Remembering Thurston Hopkins

Photographs courtesy of Getty Images

The recent death of Godfrey Thurston Hopkins at the grand age of 101 did not pass unnoticed. I was saddened at the news, having intended to publish a book of his work. I am slowly working my way through the great Picture Post photographers, starting with Bert Hardy (Bert Hardy’s Britain published 2013) and following up with Kurt Hutton next year. Gordon Fraser did publish a slim monograph of his work some 30+ years ago (as they did with Bert Hardy) but Thurston deserved much more.
I communicated by letter and received detailed replies full of wit and wisdom (astonishing for a man approaching his century). A specific question was about his award winning assignment on Liverpool’s slums in 1956, which Picture Post proprietor Edward Hulton pulled from publication after representations from Liverpool City Council – who thought it was a slur on the city. The remarkable pictures, like Bert Hardy’s controversially unpublished photos of Korean prisoners of war, won the Encyclopaedia Britannica award for the year (the photo-journalists’ ‘Oscar’).

To quote from Thurston’s letters: ‘My memory of that week roving around the city’s really bad spots is of encountering friendliness and hospitality almost everywhere. As soon as we uttered the words Picture Post, doors flew open, a cuppa was produced and reminiscences of years living in the area flowed.’
‘In the picture of the harassed father carrying his baby son, I was too occupied with obtaining any kind of exposure in the dim light to be really aware of the other children dancing around him … To me the edge of darkness is a magical time; black and white film might have been invented to serve the nocturnal imagination. “Black, far more than all the resplendent colours of the palette and prism, is the medium of the mind,” wrote the painter Odilon Redon, and it really does seem as if black and white, much more than colour photography, has the power to sort out and emphasise significant form. The same picture is now travelling around the country in a show entitled Unpopular Culture, selected by Grayson Perry for the Arts Council. All of which is a far cry from your book (Picture Post on Liverpool) except that I remember revelling in the bad light prevailing throughout the slums. Grayson Perry also fell for the child in bed.’

In his hundredth year, Thurston send me a card apologising for the delay in replying to a point I had raised, explaining that he had been extremely busy but he would get round to it as soon as possible. What a way to live your life and what a great photographer!

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