Photojournalist Thurston Hopkins dies at age of 101

The great British photojournalist Thurston Hopkins has died at the age of 101, after a short illness.

An unsung hero in British photography culture, few people captured the spirit, character and contradictions of Britain in the years immediately following the Second World War.

“We have lost one of the few remaining photographers with a direct link to the so called ‘golden age’ of reportage. Born during the Great War, Hopkins leaves a photographic legacy that will undoubtedly continue to be an inspiration for generations of photographers to come,” says Matt Butson, Vice President of Getty Images’ Archive, who now hold the archival rights to Hopkins’ images, in an interview with British Journal of Photography.

Born in London in April 1913, Thurston Godfrey Hopkins originally trained as a graphic illustrator at Brighton College of Art. While he was there a teacher advised him to: “Watch those shadows, they give black-and-white illustration weight and balance where it is most needed.”

“This became something of a leitmotif in my visual thinking,” he later commented. “Not only when I was making pen and ink drawings for provincial newspapers, but also when I began using a camera.”

“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,” says Butson.

Hopkins joined the RAF as a photographer. While serving in Italy he acquired a Leica:  “The first camera I can recall handling without a certain feeling of distaste,” he said. It would be his choice instrument for the rest of his long career.

After the war ended, he hitchhiked around Europe, using his camera to capture the resilience of normal people after such a tragic few years. When he eventually returned home, he decided on a career at Picture Post, the illustrated magazine that captured the pulse of the nation through the tumultuous decades of the mid-20th century. Hopkins eventually joined the magazine in 1950 after turning up at its offices with a dummy photobook of his photographs.

His fellow Picture Post photographer Grace Robertson – who also became his wife – said of the magazine: “I can’t recall anyone at Picture Post mentioning the ethics of photojournalism; it was just something everyone understood: a code of behaviour which reflected the seriousness of the magazine and the respect in which it was held by the general public.”

The Observer’s picture editor Greg Whitmore said of Picture Post, and the photography culture at that time: “Several pioneers of photojournalism arrived in England having fled the rise of fascism in Europe. Germans Karl Hutton, Tim Gidal and Felix Mann, and Hungarian Stefan Lorant, had cut their teeth on groundbreaking magazines Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and Münchner Illustrierte Presse. They brought to London, in Gidal’s words, the ‘unified photo report’ – what we now call the photo essay.”

This culture was to have a lasting effect on Hopkins, even though the magazine shut down in 1957, after which he set up his own studio in Chiswick before ‘retiring’ from full time photography in the late 1960s. He continued to teach at the Guildford School of Art; his students including The Observers‘ portrait photographer Jane Brown.

“Thurston is marked out from many of his contemporaries by an uncanny ability to depict the human condition, and his photographs are marked by both a great sensitivity and creative approach to his subject,” says Butson.

“In a world that has changed beyond recognition from the austerity of the 1950s, Hopkins had an innate ability to connect with his fellow man, together with his appreciation of form and composition. It is remarkable to think that, in essentially just seven years, he cemented a reputation that has endured for almost 60 years. A true gentleman in every sense of the word, Hopkins’ spirit and humanity will undoubtedly live on through his imagery.”

Thurston Hopkins died peacefully at home on 27 October.  He is survived by his wife Grace Robertson, daughter of the celebrated journalist, author and broadcaster Fyfe Robertson, whom he had been married to for more than 60 years.

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Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.