Thurston Hopkins was one of Britain’s greatest photojournalists and part of the golden age of reportage. Working for Picture Post he captured the humanity, spirit and social inequality and contradictions of life in 1950s Britain.
Many of his pieces dealt with issues that were close to the heart of ordinary working people, illustrating them with images of people like them. He was also a shrewd chronicler of high society at its most intimate, from debutantes to Hitchcock in the shadows. David Bailey remarked, “The 1950s were grey – the 1960s were black-and-white,” but that does the Picture Post photojournalists a disservice. “They brought texture, meaning and empathy to the grey lives of the British through the most difficult 20 years of the century.”
Born in south London in 1913, Godfrey Thurston Hopkins was the son of Sybil, a housewife, and Robert, a bank cashier who also wrote ghost stories, true crime tales and biographies of his near contemporaries Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells and Oscar Wilde. Godfrey dropped his first name as a child. Growing up, Thurston was influenced by Aubrey Beardsley and is credited with having drawn and later taken photographs, teaching himself, for some of his father’s books.
Educated at St Joseph’s Salesian, East Sussex, Hopkins went on to Montpelier College in Brighton before studying graphic illustration at Brighton College of Art. There a teacher advised him, “Watch those shadows, they give black-and-white illustration weight and balance where it is most needed.” He later acknowledged that this became “something of a leitmotif”, not just when he was making pen and ink drawings for provincial newspapers but also when he began using a camera.
Completing his studies, he worked for a publisher adding decorative frames to portraits of Edward VIII. When the king announced his abdication in December 1936 Hopkins lost his job. His employer, however, believed he would find it easier to earn a living from photography and Hopkins took the advice, joining the PhotoPress Agency and discovering that indeed, as he said, “the camera paid better than the brush”. His work with the agency was short-lived; he quickly became disillusioned with cut-throat Fleet Street and returned to Sussex where he set up a photography business.
The late 1930s had seen a large influx of refugees fleeing Fascist Europe; among them several pioneers of photojournalism including the Germans, Tim Gidal, Karl Hutton and Felix Mann, and the Hungarian, Stefan Lorant, who had worked on the groundbreaking magazines Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and Münchner Illustrierte Presse. They brought to London, in Gidal’s words, a new genre, the “unified photo report”, what we would call today a photo essay with writer and photographer working closely together on a story. This appealed to Hopkins, who firmly believed in the importance of a strong writer-photographer rapport: “I take the rather unpopular view, among photographers, that words and pictures need one another.”
Led by Lorant, these émigrés established Picture Post in 1938 and with it introduced a fresh international outlook, first-hand experience of the rise and spread of Nazism, and their new photographic genre. The magazine’s liberal, humanist, anti-Fascist and populist editorial stance captured the pulse of the nation, making it an immediate success, reaching 1.7 million sales a week within a few months, its unobtrusive style opening many doors.
In 1940 Hopkins joined the RAF Photographic Unit, working, among other projects, on reconnaissance photographs. While serving in Italy he acquired a German-made Leica camera. It was the first camera he had ever felt comfortable using, and it became his camera of choice for the rest of his career. Technology-averse, he described it as “The first camera I can recall handling without a certain feeling of distaste ... I loved the absence of the requirement for technical perfection.”
Demobbed, he hitch-hiked round Europe freelancing for newspapers and magazines, using his small format camera to capture man’s resilience to hardship after bloody war. He returned and worked briefly for Camera Press in London. But he wanted to join Picture Post – on wartime duty he had found copies “in every tent and service club overseas”.
He eventually joined in 1950 after reportedly turning up at the Picture Post offices with a dummy book of his photographs accompanied by text. He worked exclusively for Picture Post until it closed in 1957 following a gradual decline in readership and competition for advertising with commercial television.
Around the same time, another photographer, under the name of Dick Muir, submitted pictures to Picture Post and was offered work. Grace Robertson, daughter of the celebrated Scottish broadcaster and journalist Fyfe Robertson, had used a male pseudonym to get her work considered, as female photographers were almost unheard of, and certainly not viewed as serious. Hopkins and Robertson met in 1955, and despite her being 17 years his junior and almost a foot taller, the couple married.
Travelling on assignments from Africa to Australia, Hopkins received two British Press Pictures of the Year awards for his reportage. His signature features began with “The Cats of London” (1951) and closed with “Life in Liverpool” (1956), which was spiked by Picture Post’s owner, Edward Hulton, in deference to Liverpool’s city leaders, who protested at the depiction of poverty, misery and deprivation.
After Picture Post Hopkins launched a successful advertising photography studio in Chiswick, west London. He later turned to education, teaching photography at the Guildford School of Art, one of the country’s leading centres, under Ifor Thomas. In retirement he returned to painting, though this alternated with signings of his ’50s pictures; he grumbled over “losing another day’s painting” to supply the collections of the V&A, the Arts Council and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
One critic summed up Hopkins’ appeal: “It is perhaps Hopkins’ first, and last, love of fine art and illustration that sets him aside from many of his contemporaries. He saw the world as much through the sensibility of a brush as a lens.”
Thurston Hopkins, photographer and painter: born London 16 April 1913; married Grace Robertson (two children); died Seaford, Sussex 26 October 2014.Reuse content