Watershedding, Oldham, 1982. © Don McPhee/The Guardian, 1982
Exhibition: A Long Exposure, The Lowry, Salford Quays, until March 1, 2009
It’s been 100 years since Walter Doughty became the Guardian’s first staff photographer, in an era when photos were copied by an artist, snappers were never credited and pictures had to be sent back to the waiting editorial offices by train. A century of technological leaps later, Salford’s Lowry Gallery is celebrating the work of Doughty and his successors in an exhibition curated by one of the Guardian's most distinguished photographers.
“It does seem to be very successful – we’ve had really positive feedback,” reflects Denis Thorpe, whose stint on the wires between 1974 and 1996 established him as a true great. “I actually did a sort of walk-round talk one night and lots of people turned up. I’ve written little biographies of all the photographers, and I’ve had to learn so much of the history that I’ve got it all in my head, so I can handle it fairly well.”
A miner wearing a toy helmet faces up to police officers at Orgreave Coking Plant near Sheffield in 1984. © Don McPhee/The Guardian, 1982
His exhibition covers the work of six photographers who followed in Doughty’s footsteps, including Don McPhee, an inspirational figure among Manchester photographers. Both a colleague and friend of Thorpe’s for three decades, McPhee had begun planning the exhibition before his death last year.
A photograph of the Irish Civil War in 1922 by Walter Doughty, the first staff photographer employed by the Guardian, taken from glass plate negative. © Walter Doughty/the Guardian, 1982
“Don came up with the idea,” emphasises Thorpe. “He did a little bit of research on Walter Doughty and said we should mark a hundred years since Walter started. He was well ahead with creating the exhibition when he died in March 2007. It’s dedicated to Don’s memory, and I’m just so pleased I’ve been able to do it.”
Highlights include a set of glass plates taken by Doughty during the Irish civil war discovered by McPhee, who “thought they looked interesting” as they were being carted out of the old newsroom when the digital age caused the ageing wetrooms to be closed down.
Boys clinging to the back of a bus in Calcutta, India, in 1977. © Denis Thorpe/the Guardian, 1977
“It took a long time to find exactly what they were – there wasn’t really very much to go on,” says Thorpe, who eventually discovered they were sets taken in Cork (in 1920) and Dublin (in 1922). “They are superb pictures, really good news photographs from the time,” he adds. “Some of them are quite dramatic. It’s a tremendous record.”
Rescuing historic shots from the scrapheap is only one part of the painstaking research Thorpe has had to undertake. Pictures by Doughty and successor Tom Stuttard had to be deciphered from their handwriting, and a trawl through the Guardian’s former archive uncovered precious snippets on Doughty.
The tea room at a Liberal Party conference in Southport in 1973. © Robert Smithies/the Guardian, 1973
“I love Walter’s pictures,” admits Thorpe, alternating between descriptions of him as a “pioneer” and “legend.” “He was there at the very first airshow in 1909 – can you imagine that? I’ve been able to find a few photos of those string bag aeroplanes and the aviators there in Blackpool – it’s just incredible to see those kind of photographs.”
“For Walter it must have been like the space age, and then trying to photograph it with primitive cameras…they had everything to think about. It was a difficult process to work with one of those early cameras, and yet he was able to photograph these aviators.”
A portrait of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in Manchester in 1981. © Denis Thorpe/the Guardian, 1981
How would modern technology have changed their work? “The photographer who is working full-time at the Guardian now, Christopher Thomond, is at the cutting edge of technology,” says Thorpe. “This is an amazing digital revolution that gets better every day. You think, ‘goodness me, I wish I’d had that’, because in my time you were at the mercy of British Rail and everything. The speed is just amazing now.”
Doughty died in 1958, having been joined by Stuttard – who spent 50 years at the Guardian – in 1921. Work by Robert Smithies, Graham Finlayson and Neil Libbert is also on display, and Thorpe credits them all as exceptional individual photographers who flourished within the creative freedoms afforded by the newspaper.
German prisoners from WW1 at Handforth station, Cheshire, in 1915. © Walter Doughty
“If you had an idea you could work on it and spend a bit of time on it,” recalls Thorpe, who had previously worked in the contrasting environment of the Daily Mail. “I was sent to all parts of the globe and just told to get on with it. If you have that kind of freedom it’s pretty good, isn’t it?”
Landscape pictures became Thorpe’s trademark. One particular picture, of Hebden Bridge, sticks in his mind for receiving hundreds of letters of praise (“it’s very pleasing and satisfying when other people like your work,” he remarks, in typically humble fashion.) At The Lowry, portraits of Enoch Powell, German Prisoners of War and Winston Churchill at Manchester Town Hall stand alongside a particularly striking image of Brian Keenan, the Irish writer who was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad in Beirut in 1986 and held hostage for four years.
Actors relaxing during rehearsals in York in 1960. © Graham Finlayson/the Guardian
“That was one of the most moving assignments I ever did,” admits Thorpe, who visited Keenan in Ireland for the Guardian’s Magazine. “One day we were up in the mountains and there was an incredible rainbow. Brian of course had been locked up for all those years, so it was an ecstatic moment for him to see this wonderful nature. I had the privilege of seeing his pleasure and joy at that.”
Thorpe’s shot of Keenan under the rainbow made the cover, and the pair became such friends that Keenan opened a show of the photographer’s work at The Lowry in 2002. “When you’re afforded that opportunity you’ve got to be ready to take advantage of the elements,” observes Thorpe. “It’s being able to see the moment, isn’t it?”
A couple with a collection of 98 Grandfather clocks in Derbyshire in 1959. © Tom Stuttard/the Guardian, 1982