Crewman at the helm of Grimsby trawler Lincoln City from Trawlermen, 1958. Photo Denis Thorpe

It’s 70 years since the great photojournalist Denis Thorpe started working in newspapers. He celebrates this anniversary with a new exhibition and book, both called A View from the North. Redeye’s Paul Herrmann talked to him about his career.

“It was fantastic to have started with this small camera and with it actually get that moment in time. The thrill, the satisfaction, to be able to capture atmosphere and emotion even in dreary half-light…” - Denis Thorpe

Denis Thorpe might be Britain's best-loved newspaper photographer; a photojournalist with an endless supply of energy, compassion and visual wit, above all driven by the desire to tell people’s stories using the light, shape and form of what was in front of him. He brought a new level of respectfulness, care and intimacy to newspaper photography; timeless images that felt effortless were in fact the product of hard work, attention to detail and technical mastery.

2018 marks 70 years since Denis's first job in newspaper photography at the Mansfield Reporter. A new book and exhibition celebrate this anniversary (details below).

Denis was born to a Nottinghamshire family working in industry and mining. Long periods of severe illness in his childhood  - diphtheria when he was around 5 years old, and TB at the age of 10 - meant he was confined to an isolation hospital, then for two years he was sent to an open-air school. These enforced periods away gave him a different perspective on life and took him away from heavy industry, and towards journalism and ultimately photography.

I spoke to Denis about his early interest in photography:

“What on earth made me want to record images? At school I enjoyed writing and thought I wanted to be a reporter, but what I discovered by sheer accident was that photography could do something magical. I had been fortunate to be taken on by the editor of my local paper. He asked me to assist the only staff photographer. I became interested in pictures and art when I used to go Mansfield Public Library to try and find books on photojournalism. There was only Bill Brandt. Then in looking for books I found the arts section… I found the impressionists. They really interested me because of their structure - they didn’t obey any rules - not straight pictures but things cut off - like photography.

“I was experimenting photographing my mum and dad - and trying to recreate these great images. Degas’s picture Woman Ironing I translated into my mother. I could do the same thing as the painters, but with a camera. I was amazed this was possible - I hadn’t seen lots of photography. I never thought that photography could do that. Just before National Service with the RAF I went to the Creswell colliery disaster: Eighty miners died and it was then I discovered the power of photography as I photographed the sad scenes around me. I was eighteen years old.”

Laura Thorpe (Denis's mother), 1950

Denis started on a career in photojournalism in its classic period. He absorbed the work in particular of Bill Brandt and Ernst Haas. He found Picture Post’s Kurt Hutton’s book Speaking Likeness. After National Service he tried his luck with Picture Post. They were very helpful and through David Mitchell, a former Picture Post writer and owner of the agency Pictorial Press, he met Tom Hopkinson, Grace Robertson and Thurston Hopkins. During this period Denis was influenced by Eugene Smith’s and Robert Frank’s storytelling methods and began producing photo essays: The Death of Diphtheria, Orphanage, Korean POW, and The Game.  

Denis was greatly encouraged by Norman Hall, editor of Photography magazine, who featured him in a series on young British photographers alongside Philip Jones Griffiths and Don McCullin.   

Denis Thorpe in Mansfield Reporter darkroom, 1949

At this time, low on funds, Denis found it impossible to live and work in London, so he decided to get work in the provinces on evening and morning papers. This took him to Northampton, Lincoln and Birmingham where he enjoyed the endless variety of news and feature stories. In Northampton, at the Chronicle and Echo, he met a young woman, Pat, who became the love of his life. They married in 1959. 

Now he was to seek out influential figures such as Fritz Gruber at Photokina in Cologne where his photographs were on exhibition. There he was mesmerised by visiting American photographers surrounding Gruber. He called them “the big, Bronx-types with their quick-fire repartee”; they contrasted so strongly with Denis’s own quiet character. He met and photographed Bert Hardy, and became friends with John Chillingworth, both heroes from Picture Post, and later, to his delight, he was to spend time photographing Salford with Andre Kertesz.

He got a job at the Daily Mail and was sent to the Manchester office. It was a testing but valuable time, covering major stories, earning his hard-news credentials, and eventually winning a British Press Photographer of the Year award. He took the opportunity to make the most of the access given him by photographing around and beyond every story. From this period came Trawlermen, when he was able to make a personal record of the harshness and humanity of the life of deep-sea fishermen over a month on a steam-trawler; and many more similar works.  

Diphtheria immunisation programme, 1954

He ended up at The Guardian in 1974 and felt like he’d come home. Its Northern focus and progressiveness encouraged him to seek out visual stories in the knowledge that they would be published. And there were regular foreign assignments - and three major picture essay awards.

Denis reflected on the technical and working changes during his career, and the new possibilities of photography: “I spent most of my career working in monochrome using black and white film, making original prints using traditional darkroom methods. I loved the craft and the effort in producing  the perfect print. I would occasionally experiment with colour, but just for my own satisfaction; for years it was difficult for national papers with long runs to print acceptable colour. I never used a digital camera, although some of the early professional camera models were arriving as I retired.

“The greatest change for me has been to see the instant transmission of pictures from events. For so long I had to drive back to an office and darkroom and a crude wire machine or trust a guard on a train to get a packet of films to London - desperately trying to beat a deadline.

“Since retirement I have embraced digital photography and having always favoured rangefinder cameras such as the Leica M2/3. I am enjoying using the Fuji X-pro2. But then there are a few other favourites!

“I love the work I see from so many of today’s photojournalists, and the amazing work from sports photographers who can take advantage of all the advances that digital has brought - making brilliant colour images in conditions which would have been impossible. So - it’s a new world out there to capture in exciting ways.”

What would he suggest to young and starting photojournalists? “I think you have to learn everything about the technicalities in photography, put that in your subconscious and forget about it. Then follow your passion for whatever particular subject takes you main interest. In this way you develop a personal style. You need a determination to make work that moves editors enough to want to use it. A great portfolio is essential. I wish there were more magazines devoted to photojournalism. When I look at published photographs it seems that so many of the photographers are working for agencies these days - maybe that is a good starting point.”

Denis retired from the Guardian in 1996, and still lives in Stockport.

Exhibition details: A View from the North, Saturday 15 September 2018 to Saturday 20 October 2018, Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery, Wellington Road South, Stockport SK3 8AB. Open 1-5pm weekdays except Monday; 10am-5pm Saturdays and 11am-5pm Sundays.

The new book, also titled A View from the North, is published by and available through Bluecoat Press, and also at Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery. It covers predominantly Denis’s early work, photo essays, and journeys around Britain.

Limited edition prints of Denis's work are available at Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery and a smaller selection through The Print Space at The Guardian.

All photos © Denis Thorpe. Main photo: Crewman at the helm of Grimsby trawler Lincoln City from Trawlermen, 1958.

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