Picture Post was an influential magazine in Britain during the Second World War and the post-war ordinary years, which documented the period through the emerging medium of photojournalism. Unlike other news publications, it focused on the lives of everyday people and was responsible for some of the most striking images of this unique period in time. Filmmaker Rob West, whose documentary Picture Stories recounts the rise and fall of the magazine, explains how it changed the shape of the news in Britain in an era before television.
Rob West (English accent): Picture Post was new to the UK in its whole approach to the presentation of journalistic stories, [the] combination of images and text and the very bold use of images to tell stories. And specifically the way in which it presented images, the layout of images on the page, the interaction between images and text, and also the type of stories that it told. So not only political stories, celebrity stories, as you might expect, but focusing very much on the lives of people, on life in Britain on a day-to-day basis, in the run-up to the war, during the Second World War and afterwards, in portraying ordinary life in Britain back to the people of Britain.
Picture Post’s founding editor was a Hungarian Jewish refugee called Stefan Lorant, who had moved to London after being imprisoned in Germany in the early 1930s.
Rob West: Originally, he began as a film director in Hungary and then transitioned to become a magazine editor, and applied some of the techniques of film editing to the presentation of pictures and stories within magazines. He moved from Hungary to Germany and became a very influential editor in Munich and also in Berlin, and brought together some great photographic and journalistic talents in publications in Germany. But when the Nazis came to power, they identified Lorant as a potential source of opposition to their regime. They put him in prison for six months. He was released but, having been released, he then fled to the UK and managed to develop a career as a magazine editor in Britain.
Lorant persuaded publisher Edward Hulton to finance Picture Post as a completely new and radical publication. He brought together the best talents from across Europe — many of them refugees from the Nazis — and used his abilities to lay out picture stories in a way that was accessible to a very wide audience.
Rob West: What Lorant brought was an eye for big, bold images. So, often they would be positioned on the right-hand page, which is where he thought the eye would naturally fall, but he also had a great eye for the presentation of a number of images together on the page and how you sequence them and how you position them against each other. So that the reader could, sort of, look from picture to picture. And often these were numbered so, in a way, through the numbering of the pictures, you would tell the story.
The weekly magazine was openly anti-fascist and not afraid to share its opinions. It condemned the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany and considered the future of Britain after the war. Through its stories, it raised social awareness and helped shape policy.
Rob West: Right from the outset, Picture Post had a very strong social agenda. To start with, it was essentially an anti-fascist agenda but one also which was drawing attention to the terrible social conditions in parts of Britain. And during the course of the Second World War, Picture Post was absolutely primary in discussing the possibilities of a post-war Britain, and particularly talking about the possibilities of an expanded welfare state and of a free national health service.
Unable to gain British citizenship and fearful of a Nazi invasion, Lorant left the Picture Post in July 1940 to pursue a career in America. His assistant, Tom Hopkinson, was appointed as the new editor. The magazine flourished under his direction. With a circulation of 1.7 million, at its peak, it was read by one in three Britons.
Rob West: I think it was popular partly because it was relatively inexpensive. It was extremely accessible, deliberately accessible both in terms of its format, layout, but also the types of stories that it presented, some of them about social conditions, but some also reporting on the war, some celebrity stories, some funny stories, but a wide mixture of stories, something to, kind of, appeal to everyone. And I think, for many people, it was really their first introduction to photography. And it was the first publication that really gave centrality to photojournalism.
With declining sales and a lack of advertising, Picture Post was closed in 1957. Nevertheless, it left a lasting legacy for media and for the country.
Rob West: I think it had an absolute, fundamental, long-term influence, both on media in Britain, in terms of people’s understanding of how to lay out stories, how to use photography and text to tell stories, immediately afterwards in terms of newspaper magazines and so on, but even to this day our understanding of how to lay out stories on the internet and how to use images to tell stories with captions. But I think it also had a huge impact on photography in this country, because it created and established a tradition of documentary photography, of telling ordinary stories, real-life stories, and perhaps also it was a foundation for documentary in terms of film, as well, and the importance of the testimony of ordinary people. As well, of course, it had a long-lasting political impact in helping to establish some of the foundations of the welfare state that we still enjoy today.
Picture Stories is a feature-length documentary that explores how Picture Post helped shape modern photojournalism. The magazine’s own story is told by its photographers, writers and editors through archive interviews, with commentary from some of Britain’s leading documentary and street photographers. Directed by Rob West, it won the Audience Award at the UK Jewish Film Festival in 2021. Screenings will be held at selected cinemas, film festivals and cultural centres around the UK, US and Spain. The film is also available on digital platforms and schools can apply for special educational licences.