THE HISTORY of film and photojournalism is made up not just of the great and the glamorous. Photographers like Derrick Knight, whose careers took them from the battlefields of the Second World War to the detailed workings of British industry and then into the complex and fast-moving world of news agencies, remain the unsung heroes of an incomplete history.
Knight's media career began in the heady days of documentary film-making in the 1930s. His experience as a very young man, working with John Grierson's legendary GPO Film Unit, gave him a deep respect for the art and craft of black- and-white documentary.
When the Second World War began, Knight continued to work in movie and stills photography with the Army Film Unit. He worked in the North African desert, on the Normandy landings, and then covered the liberation of Europe.
The ever-advancing technology of news photography, as well as its history, formed a deep fascination for Knight. He understood the precariousness of the freelance photographer's life, subject as it is to changes within publishing, to editorial whim, fashion and the pressure of events. Writing in the book Scoop, Scandal and Strife (1971), Knight reflected on the changes in news photography brought about by the Second World War:
The war had a remarkable effect on many Fleet Street photographers, some of whom were often insular in their outlook. They became involved with press photographers and film cameramen from every part of the world. This greatly widened their experience and, for many, improved their technique considerably.
With the end of the war, photographers were demobilised and returned to a greatly changed and impoverished Fleet Street - smaller newspapers - and strict rationing of photographic materials and equipment made life very difficult. The power of the picture editor had been greatly reduced due to lack of picture space during the war years, and his former influence was never to be regained.
Lack of opportunities in both film-making and documentary caused Knight to change course in the post-war years. He took a job with the Shell Film Unit, and attempted to transform public relations into photojournalism. Writing in the Royal Photographic Journal in 1960, he noted that:
Our photographers can be called photojournalists. Shell photographers . . . script or visualise their own pictures, undertake the coverage, process and contact the films, then produce a head-story and factual caption for each picture.
Knight joined the staff of Reuters in the early Sixties, but found little satisfaction in an industry unwilling to accept the changes which accelerating technology would bring. In 1971, he wrote prophetically of the coming of 'the all-electronic computerised newspaper' where 'the machine is bound to supersede the technician'. After his retirement, Knight continued to fight the photographer's cause, with his involvement in the Institute of British Photographers and as an active member of the Council of the Royal Photographic Society.
No John Grierson or Robert Capa, Derrick Knight was not destined to become one of the media's stars - but his contribution to photography, film and to the industry which surrounds them is more than worthy of remembrance.Reuse content