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How the Picture Post Pioneered the Art of the Everyday

In the 1930s, Hungarian editor Stefan Lorant founded the 'Picture Post', which brought the radical ideas of post-revolutionary Central Europe to British newsagents – shown in its 'inartistic' stories of ordinary people.

Hungarian-American photojournalist Stefan Lorant (1901-1997), co-founder of British picture magazine 'Picture Post', in his offices, UK, December 1938. (Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The scene is a Gestapo prison in Munich, 20 July 1933, soon after the Nazi seizure of power. Our protagonist is one Stefan Lorant, who mere months before had been editor of the Münchner Illustrierte Presse, one of the most popular publications in Germany—one of several photo-weeklies in the Weimar Republic that combined journalism, humour, modern design, and political positions expressed with varying degrees of subtlety. Huge roundups of potentially hostile journalists followed the full Nazi takeover of power in March of that year, and Lorant, a young Hungarian magazine editor, was among those thrown in jail. Waiting for months to find out what he was being charged with, hearing beatings and torture from the cells of the prison in which he was confined, he lies back on his bunk and imagines the better place, not too far away, that he and other prisoners hope one day to escape to.

‘I love England’, he writes in his diary. ‘My happiest days were those I was able to spend in London. I love the City, Oxford Street, Pall Mall and the Strand. I love the little restaurants in Soho and the endless streets of the East End. I love the docks and the wide spaces of the ports. I love the chimes of Big Ben and the bustle of Victoria Station. I love the street musicians and the political gossip in the saloon bars. I love the (high?—check) taxis and the motor-boats in the Thames. I love the flowers in Hampton Court and the speakers in Hyde Park.’ He continues, listing all the places, all the values, in this quiet, close but distant country that are the exact opposite of a Nazi prison in Munich.

A British man reading a copy of Picture Post with a portrait of French soldier, General Berthomet, in Tuareg dress on the cover. (Baron / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

‘I always wanted to live in England. Whenever I had any free time I went to London. I would plunge into the crowd at the Derby, I would sit on the stands at Wimbledon and in the scorching heat at Lords; I would drive along the Great West Road to Maidenhead in the dark, and think myself in Paradise on the banks of the Thames. It was the longing to know the country to which Shakespeare belonged that drew me to England, and a longing to know the people to whom personal liberty is the most sacred possession—the people that stands in a body behind each of its citizens, that will not tolerate interference with the freedom of its sons by any country in the world. The solidarity of the English people, the distinctive quality of their thought, their superiority, their conception of the gentleman, make them the guardians of civilisation in Europe.’

His dream, as he lies on that bunk, is not an idle one, but one which could, in the right circumstances, become reality. ‘My dream was, and still is, to be able to live in England.’ Lorant and his fellow prisoners are learning English, he tells the diary. ‘We all want to be able to speak English well when we come out. For we all mean to go to England then.’ He concludes his raptures about the island a night’s journey from Hamburg by trying out a little of what he’s been teaching himself in his cell:

‘I am, you are, he, she, it is…

I am learning English.

England! I love you.’

Within a couple of years, saved from the Gestapo by his Hungarian passport, he was here, editing the first of a series of magazines that would transform British media, for a brief time at least.

Stefan Lorant, who published these diaries as the book I Was Hitler’s Prisoner, quickly translated into English in 1935 and a bestseller as a Penguin ‘Special’, has a claim to be the person who brought serious photojournalism to Britain. With first, tentatively, Weekly Illustrated from 1934, with the somewhat more niche monthly Lilliput from 1937, and then much more dramatically with Picture Post from 1938, he effectively brought European magazine design, photography and politics into the twentieth century. He did so in a sometimes uneasy alliance with a Conservative publisher, Edward Hulton, and left Britain as early as 1940, leaving his magazines in the hands of his English colleague Tom Hopkinson, but the photographers that made the magazines what they were remained mainly German and Hungarian—ranging from photojournalists such as Kurt Hutton and Felix H Man to more arty figures such as Gerti Deutsch and Zoltan Glass, to more mavericks like Bill Brandt or the Bauhaus-trained Communist Edith Tudor-Hart.

