one-page essay may fit on a left-hand page. Lorant achieved this by placing advertising at the front or towards the back of the magazine.
It was his ability to tell stories with pictures rather than words that sold the magazine. He explained: "I tried to use pictures as a composer uses notes, I tried to compose a story in photographs."
Lilliput was pocket-sized, racy, irreverently illustrated, and one of the most popular magazines of the Thirties and Forties. The first issue appeared in July 1937, two years to the month after the first Penguin paperback and at the same price of 6d. Its articles and short stories were illustrated by photographers like Bill Brandt; Lorant was also the only person prepared to publish John Heartfield's political montages.
Lilliput was unique in Lorant's repertoire in that it was the only magazine he owned, albeit in part, through his company Pocket Publications. The original directors of the company were Lorant and Alison Blair; from the third issue, they were joined by Sydney Jacobson. In 1938 the magazine was sold to Hulton Press who became the publisher of Picture Post and Lorant continued to edit both magazines while he remained in England.
Winston Churchill was still in the political wilderness when Lorant, an admirer of his, first met him early in 1939. They had lunch at Chartwell, and Lorant brought Kurt Hutton with him to take photographs. Churchill's exposure as a writer in Picture Post was instrumental in returning him to the forefront of public life.
Lorant described how at lunch, to his horror, Churchill shovelled in a whole bowl of steak and kidney pie at the same time as sipping brandy, smoking a cigar and eating chocolate. Throughout lunch he didn't speak a word, instead musing on a speech. "It must have been half an hour though it seemed to me like days. He was in a world of his own."
In July 1940 Lorant left England. The impounding of his bicycle followed by the confiscation of his car had been the first indignities, and he had never received English citizenship. As an enemy alien he was not allowed to live in the countryside so had moved to the Savoy Hotel in London, to be within walking distance of the office. Every Thursday he had to report and line up with other "enemy aliens" in the basement of Bow Street Police Station. He was the editor of the largest English magazine and the Nazi newspapers called him Germany's enemy No 1. His concern was that if Germany were to invade England he would be among the first to be killed. On his departure, his place in the editorial chair of Lilliput and Picture Post was taken over by Tom Hopkinson, previously his assistant on both Weekly Illustrated and Picture Post.
In America from 1940, Lorant lived primarily as an author. A year after his arrival, his pictorial biography on Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln, His Life in Photographs) was published. Other visual narratives on American historical subjects followed: The New World in 1946; The Presidency in 1951; biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1950 and Theodore Roosevelt nine years later; The Glorious Burden in 1968, a history of American presidential elections from Washington to Carter; Pittsburgh, the Story of an American City in 1964; and Sieg Heil!, an illustrated history of Germany from Bismarck to Hitler in 1974.
In all, Lorant wrote 20 books including major revisions of his works. The revisions were vitally important to him. Talking about his Lincoln books, which have gone into four different revised and enlarged editions and sold over 145,000 copies, he stated that "When I finish a book, I really begin to work on it and improve it".
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