Obituary: Thurston Hopkins, photography

Thurston Hopkins. Picture: Getty
Thurston Hopkins. Picture: Getty
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BORN: 16 April, 1913, in London. Died: 26 October, 2014, in Seaford, Sussex, aged 101

Thurston Hopkins was one of Britain’s greatest photojournalists and, while working for Picture Post, captured the humanity, spirit and social inequality and contradictions of life in post-war 1950s Britain. He was part of the “golden age” of reportage.

Described as having “an uncanny ability to depict the human condition” and someone whose “photographs are marked by both a great sensitivity and creative approach to his subject”, Hopkins had an innate ability to connect with his fellow man, together with his appreciation of form and composition.

Many of his stories dealt with issues that were close to the heart of ordinary working people, illustrating them with images of people like them who they could feel relate to. He was also a shrewd chronicler of high society at its most intimate, from post-ball debutantes to Hitchcock in the shadows.

David Bailey remarked: “The 1950s were grey – the 1960s were black-and-white, but that does the Picture Post photojournalists a disservice. They brought texture, meaning and empathy to the grey lives of the British through the most difficult 20 years of the century.”

Born in south London in 1913, Godfrey Thurston Hopkins was the son of Sybil, a homemaker, and Robert, a bank cashier who also wrote ghost stories, true crime tales and biographies of his near contemporaries Kipling, Wells and Wilde. Godfrey dropped his first name as a child.

Growing up, Hopkins was heavily influenced by English author and illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley. Hopkins is credited with having drawn and later taken photographs, teaching himself, for some of his father’s books.

Initially, Hopkins was schooled at St Joseph’s Salesian School, before attending Montpelier College, Brighton. He then studied to become a graphic illustrator at Brighton College of Art, but while there a teacher advised him to “watch those shadows, they give black-and-white illustration weight and balance where it is most needed”.

He later acknowledged that this became “something of a leitmotif” in his visual thinking, not just when he was making pen and ink drawings for provincial newspapers, but also when he began using a camera.

Upon completion of his studies, he worked for a publisher adding decorative frames to portraits of Edward VIII. When the king announced his abdication, on 10 December, 1936, Hopkins was made redundant. His employer, however, believed he would find it easier to earn a living from photography. Hopkins took the advice, joining the PhotoPress Agency and discovering that, indeed, “the camera paid better than the brush”.

Work with the agency was short-lived as Hopkins quickly became disillusioned with Fleet Street’s “cut-throat” practices. Disheartened, he returned to Sussex where he set up his own photography business.

The late 1930s had seen a large influx of refugees fleeing Fascist Europe; among them several pioneers of photojournalism including Germans Tim Gidal, Karl Hutton and Felix Mann, and Hungarian Stefan Lorant, who had worked on ground-breaking magazines Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and Münchner Illustrierte Presse. They brought to London, in Gidal’s words, a new genre, the “unified photo report” – what is now known as the photo essay or editorial feature, where both writer and photographer went on a story as a team, not competitors.

This appealed to Hopkins who firmly believed in the importance of a strong writer-photographer rapport, saying: “I take the rather unpopular view, among photographers, that words and pictures need one another.”

Conceived by Lorant, these émigrés established Picture Post in 1938 and with it introduced a fresh international outlook, first-hand experience of the rise and spread of Nazism, and the new photographic genre. The magazine’s liberal, humanist, anti-Fascist and populist editorial stance made it an immediate success reaching 1.7 million sales/week within a few months.

During the Second World War, Hopkins joined the RAF Photographic Unit in 1940, working on reconnaissance photographs among other things. While serving in Italy, he acquired another German-manufactured camera, a Leica. It was the first camera he ever felt at home using, and it became his instrument of choice for the rest of his career. Technology-averse Hopkins described it as: “the first camera I can recall handling without a certain feeling of distaste”, adding that: “I loved the absence of the requirement for technical perfection.”

After being demobbed, he hitchhiked and freelanced for newspapers and magazines around Europe, using his small format camera to capture man’s resilience to hardship after such a bloody war. Hopkins returned and worked briefly for Tom Blau founded, Camera Press, however, his desire was to join Picture Post; he had found copies “in every tent and service club overseas” while on active duty.

Hopkins eventually joined the magazine in 1950 after allegedly arriving at its offices with a dummy book of his photographs with text. He worked there until the magazine finally collapsed in 1957, following a gradual decline in readership and competition for advertising with commercial television.

Around the same time, another photographer, under the name of Dick Muir, submitted pictures to Picture Post and was offered work. Grace Robertson, daughter of the celebrated Scottish broadcaster and journalist Fyfe Robertson, had used a male pseudonym to get her work considered as female photographers were almost unheard of at the time and certainly not viewed as serious.

Hopkins and Robertson met in 1955 and despite her being 17 years his junior and almost a foot taller, the couple courted and married.

Travelling on assignments in Africa, India, Australia and the Pacific Hopkins received two British Press Pictures of the Year awards for his reportage work during this period. His photographs are marked by his sensitive and creative approach, creating first class records of the human condition.

His signature features began with The Cats of London (1951) and closed with Life in Liverpool (1956), which was spiked by Picture Post’s owner, Edward Hulton, in deference to Liverpool’s leaders who protested at the depiction of poverty, misery and deprivation in their city’s slums.

With the demise of Picture Post, Hopkins launched a studio in Chiswick, and enjoyed more than a decade as a highly successful advertising photographer. He then turned to education, teaching photography at the Guildford School of Art, one of the country’s foremost centres.

In retirement, Hopkins returned to painting although this alternated with signings of his 1950s pictures, with grumbles over “losing another day’s painting”, to supply the collections of the V&A, the Arts Council and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

One critic summed up Hopkins’ appeal: “It is perhaps Hopkins’ first, and last, love of fine art and illustration that sets him aside from many of his contemporaries.

“He saw the world as much through the sensibility of a brush as a lens.”

Hopkins died peacefully and is survived by his wife and two children.