What is ironic in all of this is that these magazines—particularly Lilliput and Picture Post—were specialists in eccentric Englishness, in observations of all that was ‘typically’ British. As the journalist and novelist Keith Waterhouse later remembered, ‘what Picture Post did (brilliantly) was to explore the fascinating range of small social foothills’ of British life—street parties, amateur dramatics, village fetes, fishing, market days, games—all things that would have captured the eye of a non-British observer as unusual. Lorant, as one of Picture Post’s historians, Gavin Weightman, has pointed out, ‘hardly knew Britain at all and could see it with fresh eyes’. His lack of familiarity with the realities of the country—the one which he dreamed of in tourist clichés in the Gestapo prison—meant that he was able to capture this better than anyone actually raised here. ‘Bloody foreigners’ may not have always been welcomed by the majority, but the eye on Britain that was so enthusiastically welcomed by Picture Post’s millions of readers just before, during and after the Second World War was a distinctly Central European one.

24 December 1938: At a weekly editorial conference at the offices of ‘Picture Post’ are editor Stefan Lorant (foreground, right) and (from left) John Langson-Davies, writer of ‘Science Today’; W H Pearson, of the Picture Post’s library; writer Lionel Birun; diary-editor Richard Darwell; Honour Balfour (writer of ‘Lives of the Great Artists’); H B Bewick, who liaises with the printers, and assistant editor Tom Hopkinson. (Kurt Hutton / Picture Post / Hulton Archive
/ Getty Images)

There were British photo-weeklies and photojournalists before Lorant brought them over from Germany, Austria and Hungary, but there was nothing on the level either of American magazines such as LIFE, or of the illustrated papers of the Weimar Republic such as the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and the Münchner Illustrierte Presse. The Communist Party of Great Britain briefly tried to emulate one of the most famous of these, the German KPD’s Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (A-I-Z)—which had risen to a mass circulation through its photo-stories, dynamic design, and satirical photomontages by the Dadaist John Heartfield—as Workers Illustrated Newspaper (WIN). But this small party was never in the position to have the same mass reach as the media empire presided over by the German Communist mogul Willi Münzenberg. What mass market there was for photo-magazines resided in would-be-aristocratic publications such as Tatler and Queen. Fundamentally, the illustrated magazine in Britain starts with Lorant.

Beginnings in Budapest and Berlin

Stefan Lorant was born Istvan Reich in Budapest, 1901, into a bourgeois Hungarian Jewish family, with a large apartment on the prestigious Aranykez Utca in the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; he changed his name to Stefan Lorant at the age of sixteen. His biographer Michael Hallett argued that Lorant’s later career in crusading photojournalism has its roots in the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. Before 1918, Budapest was officially the joint capital of the Empire with Vienna, and was the sole capital of sprawling Hungarian lands, which encompassed what is now western Romania, Slovakia and Croatia. With defeat in November 1918, a working class uprising in Budapest brought to power first the Social Democratic Party, and then the new Hungarian Communist Party under the leadership of Bela Kun, who led for a few months a turbulent ‘Republic of Workers Councils’ before being brought down by a Romanian invasion and replaced with a right-wing dictatorship under Admiral Miklos Horthy. Like many young intellectuals in Budapest, Lorant was enthusiastic for this brief Communist experiment. At the time, Lorant was the editor of a student newspaper. On his own account, he went to the Communist Commissar for Culture, the philosopher Georg Lukacs, and asked him for the resources to take over the houses of wealthy Budapest residents who had fled the revolution, to turn them into vacation homes for working class children.

He told Michael Hallett many years later that each member of his student group became ‘head of a villa for twenty to forty boys. We organised them and educated them. My mother cooked meals in the morning. A doctor examined them and 70 per cent had tuberculosis. I’m still haunted with that memory’. Lorant was very briefly imprisoned in the White Terror that raged the start of the Horthy regime, denounced by ‘the wife of the janitor’ of his family’s luxurious apartment block. Upon release, he fled to Vienna, and then to Berlin, where he became a commercial film cameraman, and eventually, director. Lorant was a teller of tall tales, and he claimed in this capacity to both have given the Weimar-turned-Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich her first screen test (he told her she’d never be famous), and to have had a ‘serious relationship’ with the Nazi, actress and director of Triumph of the Will Leni Riefenstahl, ‘before Hitler’. His career in photojournalism and in editing began in earnest in 1927 at UFA-Magazin, the promotional journal of the vast German film conglomerate, owned by the right-wing millionaire Alfred Hugenberg and responsible for Expressionist classics like Metropolis, Pandora’s Box, The Blue Angel and M. He edited a special issue on Metropolis, claimed by his fellow Jewish Hungarian and occasional collaborator (‘we spoke in our own language’), the Bauhaus polymath Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, to have been ‘the first modern pictorial magazine’. His wife, Niura Norskaja was an exile from Kyiv, where her parents’ factory had been nationalised. As he claimed in I Was Hitler’s Prisoner, their shared exile status showed two people squeezed between the political extremes of the time: ‘Niura came to Berlin from Russia to escape the ‘Red’ revolution. I was driven out of Hungary by the ‘White’ revolution’.

