Thurston Hopkins – Memories of Happiness

3 April 2009

Renowned British photojournalist Thurston Hopkins captures the revived spirit of British life as it emerged from the austere aftermath of World War II.

This exhibition ran between 3rd April – 10th May 2009

This was a time of simple pleasures gratefully taken, a time of relative innocence and unselfconsciousness, but also – with the onset of the Cold War and, in 1956, the unfolding of the Suez crisis – it was a period of far-reaching change for Britain that came with underlying anxieties. Thurston Hopkins’ images reflect this broad human experience with great energy, warmth and gentle humour.

The exhibition has been conceived, and selected, as something of an antidote to the prevailing cynicism of our times, and to the sense of irony that underpins so much current photographic work. In contrast to those pictures that stalk social tension, and dwell on the evidence of a degraded or absurd human condition, Hopkins’s photographs unashamedly highlight moments of empathy, connectedness and joy, some utterly spontaneous, some nudged into being by the photographer himself.

Working on assignment for Picture Post, Hopkins’s job was to tell stories in the clearest, most succinct and persuasive manner. He was a professional used to working quickly in difficult conditions, and in order to get to the heart of the matter as he saw it, he would sometimes direct proceedings to get the photographs he knew would communicate most effectively on the page. In this Hopkins always employed great intelligence and maintained a poetic sensitivity to light, form and, most importantly, to the telling details of human drama.

From the 1930s onwards, British photojournalism developed a potent visual language, informed by a history of cartoons, caricature and (perhaps more importantly in Hopkins case) a rich theatrical tradition, from music hall to Ealing films. Hopkins frequently covered theatre productions and film sets for Picture Post – his beautiful portrait of Ingrid Bergman here comes from the set of Jean Renoir’s Elena et les Hommes.

Hopkins feeling for the stage informs all his work. His photographs are delicate vignettes, and even when there is an element of chance in their execution, as in the May Day scene on the river at Oxford in 1952, they often appear as perfect set pieces, performed especially for the camera.

In a career spanning four decades, Thurston Hopkins became known for his ability to depict the human condition through photographs that demonstrate a great sensitivity to the subject. Hopkins was born in London in 1913. He studied at Brighton School of Art, embarking on a career as a graphic artist. Discovering that the camera ‘paid better than the brush’, he began working as a freelance press photographer in 1930 and later joined the Photopress Agency.

With the outbreak of World War II, Hopkins joined the RAF Photographic Unit and in Italy he acquired a Leica which he describes as ‘the first camera I can recall handling without a certain feeling of distaste.’ In 1950 Hopkins joined the staff at Picture Post, spending eight years working exclusively for this renowned magazine. He travelled on assignments around the world and was honoured with two British Press Pictures of the Year awards for photojournalism. He lives with his partner, the photographer Grace Robertson, in Seaford, East Sussex.