Photography books are a funny thing to me, they’re often big, cumbersome things that are far more expensive than their wordy cousins.

If you’re like me and have the attention span of a lemon, the idea of buying what is essentially a picture book for adults may seem odd but the thing is, photography books have a strange magnetism to them. They aren’t just picture books, they are books which contain a series of images that permanently represent something that someone wanted to be remembered. Be it good or bad, fact or fictional, new or old, someone wanted to show others something they might have missed, this is how I regard photography books.

A quick browse of the internet yields many interesting results, there are serious books on war and depravity, beautiful landscapes from all over the world and then photos of peoples dogs. The scope of what is photographed is huge and as much as I loathe to see a book on “celebrity selfies” if I have what interests me then I’m happy.

This brings me onto what will hopefully be the first of many book reviews, it’s one I got recently as a present and one by one of my favourite photographers. It’s “Bert Hardy’s Britain”, by Bert Hardy.

Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain - by James Horrobin
Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain – by James Horrobin

The book is a good size and features a cover that I feel is emblematic of Hardy’s style, a working-class neighbourhood in 1950’s Birmingham, England. Tough mothers, tough streets and a boy with a cheeky smile. I actually really love the photo on the cover, it features in the book without the text and the longer I look at it the more I smile – I’d say the young boy in the foreground is almost definitely in trouble…although he’s too cheeky to care though.

The foreword is beautifully pieced together, it features a brief introduction by the VP of Getty Images discussing the world of journalism in the 20th century and how he (Matthew Butson) pushed for a book to be printed on Hardy’s work. He also mentions how he met Hardy and remarks how humble a person he was, across from this, we see a photograph of Bert himself with his Contax and Trilby. I love this photo of Bert, he embodies how I imagine a humble and intrigued photojournalist to be.

Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain - by James Horrobin
Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain – by James Horrobin

The first 20 or so pages are an introduction to Picture Post, this was the place Bert Hardy worked at early in his career, it covers the rise and subsequent demise of the company. What’s also featured is a brief glimpse into Hardy’s life as a child. As seems to be often the case with old British photographers, Bert had a tough working-class upbringing, he would work as a gas lighter and assist his family at the local greengrocers market: a full day Saturday and half day Sunday and during the school week, all for 7s 6d (about 37p).

I can’t help but correlate this work ethic to Bert’s success as a photographer later in life. I’ll copy and excerpt below;

“Needless to state, he left school at fourteen with no qualifications or any idea of what career path to follow. A sign advertising LAD WANTED at a local garage caught his eye, but, fortunately for photography, the foreman asked him what thirteen times thirteen time was, Never having got as far as thirteen times table, Bert failed his interview”

Did it come down to something as simple as 13 x 13? Weird that one of my favourite photographers may have become a mechanic.

From here, the fluctuating career of Bert is chronicled, a turbulent balancing act between skill, talent and fighting the tide of working-class poverty. It’s a really interesting read that makes me admire Hardy all the more.

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The book covers a range of Hardy’s work; “London at War”, “The Forgotten Gorbals”, “Is There A British Colour Bar”, “Cardiff” and “Down the Tyne” are a few. It gives a very succinct overview of how varied and adept Hardy was, not only as a photojournalist but as a person too, his ability to merge and interact with people of all backgrounds is something that can’t be taught.

My favourite of Hardy’s work would have to be his work in the Gorbals. For those unaware, the Gorbals are an area of Glasgow that suffered enormously from unemployment and poverty in the mid-1900’s, the photos do the true scale of the issue a good service, poverty and depravity on a scale comparable to the 18th century, and still does to some extent today. Bert manages to capture the area with a great sense of dignity but all the while showing the situation for its true self.

Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain - by James Horrobin
Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain – by James Horrobin

Take this photograph above. I love everything about it. The boy sat down is reading a comic, no doubt something dear to him, it’s such an interesting photograph. Is the kid sat on his own on purpose? Does he want some peace? Is he being pestered to play or for the book itself? The framing is absolutely perfect too, where do the stairs lead? The darkened foreground, combined with the detail in the boys leads our eye perfectly to what we need to see.

Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain - by James Horrobin
Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain – by James Horrobin

This is another compositional masterpiece. I recall that its a group of Chinese Merchant Seamen in Liverpool in 1942. I immediately think how suspicious the scene looks, but it’s not at all, it’s just a group of guys smoking and playing cards during a war. It could be me being impressionable but I think it oozes cool – I would like to see this photograph replicated exactly and have it as part of a scene from a film.’

This book is a brief glimpse into the work that Hardy put out and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that his name has fallen from the pages of photography. I honestly think that’s such a shame for us all and for photography in general.

I like to think of Bert Hardy’s working method as diligently floating around without causing offence to anyone but at the same time capturing absolutely blindingly good photography. I would suggest this book to anyone wanting to get a glimpse into a Britain that seems distant but was actually not that long ago.

Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain - by James Horrobin
Book review: Bert Hardy’s Britain – by James Horrobin

If anyone asked me why I only really shoot black and white I’d probably show them the work of Bert Hardy, not by way of saying “This is how good I am”, but more “This is how good black and white photography can be”.

In my humble opinion, I think the work you’ve just seen is the standard that should be aimed for by all of us in our own way, with our own cameras, our own film and our own visions.

What do you think? Id love to do more of these reviews, mainly because you can’t beat a nice big physical book to browse photographs in, not only that, It gives me a permission to buy more books.

~ James

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About the author

James Horrobin - Gareth

James Horrobin

Leeds (UK) based large format photographer. If you want a large format portrait just let me know and we'll have a chat.

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  1. I was one of the three black and white darkroom subcontractor for the BBC Hulton Picture Library (before it was sold off to Alan Dutch then later sold to Getty) for all their picture research prints. This article brought back so many memories as I have personally printed most of Bert’s negatives during the 6 years I worked for BBC, you you also to check out Humphrey Spender (another Picture Post Photographer) whom I have printed his ‘Lensman book’ print and the black and white exhibition prints that toured UK organised by Open Eye Gallery in 1986/7.

    I was fortunate enough to see much of the working behind the scene…meaning looking at the contact sheet in between these great photographer, the one I admired most (out of the Picture Post photographers) is Humphrey Spender because he seldom takes more than two frames of the same scene/people/subject. I was privileged to have maintain as a client/friend with him until he passed away at age of 99, he told me that he was a shy young man and used to walk around wearing a big coat and his Leica with a short strap to his chest and he only to put the camera to his face after he is ready to shoot, then once the photo is taken, he put the camera down and look around for the next subject. There were some controversial topics on famous photographic images in the 90’s, whether they were setup or captured by being there at the right time and the right place, and one or two of Bert’s images were amongst it, I can honestly say only Humphrey’s photo can be class in that unique category as one simply cannot lie on the contact sheet.

    If anyone is interested in seeing more of Humphrey’s work, you can find them at Bolton Library and Museum….

  2. I saw this book in the Saltaire bookshop last weekend. It was on the photo book table and even among a large variety of excellent photo books, it did stand out. I was fascinated by how candid the images often were, he must have had a very unobtrusive work method.

    The book looked brilliant, I kind of regret not purchasing it now!