A Picture Post cover featuring a member of the British Home Guard in camouflage at the organisation’s training centre at Osterley Park, near London, September 1940. (Zoltan Glass / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

On the strength of his work for UFA Lorant became first in 1928 the Berlin editor and then from 1932 the editor of Münchner Illustrierte Presse. The publishers of the M.I.P were Knorr and Hirth, who stayed aloof from the right-wing politics of Hugenberg and the Communism of the A-I-Z. In I Was Hitler’s Prisoner, he wrote that ‘there were almost as many political convictions in the firm as there were newspapers, journalists and employees’, but for two exceptions: ‘we had no National Socialists, and no Communists. An embittered fight was conducted against these two parties.’  He also claimed that as the Weimar Republic collapsed into violence, ‘the only paper which steered clear of all politics, and of which I was the editor, was the Münchner Illustrierte Presse, the most important illustrated weekly paper in South Germany. Indeed, its only political view was a distrust of National Socialism, a distrust which most of the big German newspapers shared’. The trumped-up pretext for his imprisonment was an artefact of Lorant’s somewhat playboy-like lifestyle—he had received a postcard from an actress visiting the USSR, which was considered enough to collar him for Soviet sympathies.

Lorant’s first port of call upon being freed by the Gestapo was again Budapest, where there was compared with Germany a certain amount of freedom of expression, within limits, in the last decade of the Horthy regime; he edited a weekly supplement for the Budapest daily Pesti Naplo, where he employed a more glamorously modern design than he had at Münchner Illustrierte. He then, as he had dreamed, made his way over to England in 1935, working first as a journalist; in Everyman, the magazine of book publisher J.M. Dent’s mass market classics press, he asked ‘What Has Become of the Exiles?’, where he spoke on their behalf: ‘the political prisoners from Hitler’s Germany have found a friendly welcome here in England. We seek to express our thanks by enriching English science, art and literature with our work’, despite the fact that they were ‘no more than foreign refugees—tolerated by the country, in constant fear that their permits to stay may not be renewed, liable to be deported any day from their country of adoption’. This fear would eventually drive Lorant from the country, but his first effort to ‘enrich’ English photojournalism came with Weekly Illustrated in 1934, and the following year, the autobiographical I Was Hitler’s Prisoner became a bestseller, selling more than half a million copies and being picked up by Penguin Books for their ‘Specials’ series of polemical paperbacks.

Arriving in London

Weekly Illustrated was an attempt to reinvigorate one of the journals of the old left—The Clarion, which was once by far the most popular left-wing publication in Britain, and boasted an entire network of readers, supporters and bicycle clubs (which survive to the present day). Ironically, under the editorship of Robert Blatchford, it was strongly ‘social imperialist’, anti-immigration, and often racist. Its readership had collapsed by the mid-1930s, and little of the original paper survived its transformation into the bright, populist new magazine. But Lorant did work at Weekly Illustrated with leftist journalists such as Tom Hopkinson, and most importantly, he brought over his favoured photographers from Münchner Illustrierte, Kurt Hubschmann and Hans Baumann. The pair, trained in the sharp-eyed, hard-edged realism of the Neue Sachlichkeit or ‘New Objectivity’, would photograph the overwhelming majority of Weekly Illustrated’s stories, under new pseudonyms designed to disguise their foreignness: Kurt Hutton and Felix H Man, respectively; depending on the source, these names were because of the fact the photographers’ status was precarious, so that ‘stateless and refugee photographers (were) working illegally, and did not desire a byline’, or, according to Felix H Man, so that British readers wouldn’t realise ‘the backbone of the paper consisted of foreigners’.

