“A sympathetic eye; The pioneering British photojournalist, who captured the spirit of ordinary people going about their daily lives in post-war Britain”
Born in Manchester, of Scottish parents, it was in the late 1940’s, with rationing still a part of daily life in Britain and whilst waiting in a butcher’s queue one day, that Grace Robertson became captivated by the expressions and relationships she watched unfold in front of her. She realised she wanted to document these people; their hopes and challenges in everyday life and the changes in society that were taking place.
Robertson started her career under the pseudonym “Dick Muir” to hide that she was a woman trying to enter a man’s world (as she said, “Dick was the name of an old flame of mine and Muir was my mother’s maiden name”). Largely self-taught, at first she received rejection slips, including one she remembers with the comment “Persevere young man”. Eventually revealing her true identity, she went on to train & work for a short time under Simon Guttman (founder of the Report agency) and then worked as a freelance photographer for agencies and magazines including Illustrated, Picture Post & Life, documenting post-war Britain.
Tom Hopkinson, editor of Picture Post from 1940-1950, said of Robertson’s work that it had “a consistent integrity and tenderness capable of blossoming in images of a rare poetic beauty”. Robertson herself considered that what had been missing from much photojournalism was “a spirit of gentleness”.
Most famous for her two photographic stories of women’s pub outings from London to Dreamland Margate, the first was shot for Picture Post (1954 Bermondsey) and a commission followed from Life magazine (1956 Clapham) to shoot a similar story for them.
Robertson’s approach was ‘old school and personal’, spending time getting to know her subjects on a human level. In the case of the women’s pub outings she spent many days before the trip drinking in the pub with the women, a necessity in her view to put her subjects at ease and make her invisible.
While shooting the Life magazine story, she created one of her most iconic images “On the Caterpillar” inspired by Kurt Hutton’s image “care-free” shot for Picture Post in 1938. Where he had used models, Robertson was a great believer in leaving the subject to create the image, with no interference from the photographer.
She caught the moment the skirts blew up of two women in the front row as the ride picked up speed.
Her series “Birth of a baby”, shot as a freelance project for Picture Post in 1955, included photographs of a woman in labour and delivery. Although ground-breaking the series was considered too explicit at the time and was never published in the magazine, for fear of public outcry.
In 1955 she met and married fellow photographer, Thurston Hopkins. Later they set up an advertising studio in Chiswick, West London, that they ran together for a number of years before moving to Sussex.
In 1986 Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about Robertson and her work which included in an exhibition at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford; several other exhibitions in the UK and the United States followed.
In 1989, she published an autobiographical monograph, entitled Grace Robertson – Photojournalist of the 50s.
In 1992, the BBC commissioned her to do the stills photography for the programme Nonagenarians.
In 1999 She went on to receive a Wingate Foundation scholarship to photograph 14 women and their challenges in modern day Britain.
Throughout her life she continued to take photographs covering subjects from working women to cats in public places.
In 2002 Brighton University’s Aldrich Foundation supported a retrospective of her work and the publication of her book A Sympathetic Eye.
|credit: Roger Bamber|
Awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society in 1995, and an the OBE in 1999 for her work on the furtherance of photographic expression and education. She also received honorary degrees from the University of Brighton (1995) and Brunel University (2007).
She wrote and gave talks around the country on her work and the role of women in photography until late into her eighties.