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Monday, May 09, 2016

Perry's Picture Post part 1

Much has been written of that fine band of illustrators who supplied stunning creations for a wide range of periodicals of half-a-century ago, but little has been said about the photographs used in those same magazines. Who had captured those images, and what did the photographer have to do once he’d released the camera’s shutter mechanism. How had it come about that the likes of Eagle and Girl were blessed with having this choice of pictures anyway?

The year is 1962...

Imagine, if you will, that you are 23 years old – something far easier for some than for others! – and that you work in an office alongside three girls all of whom are of a similar age, plus or minus a year or two. You are a designer with illustrative skills, and you sit at a desk which has its left side against the outside wall; a large picture window (its windowsill is only a foot or so above, which lets the light stream in) allows you to see across Red Lion Court to where a newly-erected multi-story office block is preventing you from seeing Fetter Lane, at the top end of which sits the enormous Daily Mirror building.

Within earshot, a certain female is muttering away over something she holds in her hands.

With her own desk butting onto the front of yours, 24-year-old (or maybe she was 25) Chief-Sub-Editor of  Girl Shirley Dean scrutinises the 10” x 8” black and white photograph she clutches in her hands, at the same time saying: “This is more or less what Sally wants, but it’s a pity that the two school-children are boys and not girls.”

She passes the 10” x 8” over to you. After a moment or two, you say: “If I crop it down, I’ll be able to get rid of all those other lads in the background. Apart from changing the bikes’ crossbars, and lengthening their hair; changing the long trousers for skirts and adding some shapely legs* plus a dainty white sock or two, it shouldn’t be too difficult. I don’t have much else on at the moment anyway, so why don’t I give it a bash?”

When David Slinn miraculously brought forth a scan of the page I was looking for, I noticed that the early '60s pop singer Helen Shapiro had been mentioned. So before I proceed further on this tale, I feel compelled to tell you all of my very first “blooper” while working on Girl.

I had been given a colour transparency of Helen Shapiro that was destined to go onto that week’s front cover, and in my wisdom, I had flopped the picture over from left to right as she had looked better facing towards the right rather than to the left. What I hadn’t taken into account was the ring she had been wearing on her right hand. In the flopping over, her right hand now became her left, and weeks later when the issue hit the newsstands, dozens of letters came in from readers asking if Shapiro was now married.

So how come Shirley Dean had a 10” x 8” black and white photograph of two schoolboys sitting astride their bicycles in the first place anyway?

I had been transferred from the art department by Art Editor John Jackson some weeks earlier to work alongside Shirley, Ann Littlefield and Linda Wheway, where, it transpired, every ten-to-fourteen days or so, a well-dressed man in his thirties would call in. He was of medium height; not fat as such but was certainly a ‘heavy’ man; he had a round face that was edging towards a ruddy complexion and, although they were piercing, he had rather small button eyes. His “straight-as-a-die” hair might well have once been a brighter red, but now it was smarmed down on all sides and slick against his skull.

On opening his brief-case, he would withdraw a bundle of perhaps 200 10” x 8” black and white stills, and while Shirley thumbed her way through this pile, the man made himself at home by perching on a free corner of Anne’s desk and lighting up a cheroot that he extracted from the small tin he had withdrawn from his waistcoat pocket. He was Theodore “Will” Wilson, a representative from Syndication International.

To explain Syndication International, I need to start off by saying that the Daily Mirror newspaper had been founded way, way back in 1903. For well over a hundred years, not only has the Daily Mirror been supporting a wide-range of staff reporters, writers and columnists (the likes of Marjory Proops, the UK’s best-known agony aunt who penned the column Dear Marje), but also a whole host of photographers – many of whom had frequented football fields up and down the country on chilly wintry Saturday afternoons. Over a seven day period, the number of photographs captured could well have run into the thousands, and they all had to be indexed, filed and stored away somewhere.

Hence the creation of Syndication International, where all these photographs, together with any artwork, cartoons the Daily Mirror generated, everything from Reg Smyth’s “Andy Capp” cartoons to graphics for special features, could be stored systematically. They also handled reprint rights, whereby anything handled by the company could be re-used for a relatively small fee, dependant on the size that the image was being published, but usually, just one or two pounds.

Other daily papers such as the Mail and the Express must have also had their own stock-pile of art and pictures, although I have to admit that I'm not aware of any similar service to that set-up by the Daily Mirror. However, having said that, the most famous collection of pictures was perhaps the Hulton / Radio Times Picture Library. These were photographs collected during the time that Picture Post – a photo-journalistic magazine published from 1938 until competition from television (which offered moving news pictures with sound) forced it to close in 1957.

Picture Post had been one of Lord Edward Hulton’s most brilliant money-spinners, selling 1,700,000 copies each week – increasing to almost two million in December 1943. During it’s nineteen-year run, it had been a magnet for thousands upon thousands of images taken around the globe by the likes of Bert Hardy, Kurt Hutton, Felix Man and Leonard McCombe.

As the photographic archive of Picture Post expanded through the Second World War, it became clear that its vast collection of photographs and negatives, both published and unpublished, were an important historical documentary resource, and in 1945, Sir Edward Hulton set up the Hulton Press Library as a semi-independent operation. He commissioned Charles Gibbs-Smith of the Victoria and Albert Museum to catalogue the entire archive using a system of keywords and classifications. The Gibbs-Smith system was the world’s first indexing system for pictures, and it was eventually adopted by the Victoria and Albert and parts of the British Museum collections.

During the 1950s and before television had taken its fatal toll on Picture Post, Jessie Starke, Margaret Puckeridge and Marguerite Mincher had continued to classify and meticulously file away all in-coming 10” x 8” prints into folders, which in turn were stored in dozens upon dozens of four-drawer battleship-grey filing cabinets.