A cycling enthusiast catches her breath on the steps of a cafe during a day out in the English countryside on a Picture Post cover from 1939. (Felix Man / Picture Post / IPC Magazines / Getty Images)

At first, Lorant’s editorship was not a success, though sales were an improvement on the Clarion. Mercurial and used to complete control at the Münchner Illustrierte, Lorant told Hopkinson, his closest ally at the paper, ‘I cannot work where I am not appreciated, and no-one here understands what I am doing. No one! Not even you’. He quickly left, and after writing fiction under a nom de plume and a little journalism, in 1937 he founded a very different publication, albeit one equally indebted to the press culture of the Weimar Republic: Lilliput. Cooked up by Lorant and laid out in the London flat of the Hungarian photographer Zoltan Glass, this was an attempt to imitate the satirical, deliberately elitist Weimar monthly Der Querschnitt (The Cross-Section), which had published a mix of modern fiction in translation (Hemingway, Joyce and Proust among them), reproductions of works by modern artists such as Fernand Leger, Picasso and the Dadaist Willi Baumeister, and ‘artistic’ female nude photography; Lorant also likely took inspiration from the mass-market monthly Uhu (The Owl), whose contributors included Brecht, Walter Benjamin and Moholy-Nagy. Lorant was able to use that publication’s occasional cover artist, the Prague-born German Jewish illustrator Walter Trier, who had fled Germany in 1936; until he left for Canada at the end of the 1940s, Trier’s charmingly cute and sometimes very mildly risqué covers would always include a man, a woman, and a dog.

An officer of the British AFS (Auxiliary Fire Services) in London prepares to fight the blazes which will inevitably result from bombing raids during World War II, 1939. (Felix Man / Picture Post / IPC Magazines / Getty Images)

Inside, translations or new articles by Weimar writers such as Lion Feuchtwanger and Arthur Koestler shared space with whimsical lists, naked ladies, colour spreads (eighteenth- and nineteenth-century illustrations a specialty) and most famously, juxtapositions of photographs, sometimes with satirical intent, sometimes for gentle mockery or surrealism; these were very popular, and a juxtaposition of Neville Chamberlain—a bete noire of Lorant’s for his appeasement of Hitler—with a gormless, harmless Llama was referenced in Parliament in an attack on the Prime Minister; in 1940, he would package the best of the juxtapositions together in a book entitled Chamberlain and the Beautiful Llama. Perhaps more seriously, in 1939, spreads were published in Lilliput of John Heartfield’s scathing anti-fascist montages—the first time they had been seen in Britain (Heartfield, escaping from Prague, was newly arrived in London). Lorant, now free of the partisanship of the Weimar press, was able to work with a KPD-affiliated artist who, he later claimed, he firmly ‘admired (for) the montages that he did for A-I-Z in Berlin’, but who he would never have been allowed to employ at the centrist Münchner Illustrierte. The strident Communist must have felt odd about the new company his work shared, with his agitational scalpel mixed in with soft porn, comedy animals, Victoriana and listicles.

Lilliput’s success saw it being bought up by a Tory publishing magnate, Edward Hulton. He then asked Lorant to start another weekly; the proposal was, on the Hungarian editor’s account, ‘to make a Conservative weekly on the lines of the Spectator. But’, he told Tom Hopkinson, his Weekly Illustrated colleague, who he immediately re-hired for the new project, ‘what I shall give them is a picture magazine’. Picture Post’s snappy, minimalist title was fortuitous, as Hulton very nearly called the magazine LO!, with the advertising slogan ‘buy Lo! See and know!’ Picture Post was not didactic, and like Lilliput, some of its immediate commercial success must have come from a relative daring on sexual matters to which British readers were unaccustomed—an early issue during Lorant’s tenure featured a now famous full-page photo by Kurt Hutton showing a group of friends on a fairground ride in Southend, in which the wind has blown open one young woman’s billowing skirts (the picture was staged, and even then Hutton was obliged to retouch the skirt to cover the subject’s knickers).

‘Your Bloody Picture Post’

Picture Post did, unusually for a mass paper at the time (except perhaps the gradually leftward leaning Daily Mirror), have a distinct left-wing line, despite its Tory proprietor. Hopkinson later remembered that ‘’for Lorant and myself the main interest was that it should be strongly political, ‘anti-fascist’ in the language of the time’. Early issues included the 1939 spread ‘UNEMPLOYED’, which had an agitational brute force clearly taken from the punishing exposes of A-I-Z, and an important anti-Nazi spread, ‘BACK TO THE MIDDLE AGES’, a response to the organised pogroms of Kristallnacht, and the answer to a question posed by Lorant to Hopkinson: ‘how do I hit back at these bastards?’. There was also a politics, more implicit, in the very ordinary spreads that Picture Post published about working class life and labour, such as ‘THEY BUILT ‘QUEEN ELIZABETH’’, a Neue Sachlichkeit-informed portrait of the Glasgow shipyard workers who had constructed a cruise ship. In an editor’s letter in the eighth issue, Lorant responded to criticism of featuring such ‘ugly’ and ‘inartistic’ subjects by arguing ‘Picture Post believes in the ordinary man and woman; thinks they have had no fair share in picture journalism; believes their faces are more striking, their lives and doings more full of interest than those of the people whose faces and activities cram the ordinary picture papers. This goes for dictators and debutantes equally’.

