Decades in photographs, by various

The Hulton Getty Picture Collection: 1930s, by Nick Yapp
The Forties in Pictures, by James Lescott
The 50s, by Gareth Thomas
The Sixties in Pictures, by James Lescott
Remember the Seventies

A number of publishers have raided their picture libraries to compile volumes devoted to particular decades, bought mostly, one suspects, as presents for people born within that time-span.  They usually contain little text, with the focus very much on the pictures.  They are thus fairly quick and cheap to compile.  I’ve listed these in order of decade rather than year of publication.

The Hulton Getty Picture Collection: 1930s, by Nick Yapp

As the title page indicates, Nick Yapp’s 1930s: Decades of the 20th Century/Dekaden Des 20. Jahrhunderts/Décennies Du XXe Siècle (1998) has text in English, translated into German and French (although the publisher is German).  All images are drawn from the Hulton Getty Picture Collection.  Typically for this kind of book, the general and section introductions and captions are fairly brief.

Despite the international feel provided by the trilingual text, the bulk of the photographs were taken in England (apart from the cinema section, which concentrates largely on Hollywood).  The lack of emphasis on a global perspective may disappoint some non-British readers keen to see their own history represented.  What there is can tend to cliché: leisure for the Germans and Russians apparently meant doing things in mass formation.

Rather than go through the years in chronological order, photographs are loosely grouped in themes covering various aspects of daily life, such as fashion, leisure, transport, science, and of course politics and the build-up to war.  Dotting around loses a sense of the accelerating momentum from the Jazz Age to something much darker.

I spotted a couple of obvious errors.  The introduction to the catch-all section on the eccentric aspects of the period refers to a teenage girl on the Isle of Man managing to persuade her parents, the newspapers and the public that she owned a talking ferret.  It was of course Gef, who was a mongoose.  A couple of pages on is an oft-reproduced photograph of a séance, which is captioned ‘Dabbling with the spirit world at a seance in Berlin, 1930’.  It is actually a still from the first part of Fritz Lang’s film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, released in 1922.

On the positive side, there are signs of the growing consumer society and the role of mass production, and also of an artistic flowering.  On the negative is the occasional glimpse of the threat posed by fascism, but there is minimal evidence of the Great Depression.  Although the introduction gives some idea of the stresses that would eventually rip the world order apart, unfortunately, for such a dark time the emphasis of the selection is on the quirky, downplaying its serious side until the final section, when war was inevitable.  It may make for an entertaining read, but the book mostly slides over the worst aspects of that low, dishonest decade.

(2 December 2022)

The Forties in Pictures, by James Lescott (2008)

Published by Parragon and drawing on the vast Getty archive, naturally conflict predominates, starting with Dunkirk.  The course of the war is charted, beginning with the victories of the German army rampaging across western Europe.  As well as the theatres of war, in Britain the home front is covered, showing the devastation of aerial bombing and the ‘Britain can take it’ attitude depicted by the government’s propaganda.

The focus shifts to the Pacific and the entry of the United States, the war in the Atlantic and North Africa, while Stalingrad is given a prominent spread.  The tide turns and the cameras follow the course of the war as the Germans and Japanese dreams of domination crumble and victory is assured in the east and the west, bringing a moment – all too brief – of joy to a weary continent.

Then it’s the aftermath.  The opening of the concentration camps, assessing the devastation, revenge on collaborators, the mass-movement of displaced people, reconstruction.  Israel emerges as a nation, India is partitioned, the Nazi leaders are judged.  Events take a relatively sedate turn with awful winter weather in London (POWs still in England in February 1947), but Gandhi is assassinated and communist regimes tighten their grip in eastern Europe.  Meanwhile in Asia empires crumble and China starts on its slow and very winding road to becoming a world power.

