Bert Hardy Talk

Years ago I remember going to hear Bert Hardy  talking about his own work at the Photographers’ Gallery. It was an entertaining evening, but a rather predictable one, as by that time he had a rather carefully worked out script that he followed almost word for word about his life and work on every occasion. It was good to go and see him and watch him perform, but there was little if anything new in the actual content.

The selection of pictures too was predictable. Not least because back in the “good old days“, the “golden years of photojournalism“, photographers worked for hire and the publication owned the pictures, which in the case of Picture Post, disappeared into the Hulton empire. Getty, not am organisation I usually have much praise for, deserve credit for having preserved material that might otherwise have been lost from the Hulton Archives.

And on November 10th, 2009,  Graham Harrison is giving a talk, The Unseen Bert Hardy, showing images recently rediscovered in that Picture Post collection at the Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW,  at 7:00pm. The PG also has a nice little selection of his images for sale on line, although the thumbnails are a little misleading*. Harrison, whose Photo Histories site I’ve mentioned before and should visit more often (don’t go there unless you have a lot of time to spare!), was able to look through hundreds of original Picture Post contact sheets and find many Hardy pictures and stories that were never used.

There is a taste of what is in store in Doorstepping a city: how Bert Hardy captured life in Barcelona during the Franco dictatorship on Photo Histories. Spain was under the powerful thumb of Franco’s fascist dictatorship and times were tense as a general strike was taking place in Barcelona as Hardy arrived. Some of his pictures were published together with a story by James Cameron in ‘Barcelona: city in ferment‘ on April 15, 1951, but the others have just sat in the archive until now.

Although Hardy had got into photography with a Leica, in Spain he was using a square medium format camera, presumably a Rollei or Rolleiflex*. This gave the distinct advantage in tense situations of working with a camera held at waist-level with a quiet shutter. One disadvantage was its fixed standard lens, but this was an age where the publishing climate didn’t expect the kind of close intrusion and ‘big close ups’ we take for granted in the press today.  Much of the time he was on the street the camera was probably largely hidden in the folds of his coat. It must also have helped that people generally were much less aware of cameras and their possibilities than today, although some of his subjects have clearly realised they are being photographed, most seem to have remained unaware of the photographer.

Cameras then were simpler beasts, and although they lacked the automatic functions that we now take for granted (but curse when they let us down)  experienced photographers could set the aperture and shutter speed they would need without having to look at the camera (and without of course the help of a light meter.)

Focus with medium format might need some attention, but experienced photographers  became precise judges of distance, in more active kinds of work preferring to set focus by scale rather than relying on the much slower process of viewing the image on the viewing screen.  For many situations they would focus in advance on a particular distance – perhaps 10 ft – and then move or wait to be at exactly that distance when taking the picture.  (This is something street photographers still do, even with modern cameras that may have autofocus, though generally using closer distances and wider lenses with greater depth of field to give a zone of focus ; turning off autofocus – and autoexposure – cuts the lag between pressing the release and the picture being taken.)

Framing with the larger negative was also less of an issue, although some of the contacts on the slide show suggest that at times Hardy did it with great care. In general photographers were advised to leave plenty of space around the subject to allow for cropping that was almost always applied by editors both to fit images into the page layout but also as a way of showing they were doing their job (sometimes even when it meant ruining the pictures.)   Only two of his eight images printed in the Barcelona story are used in the square format they were taken, although that figure is probably higher than average and perhaps reflects the higher regard for images by Picture Post than most other publications.

* On the PG site, all the thumbnails are square but many of the images aren’t, having been taken on 35mm. Presumably apart from his Blackpool girls on the promenade rails, taken with a Box Brownie, the remaining square format images were largely made with a Rollei.

Quite incidentally in this set of pictures I notice the Spanish dancer in his 1954 image complete with leering British sailors in a Gibraltar bar is wearing pants under her swirling skirts, while I was embarrassed to find from some of the pictures that the flamenco dancer I photographed in London a few years ago wasn’t. Only slightly embarrassed, but I did choose not to publish the images that had revealed more to a fast shutter speed than was clearly apparent to the naked eye.

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