Lorant edited the paper for barely two years, before leaving for the United States in 1940. He had tried and failed to obtain British citizenship, and feared internment on the Isle of Man, where Hutton and Man had already been imprisoned—or worse. He told Hopkinson that ‘you British citizens will be all right. But what about us bloody foreigners? We will be handed back’. He was also widely quoted as saying, more brutally, ‘Hitler can’t hang 50 million Englishmen from lamp-posts, but he can hang 50,000 bloody German Jews, and I don’t want to be one of them.’ Lorant gave Hopkinson the publishers rather different ideas about what to do in his absence. On a trip to the USA, he appointed Hopkinson as his stand-in as editor, with a strongly political brief. As the journalist remembered decades later in his autobiography, Lorant ‘talked to me seriously about the running of the paper in his absence: the success of Picture Post had been due, he said, to its left-wing policies, determined opposition to Nazism and fascism, and continued criticism of the Chamberlain line on Germany, which the Prime Minister had evidently not abandoned, although the countries were effectively at war. It was essential, Lorant said, to maintain this strong attitude in the paper and not relax in any way during his absence overseas—with all of which I heartily agreed.’ And yet ‘a few days later, when I was having a drink with the general manager’ of Hulton publishing, he was told Lorant ‘warned us to keep a sharp eye on you while he’s in the States because of your left-wing tendencies. He says you’re always trying to work things into the paper which could cause us trouble’.

‘The Happy Elephants’, a satirical photomontage by exiled German artist John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld, 1891-1968), published in the 15 October 1938 edition of Picture Post Magazine in response to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Peace for our time’ speech. (Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Whichever of these was Lorant’s ‘real’ opinion, Hopkinson was placed in charge and continued with crusading, leftist spreads in amongst the stories about working class life, holidays, funfairs and royals. These included ‘WORK FOR ALL’, a piece advocating full-employment, by the Hungarian socialist economist Thomas Balogh, which was part of a special issue, Plan for Britain, in 1941, emphasising that the aftermath of the war must see a social democratic reconstruction of Britain so that the Depression of the thirties could never happen again. This, as Hopkinson remembered, ‘intensified support among readers, who looked upon the magazine as their mouthpiece, almost indeed as their own property, and it increased the antagonism felt in certain government departments, above all in the Ministry of Information’. The MOI refused to provide Picture Post with requested images to illustrate their stories, which sometimes led to them printing blank squares where they would have been. Hopkinson spent the night of the 1945 election at the party of a rival newspaper magnate. As the results came in for a Labour landslide, several guests told him ‘your bloody Picture Post is responsible for this!’

Yet, though he would initially be sympathetic to the Labour government, the Cold War radicalised Edward Hulton back to the right. He made various attempts—resisted by Hopkinson—to purge Communists from the magazine’s staff, before eventually the magazine was finally torn to pieces in 1950 over a series on the Korean War, by the journalist James Cameron and Bert Hardy, a talented working class photographer who had been the magazine’s major discovery. The pieces first documented the American landing at Incheon, but went on to provide evidence of widespread atrocities on the South Korean and American side—unacceptable to Hulton. Hopkinson’s resignation was demanded. He refused, and was fired. Many of the figures brought into the magazine by Lorant departed for good. Hulton then dumbed the magazine down into a more straightforward glossy rag of celebrities and debutantes, tried and failed to re-hire Lorant, and eventually closed it down in 1957, by then a shadow of its former self. It is perhaps best remembered in the words of Cameron, whose 1950 article was the pretext for its destruction.

‘It seems to me ironical that the magazine which owed its original success to the intuition of a ‘bloody foreigner’, that the British were ready for something more serious, and at the same time more lively, than anything they were getting, owed its death to a loss of faith, to the sense that anything will do and the public should be given the sort of commonplace trash it ‘really wants’. But it was not bloody foreigners but, in the main, one hundred per cent British citizens who argued like this’.