When Picture Post finally folded in 1957, these three ladies were taken on by Marcus Morris to work alongside Keith Motts, where they handled competitions, replied to readers’ letters, and compiled the payments register so that all contributing authors and artists were paid for their work, as were any licence fees, royalties and other incidentals.

Including the payment for the usage of photographs – though how Keith Motts was able to work out what fee should be due to Syndication International for the photograph of two boys on their bicycles, when I had altered the original image into something virtually unrecognisable, is not something that I know or even want to.

In 1957, Sir Edward Hulton sold the archive collection to the BBC and it became incorporated into the Radio Times photo archive. The BBC expanded the collection even further with the purchase of the photo archives of the Daily Express and the Evening Standard newspapers, and eventually, the BBC disposed of its photo archive altogether. The Hulton / Radio Times Picture Library was sold twice more, the first time to Brian Deutsch in 1988 and then, eleven years later in 1999, the Hulton Picture Collection was bought by Getty Images for £8.6 million. Getty now owns the rights to some 15 million photographs from the British press archives dating back to the 19th century.

As a final note on Picture Post, it was digitised as “The Picture Post Historical Archive, 1938-1957” and consists of the complete, fully searchable facsimile archive. It was made available to libraries and institutions in 2011.

Before I go onto other things, I’d like to mention two other sources of photographic news material. The first of these is Reuter – perhaps better known as Reuters – whose London agency was first established in 1851 and where a combination of electric telegraphy and carrier pigeons had brought the latest news in from around the world. The Reuter’s Agency built a reputation in Europe as being the first to report news scoops – one having been the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It all sounds very exciting, but of the thousands of journalists that Reuters employs, in the ten-year period between 2003 and 2013, fourteen reporters have themselves been killed while others – such as Anthony Grey – was ‘detained’ by the Chinese government for 27 months before finally being released.

As a point of interest, Dan Lloyd (who joined Eagle in March 1959 and eventually became the magazine’s Chief Sub-Editor in 1961) and Robin Hilborn (who became Countdown magazine’s Assistant Editor in 1970) had both worked at Reuters until such time that a better opportunity had presented itself. In Lloyd’s case, he first worked for a number of years on Everybody’s magazine at Fleetway House and had been involved in the compiling of crosswords.

The second source is Rex Features which offers much the same service as those I have mentioned earlier. Its worth mentioning though, that they clearly boast of obtaining more than 7,000 new images every single day (although it isn’t actually said where these images come from). Perhaps the one thing they dreaded most happened in 1979 after they had moved to East Harding Street – a small fire was started by an electrical fault which caused extensive smoke damage to the company’s stock and equipment. They continued doing business during the nine months it took to hand-clean and / or replace many thousands of filing envelopes, millions of black and white prints, colour slides, and the associated equipment that went with the job.

In 1981, Rex raised its profile dramatically with its wedding coverage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. Its fast and comprehensive service beat many other agencies into the pages of newspapers and magazines around the world. However, I will be speaking more extensively of this particular event and shall come back to in part fifteen.

Now, before winding up Part One, I wish to speak of just one more photo agency – one that perhaps has to be viewed on a more personal nature. I knew well the owners of the Universal Pictorial Press and Agency Ltd whose library, in essence, had contained little more than portraits – no family gatherings, no ‘holiday snaps’, no ‘fun-shots’ of eating the Christmas turkey – just ‘mug shots’ . . . pure and simple.

With the expansion of television and regular slots for news-broadcasts, had there been a snapshot of a notable person shown on the screen, you could bet your bottom dollar that the aired portrait had come from the Universal Pictorial Press Agency. Certainly the BBC – and maybe some of the independent television channels too – had made a bulk deal annually with the Universal Pictorial Press Agency to supply portraits of virtually anyone of any importance in the world at a moment’s notice. Election years were particularly good for UPPA with lots of new MPs to record . . . and the year when there were two elections – as happened in 1974 – was a bonanza time!

Hector Smith, a photographer from Chesham in Buckinghamshire, founded and ran the Universal Pictorial Press Agency (later to be abbreviated to UPPA) in 1929, and with offices in St Brides’ Street (close to Hulton House and Fleetway Publications) it had been an ideal spot to be in the centre of many publishing house operations. His son Terry took over the business when Hector retired in the '70s.

Terry Smith studied at the School of Photography on the fourth floor of Regent Street Polytechnic  at the same time I was a student studying Art and Design on the fifth and sixth floors. Up until 1957, we really hadn’t known each other despite having travelled on the same train that departed from Baker Street railway station and terminated in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Occasionally, we had sat next to each other with him becoming acutely embarrassed when he thought I was gloating over the fact that he was struggling while trying to complete the Evening News crossword . . . which really wasn't the case – being too tight-fisted to buy an evening paper of my own, I was trying to glean what news I could from reading snippets over his shoulder.

But we eventually became firm friends, and it had been Terry’s father – Hector – who had officiated in the role of photographer when Jenny and I had become man and wife in 1961.

In the early '60s when I had been employed as a designer on Eagle, Girl, et al, Terry and I regularly met up so that we might partake of lunch at the restaurant housed in the basement of Fleetway House. Walking alongside Terry had almost always been a fairly precarious event as he was one of those people who, instead of allowing a nominal space of a foot or more so that each could swing his arms (or whatever he wanted to do freely as he proceeded), this gap would quickly close with the result being that I often found myself colliding with lamp-posts, other pedestrians, or the odd postal-box sauntering towards me in the opposite direction.

* I was always a bit of a leg-man! 

Roger Perry
The Philippines

Coming soon: In Part Two, what happened when the string broke on Arthur’s pride and joy, and how my own pride and joy was obtained at “The Wishing Well”.

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