8 October 2007
TO SOME 'Life in the Elephant' would suggest a new David Attenborough documentary where the famous naturalist is shrunk to the size of pin and inserted into an African Elephant to investigate its unique digestive structures.
However, to anyone with a decent handle on the recent history of the Elephant and Castle, the phrase will evoke memories of beautifully constructed set of black and white photographs which offer an intimate insight into life in one of London's most unique and historic modern neighbourhoods.
The photographs, which have become a very important part of the history of post-war London, were taken over a three week period at the end of 1948 and capture an evocative mix of what life was like in post-war Elephant and Castle.
Part of the reason they seem so special though is because they were taken by master photographer Bert Hardy, who was born on Webber Street in 1913 and cultivated a love of his home place for many years. It's amazing how much genuine passion can elevate a work of art.
Bert Hardy, who has been nominated for a Southwark Council Blue Plaque this year, was born in The Priory on Webber Street in Blackfriars back in 1913 and grew up in relatively humble surroundings of the streets around the Elephant and Castle.
After developing an interest in cameras from a young age, Bert went to work for the General Photographic Agency before moving on to found his own freelance firm called Criterion, which was absorbed by the leading publication Picture Post in 1941. Hardy received his first photographer for a photo-essay published on February 1 1941 about Blitz stressed fire fighters.
As a self taught photographer who used the unusual German 'Leica' band it was a slight surprise that Hardy managed to reach the heights of being the magazine's chief photographer but a definite vindication of his very personal and effective style.
Hardy served as a war photographer in the Royal Army Photographic Unit from 1942 to 1946, taking part in the D-Day landings in June 1944 and staying imbedded with the troops throughout the liberation of Paris, the advance over the Rhine and the uncovering of the first batch of concentration camps. Hardy was one of the first Allied photographers to enter the camps and record what the soldiers found.
Had it not been for a decent stroke of luck, he might never have lived to see the end of the war. He had been due to cover the Dieppe Raid in 1942. Approximately 4,000 of the 6,000 men on the raid were wounded, killed or taken prisoner and the photographer who was dispatched to cover it never returned.
After the end of the war, the Blackfriars boy came back to his manor, taking the 'Life in the Elephant' images over three weeks in 148 before travelling to Asia to become the personal photographer to Lord Mountbatten and remaining out there to cover the Korean War for the Picture Post.
One of the finest moments in his career was when he recorded the atrocities committed by United Nations soldiers in 1950 and then on the Battle of Inchon, for which he won the prestigious Missouri Pictures of the Year award.
James Cameron, a reporter who worked with Hardy in the Korean War wrote of his experiences of seeing Bert trying to take photographs during active combat:
"On the Korean assignment, as on many others, I was fortunately reinforced by my old mate and colleague Bert Hardy, and one of the good things about that was that Bert was no more of a John Wayne type than I. One of the daunting things in those days was to be attached to a cameraman with heroic instincts, who would follow the sound of the cannon as I follow the sound of the clinking glass, and who would shame one into dramatic gestures of great unwisdom.
"Bert was, I am sure, as alarmed as I was, but there was one signal difference in our roles: he had to take the pictures, and it was long ago established that one way you cannot take pictures is lying face-down in a hole. I spent considerable periods of time doing that. Bert, on the other hand, was plying his trade upright in the open, cursing the military exigencies that had organised this invasion in the middle of the night. One of my enduring memories of that strange occasion is of Bert Hardy on the seawall of Blue Beach, blaspheming among the impossible din, and timing his exposures to the momentary flash of the rockets. That is the difference between the reporter's trade and the cameraman's. His art can never be emotion recalled in tranquillity. Ours can - or could be: the emotion is easy; the tranquillity more elusive."
Following the Korean War Hardy returned to the United Kingdom and continued his photography in slightly safer climes. Three of his photographs were used in Edward Steichen's famous "Family of Man" exhibition and he was also well known throughout the photography industry as an oft photographed photographer, with three photos of him currently residing in the prestigious photographic collection of the British National Portrait Gallery.
Hardy was also a strong advocate of the possibility of 'regular' people taking high quality photographs with cheap high street equipment. One famous photograph shows Hardy taking shots of a pair of women on Blackpool sea front with a 'Box Brownie' Kodak camera.
After leaving the Picture Post when the magazine closed in 1957, Hardy went on to become one of the most famous advertising photographers throughout the 1960s before eventually hanging up his camera in 1967 at the age of 54.
Bert lived through a long retirement, eventually passing away at the age of 82 in 1995.
To vote for Bert Hardy, e-mail his name to firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.southwark.gov.uk/blueplaques or pick up a voting form from any one of Southwark's public libraries.
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