‘Picture Stories’ Interview: Rob West

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Picture Stories takes its name both from the picture story format and from Picture Post, an acclaimed mid-20th century photojournalism magazine. The magazine ran from 1938 until 1957, and at its peak would sell 1.7 million UK copies every week.

Picture Post takes centre stage in the latest film by director Rob West, whose previous credits include the 2016 documentary Tales from the Two Puddings. We sat down with Rob to discuss Picture Post, its legacy, and how Picture Stories attempts to introduce the magazine’s work to a wider audience.

The Indiependent: It’s clear from your film that Picture Post is still held in very high regard by members of the photojournalism community. What do you think continues to impress today’s photographers about its approach?

Rob West: I suppose first and foremost it’s because it was very innovative for its time, innovative in terms of this country. Essentially what Picture Post founder Stefan Lorant did was to bring to this country a lot of techniques and understanding from other European countries, such as ideas around photography and around magazine layout, ideas about how to present a ‘picture story.’

I think for today’s photographers, it’s partly recognising how important the magazine was in that sense, but’s it’s also that today’s photographers have considerable recognition for some of the achievements of Picture Post’s key photographers. Kurt Hutton, Bert Hardy, Humphrey Spender, Grace Robertson… some of those key photographers who really were outstanding in their own right, and who continue to in many ways inspire today’s photographers—particularly what you might call documentary film and street photographers.

Though photojournalists are aware of it, contemporary movie audiences will likely not be familiar with Picture Post prior to viewing the documentary, having ceased publication some 63 years ago. What drew you to the magazine?

It ceased publication before my time as well, so in a way I was only aware of it through talking to other people who had known it as they grew up, and were affected by it. For a particular generation of people who grew up during the Second World War and shortly afterwards, it was a very very important publication. Important in terms of people’s appreciation and understanding of photography, but it was also important socially and politically.

It had a mass readership. Something like 5,000,000 people got to see Picture Post every week, so it had a huge impact. I’ve been aware of it dimly for a long time, and it just seemed to me surprising that more isn’t spoken about it these days. To some extent people’s awareness of Picture Post has receded with the mist of time, and it’s certainly true that younger generations probably haven’t heard of it.

Journalism has undergone seismic shifts in the six decades since Picture Post ceased publication. How do you think the paper’s influence continues to be felt in today’s media landscape?

I think it’s certainly influential indirectly in that many picture editors fall within the tradition of Picture Post, and either consciously or unconsciously are influenced by the ideas about how to present the pictures, how to select and group the pictures. The fact is the photo remains a key part of our media landscape, and if anything it’s become more and more important.

Instagram is interesting in the way it gives absolute primacy to the photo. So I think in an indirect and unconscious way it continues to have an impact on the way in which people think about photos and choose to lay them out. And more generally I suppose, influential in the way that certain photographers go about doing their work. Certain ideas around street photography, documentary photography and such, owe their origins to that earlier generation of photographers, even if people aren’t necessarily aware of it.

One of the most interesting stories featured in the film is that of Picture Post founder Stefan Lorant, who came to Britain as a Hungarian refugee. Despite building up a successful newspaper and patronising Winston Churchill, he was ultimately denied citizenship. Today, as then, immigration and the status of refugees remain an urgent social and political issue. Were you consciously drawing a parallel between the past and the present?

I was conscious that people would be aware of parallels. For me one of the surprises making this film—and I wasn’t fully aware of the history of Picture Post when I started on it—is that people tend to think of it as an archetypal British publication, but in fact it is the product and creation of European refugees from fascism.

There is a sad and slightly tragic story within all of that; that they created this amazing thing and then for one reason or another most of them had to lose contact with it. And of course there are lessons one can draw about the contribution of refugees over the ages.

When Picture Post editor Tom Hopkinson was forced to leave following the publication of an article about the treatment of prisoners of war from the Korean War, it seems to be the case that the paper lost its edge,.

That’s right. There’s a lot of debate about why this magazine is no longer with us given it was so successful. As with all these things there’s a whole series of factors, but undoubtedly part of that was it had lost some of its reason for being and lost its way. Furthermore, you had competition with television, and you have the competition of other publications, magazines and so on. So against that competition, a magazine that has lost its way is of course going to flounder.

But it was also a personal decision by the proprietor Edward Hulton, who for one reason or another decided to kill it. There was no necessity that he had to take that decision—he took it for whatever private reasons he had, but I’m sure part of it was financial. It might also be partly that he was himself Conservative [and Picture Post was a famously left-leaning publication].

With phones in everyone’s pocket, photography has taken a much greater prominence in all of our lives. In contrast to photography in the time of Picture Post, when taking pictures was an expensive luxury, millions of photos are being taken every day. Is this proliferation working in photojournalism’s favour, and what does the future holds for the medium that Picture Post pioneered?

It’s a very hard question to answer. I suppose one impact of the current plethora of photography is that with so much being produced every minute of every day, it’s very hard to see the wood for the trees, and see what photography is going to stand out in the future. How much is going to remain and be of interest, and where people are going to look for quality or a sense of images that rise above the crowd when remembering our age, remembering what life was like in 2021? Honestly I don’t know.

In a way that’s why for me it’s interesting to show people the film, because I’m interested in what people draw out of what it means to be a photographer these days.

Picture Stories will be released in select UK cinemas on 24 September.

Words by Alex Crisp


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