Wednesday 26 July 1995
Rodger was a great traveller. Most of his finest photographs were taken in remote parts of Africa, in the southern Sudan or in Kenya among the Masai tribesmen. He was not searching for the picturesque, nor hoping for hurried snapshots of the sensational. Wherever he went he took his time to become accepted, submerging himself in the local culture, looking upon primitive societies as noble survivals from an age when human beings lived in harmony with the natural world.
He had, he once said, "the aptitude for not appearing white when photographing among black Africans", and described his weeks among the Nubas as "the happiest of my life. I was much more at home with them than in any city in the world - even though we could only converse with signs and the few words of Arabic I knew.''
George Rodger was born in 1908 into a middle-class family of Scottish origin which had settled in Cheshire. "I left school at 17," he wrote, "I never passed an exam in my life - and after a spell working on a pig farm, went into the merchant navy and had been round the world twice before I ever saw London." In 1929 he went to the US, where he first became interested in photography, taking whatever jobs came along until 1936, when he returned to England and found his first photographic employment in a BBC studio.
When the war began he joined a Fleet Street agency until a picture essay of his on ''The Thames in Wartime'' was accepted by Life magazine, who took him on first as a freelance and later as war correspondent. His first war assignment - to go with the Free French to the Cameroons - was due to last six weeks. But it was two years before Rodger got back, having crossed the Sahara in a pick-up truck to attach himself to the Foreign Legion for the recapture of Syria, before moving on to the war in Burma, where he was forced to walk 600 kilometres over the mountains to escape the advancing Japanese.
Rodger's wartime experiences, which took in the D-Day assault, culminated in April 1945 in the ultimate horror of the opening up of Belsen, an experience which left a permanent mark.
Back in the US, he wrote two books, Desert Journey and Moon Rising, from the diaries he had kept. In 1947 Rodger left Life, joining up with Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and other international cameramen to launch the renowned Magnum agency. This was to be a co- operative, allowing freedom for its members to work in their own way and at their own pace. When each founder-member selected his or her own field of operation, Rodger chose Africa - to magical effect.
Rodger was a fine photographer with a complete mastery of his cameras and of darkroom work. But his greatest achievement was a human one - to have demonstrated through his pictures his complete acceptance of the brotherhood of man, and his conviction that the way of life of any people, however primitive, is the outcome of their surroundings, history, religion, and is therefore to be esteemed.
''Basically,'' he said, ''it's a matter of the respect and liking you feel for them, and which somehow they understand and feel for you, in return.''
Of the many exhibitions of his pictures, possibly the most important was that at the Photographers' Gallery in London, in autumn 1987. To coincide with this a book was published, George Rodger: Magnum Opus, which contains many of the finest photographs from his 50 years as a photojournalist.
When George Rodger photographed a mother and daughter waiting at Paddington Station to be evacuated from the London blitz of the Second World War, writes Val Williams, he produced a vignette of a nation in crisis.
The photograph, destined for the pages of the mass-circulation magazine Picture Post, was a meticulously detailed exercise in photojournalism; full of important detail, immediately accessible to its audience. Both mother and child appear distracted, confused by their uprooting from home and neighbourhood; silently watching the jumbled activity of the station platform, they connect neither with each other nor with the scene around them. With their bundled possessions, their anxious stares, their worn clothes, they look like refugees.
Behind them, the poster for a luxurious holiday hotel appears as an ironic comment on their situation as they wait for this unplanned journey to an unknown place.
But Rodger did not aim to sentimentalise or sensationalise his subjects; the photograph is understated and economical enough to allow us to make our own decisions about its meaning and its significance.
At its best, photojournalism makes use of the everyday to tell us something universal about the human condition. In his photograph of this little family, suddenly overwhelmed by the momentum of world events, Rodger constructed a memorial to the vulnerability and tenacity of the powerless. Though this photograph has become symbolic of a nation in distress, the mother and child remain real people with acute and personal concerns, engaging our attention, provoking our curiosity.
Photography, for all its impact, can only provide us with fragments of a bigger story. This photograph, made in an instant on a chilly morning on Paddington Station, leaves us to speculate on the wider implications of history, provides no answers, only vital clues.
George Rodger, photographer: born Hale, Cheshire 19 March 1908; served Merchant Navy 1926-29; machinist, wool-sorter, steel-rigger, fruit farmer, US 1929-36; photographic assistant, BBC 1936-38; freelance photographer, Blackstar photographic agency, London 1938-39; war correspondent, Life magazine (won 18 campaign medals) 1939-45; staff photographer, Life 1945- 47; founder member, Magnum photographic agency 1947; freelance photographer 1947-95; married 1942 Cicely Hussey-Freke (died 1949), 1952 Lois Witherspoon (two sons, one daughter); died Smarden, Kent 24 July 1995.
Sir Tom Hopkinson died 20 June 1990
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