History contains all kinds of nooks and crannies, and this life-of-print takes us down the byways of one in particular.
I wondered why I had never heard of photojournalism magazine Picture Post, the subject of Rob West’s documentary film Picture Stories. And there’s a good reason for any gateway ignorance—the paper ceased publication some 63 years ago. It ran from 1938 to 1957, at one point during the Second World War commanding a circulation of almost 2,000,000 per week. During those years it sought to capture the images of Britain that newspapers typically shy away from, the images the public wouldn’t normally see, of ordinary people, of impoverished working class communities, far from the showbiz razzmatazz that still today dominates our column inches.
Barrelling straight in with a swinging intro, West makes full use of the documentary filmmaking toolbox to tell this magazine’s story, perhaps too much. Picture Stories variously includes interviews, brief cinematic reconstructions, caption cards, real and voice-acted narration, as well as extensive use of the Post’s photographic archives. It’s not confusing—the lines between non-fiction and adaptation are clear—but it is busy, and the editing between all of these different pieces occasionally goes awry.
The first half develops a narrative about the magazine’s golden years, its anti-fascist credentials and the Eastern European immigrants who would give life to it. These include photographer Kurt Hutton and his 1939 tour of Wigan, dubbed “The Wigan of George Orwell” with the intention of visualizing the author’s memoir of two years earlier, The Road to Wigan Pier. Most interesting though is Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian who was imprisoned in Germany during the earliest weeks of Adolf Hitler’s reign. Once released, he made his way to Britain, where he founded Picture Post and imbued it with his unfamiliar brand of politically-conscious photographic journalism. His story however has a humbling end for those who lionize Britain’s liberal infallibility. Despite being on good terms with Winston Churchill, when war broke out, Lorant was denied British citizenship, forcing him to settle in America and leave the Post behind.
That’s the first half. But despite running at only 73-minutes, the second runs out of steam. There’s no narrative through-line and what’s left is by extension cobbled together. In a roundabout way that mirrors the decline of the publication. Once editor Tom Hopkinson was booted by Conservative owner Sir Edward Hulton over a story about the mistreatment of Korean War prisoners, the journalism lost its edge and Picture Post lost its readership. Today the paper’s immense archive has been digitized for posterity, and it’s that library of photographs which provide the essence of the title’s “stories”—in effect an extended montage of human beings captured in time. With so much projecting into the past, and with a narrative structured around interviews with individuals who hold great affection for the paper, there’s an inevitable tendency towards nostalgia. Indeed, the actors narrating the words of deceased Post employees play up this vein of romanticism. It’s not ideal, but one can understand why such a bias permeates the documentary’s own editorial position.
Undoubtedly a labour of love, Picture Stories serves as an initiation into a fragment of Britain’s journalistic pedigree that few will be familiar with, and provides a refreshing window into a familiar yet alien past. As esoteric documentary films go however, it lacks the import required to be more than just a curio for the probing observer.
Words by Alex Crisp
UK screenings of ‘Picture Stories’ will take place from 15th September and will be available on Digital Download from 30th September.
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