As well as politics, culture is touched on, notably art, sport, with the 1948 Olympic Games given a highlighted spread, fashion, theatre and the film industry, though in the last  of these politics intrude again in the shape of the House Un-American Affairs Committee.  Changing sexual attitudes are hinted at in the portrait of Alfred Kinsey and on the facing page a photograph of a shapely woman holding a mock-up of The Kinsey Report.  Prosperity in the west is indicated by its motor vehicles, international travel, and television sets.

The book concludes with location photographs from the filming of The Third Man in Vienna, rubble piled up in the foreground of an exterior scene.  It is a film coalescing the aftereffects of the Second World War and the developing Cold War, and interrogating issues of personal and collective responsibility, which would shape the continent for decades to come.  Flipping through the pages of this book the reader is acutely aware, if anyone needs reminding, just how scarred the 1940s were.

(15 October 2022)

The 50s, by Gareth Thomas (2003)

Published by Parragon, Gareth Thomas pulled a selection of 1950s photographs from the Daily Mail’s picture library.  Mostly concentrating on England, it tracks the change which took place, from a nation still recovering from the war to the beginnings of the consumer boom, with social mores vastly changed from those of a decade earlier, and the NHS promising an improved social contract.  The Queen’s coronation heralded a new era, but it was one heralding a gradual loss of influence abroad and deference at home, and a developing youth culture that would grow enormously in the decades ahead.

There is much here about leisure pursuits: socialising to music and dancing, watching sport, the Festival of Britain, the increasing number of cars on the roads and the early stages of a motorway network.  At the same time there was increasing comfort in the home, the ownership of television sets challenging the dominance of the cinema, despite which there was a continuing interest in the star system and celebrity culture, and radio was still important.

Domestic politics feature, but despite the source being the right-wing Mail it is fairly evenly balanced, though clearly it was very much a Conservative decade.  A policeman staring at an election poster showing a portrait of Anthony Eden and the slogan ‘Working for Peace’ sums up the orientation of the newspaper.  Protest politics, notably the Ban the Bomb movement, are included, and there is a hint of racial tension and a reference to race riots, but otherwise nothing on the black experience of Britain.

A poignant photograph of Ruth Ellis’s parents about to visit her in prison, Ruth’s mother holding a bunch of flowers, is a reminder that the death penalty was still in operation.  A minority of photographs were taken abroad, often depicting trouble spots, such as Korea, Algeria and Hungary.  The continuing fallout of the partition of India is included, as is the Suez crisis, but not Cuba.  Rather neatly, photographs of the Suez Crisis are juxtaposed with one of debutantes dancing at a ‘rock and roll ball’, suggesting an elite out of touch with the problems faced by post-war Britain.

A criticism of the compilation is that although the contents appear to be chronologically ordered, most of the photographs are not dated.  But it’s a quick read and gives a partial snapshot of the decade’s progress, an ‘impressionistic collage of life,’ as the brief introduction puts it, though one without any surprises.  My favourite photograph has to be Princess Margaret at the Ideal Home Exhibition quizzically watching a demonstration of a device for removing pips from citrus fruit.  The famously idle royal probably never handled a whole citrus fruit, although she must have consumed vast quantities of limes in her gin and tonics during the course of her privileged life.

(6 August 2022)

The Sixties in Pictures, by James Lescott (2007)

Drawn from the Getty archive, Parragon’s compilation covering the 1960s runs through the decade year by year, the contents page noting a few of the highlights, or in many cases lowlights: the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King assassinations, Beatlemania, the Swinging Sixties and Vietnam – the last frequently appearing as the liberation movement grew in confidence and the American response became increasingly desperate and brutal. 

The introduction notes that for many around the world, the decade was far from swinging, even in prosperous countries, and while the highs betokened wonderful progress and increases in the standard of living, the lows were very low indeed, full of division and violence – with notably India taking on both China and Pakistan to varying degrees, Israel emerging triumphant from the Six Day War, and Cold War hostility ever present.

It was a time when people were increasingly aware of oppression, and their right to self-determination.  Anti-imperialist movements became more confident, despite often brutal pushback from colonial powers, in countries like Algeria, South Africa, Vietnam and South America (symbolised by the murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia).  Race became a significant issue in the United States as the civil rights movement gained momentum.  Paris was tied up in knots in May 1968 while later the same year the Prague Spring was crushed.

Disaster, both natural and human-generated, is not overlooked, with coverage of a Moroccan earthquake, the Venice floods, Aberfan (unfortunately getting the death toll wrong), and the Torrey Canyon oil spill.  On the plus side, there was plenty to shout about in cultural terms, with notable sporting achievements and milestones in film and music, and general countercultural grooviness; the final image is Woodstock, not quite half a million strong but close enough.  Music and youth met the political establishment when Harold Wilson was photographed with the Beatles, a more positive contribution to the national discourse than either the Rolling Stones’ drugs bust or the Profumo scandal.

There is a picture of Concorde, but in general technology makes few direct appearances, though it underpins many of the advances, such as the space race, culminating in the Moon landings.  But that is not the only way in which selections like this, drawn from news archives, fail to represent a period adequately. It is a very partial look at the sixties, and based on these pictures one would think it far more riven than it was for most of the people on the planet, who were living quiet lives and striving to get by in one way or another.

(18 November 2022)

Remember the Seventies

Remember the Seventies: A Pictorial History of an Intriguing Decade is a different format to the others in Parragon’s ‘decade’ series.  It is hardback, larger in size, is not credited to a single compiler, having been compiled by Endeavour London Ltd., and comes with a 30-minute DVD featuring clips amplifying some of the photographs.  All the photographs are drawn from the Getty archive, and the emphasis is on the pictures, with only a short introduction and a small amount of explanatory text.  The title acknowledges that many of its readers will have had first-hand experience of the period.

The introduction suggests that compared to the ‘swinging sixties’ the 1970s lack a clear identity, other than it was a pessimistic decade compared to the previous one.  On this showing it does seem to have been a time particularly characterised by conflict and violence, but also with a strong cultural energy, particularly evident with innovations in film and music – the latter notable also for the number of premature deaths among its practitioners.  Fashion took a hit though.

The highlights are picked out: Vietnam, the Northern Ireland troubles, Watergate, punk, the Iraninan revolution (if only those celebrating could see what they would get to replace the Shah) and general terrorism and mayhem courtesy of the PLO, Black September, ETA, the IRA and INLA, and the Red Army Faction; hijackings, hostage-taking, assassinations and bombings.  Coups, brutal liberation movements and civil wars were prominent.  Dictators died, others came along.  China emerged onto the world stage after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Israel firmly showed it was not going to be driven into the sea.

The 1975 EEC referendum is represented by two photographs.  Margaret Thatcher sits under a banner declaring ‘Conservatives say YES to Europe.’  It is easy to forget that once upon a time the Tories were not under the thumb of the European Research (sic) Group.  Meanwhile, Labour minister (remember those?) Peter Shore sits under one saying ‘OUT and into the world.’  Baron Shore of Stepney died in 2001 so is not here to see how it went once his wish came true.

Space exploration did well, and there was much to enjoy in sporting achievements.  For those in the UK so inclined, the Royal Silver Jubilee was a chance to put out more flags, in some instances an excessive quantity.*  On the whole though the book paints a dreary picture, not helped by the fact that as these are press photographs they are mainly in black and white, when colour would have helped to project a more positive image.

The DVD clips are enjoyable, but short.  I hadn’t realised, usually hearing it rather than seeing it, that when Mrs Thatcher gave her speech on entering 10 Downing Street and famously quoted St Francis of Assisi, she glanced at a piece of paper with it written down.  It rather undermines the effect of spontaneity she was trying to convey.

*I remember the Silver Jubilee mainly because during it occurred the only time I have been thrown out of a pub.  I was sitting in one in Broadstairs with some friends, and I was wearing an ‘Abolish the Monarchy’ badge featuring a cartoon of Her Majesty.  The landlord came over, said ‘I don’t like the badge you’re wearing,’ and asked us all to leave.

(12 July 2022)


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