Continuing his series of profiles of photographers who pictured the East End in the twentieth century, Contributing Writer Mark Richards explores the photography of Kurt Hutton
Men drinking in The Prospect of Whitby, 1942
1934 was a defining year for British photography. Hitler’s restrictions on press freedom led to an exodus of Photographers from Germany and Austria, who moved to London. These included emerging talents such as Edith Tudor-Hart, Bill Brandt and Wolf Suschitzky, as well as established photographers such as Kurt Hübschmann (1893–1960) who was born in Strasbourg and emigrated to England in 1934. On arrival, he changed his name to Kurt Hutton and is remembered by this name as a legendary photojournalist whose work influenced the younger photographers who established themselves in the thirties, such as Bert Hardy.
In Germany, Kurt already had a well-established career as a photographer. At first, his parents decided he should be a solicitor and he was sent to study Law at Oxford in 1911, but he soon found that this dry subject did not appeal to his creative spirit. In 1914, the outbreak of the First World War put all thoughts of a legal career on hold and he volunteered as an officer in the German cavalry. During this time, he learned some basic techniques of photography and his talent became evident immediately. After the war, he practised as an amateur photographer until he decided to make a career of it, after taking lessons in portrait photography in 1923.
Kurt pursued an humane approach to taking pictures, always seeking to preserve the dignity of his subjects. This is the common quality in all his photography – complemented by an irreverent sense of humour. In 1923, Kurt used his newly-acquired skills to establish a photo studio in Berlin with his wife, which they ran together until 1929 when he began to produce work for Simon Guttmann’s Deutsche Photodienst agency. This led to him being talent-spotted by Stefan Lorant, Editor-in-Chief at the Münchner Illustrierte Presse (Munich Illustrated Press), who commissioned work. This association with Lorant proved to be a seminal point in Kurt’s photographic career.
Stefan Lorant was the major editor in Germany at that time. A Hungarian with one Jewish parent, Lorant was a larger-than-life character, strongly opinionated and with a vision that would shape photojournalism for a generation to come. As editor of one of the two leading illustrated magazines in Germany, Lorant had come to know Hitler in the late twenties when Hitler was editing a Nazi magazine in Munich. Lorant even briefly dated Geli Raubul who was Hitler’s half-niece, but his commitment to the freedom of the press and refusal to bow to Nazi influence led to his arrest on 14th March 1933.
The end of press freedom in Germany led to a golden age of photojournalism in England. Lorant was released in 1934, arriving in England in April with only a smattering of English and a plan to reinvent British photojournalism. He established major publications such as Weekly Illustrated, Lilliput and Picture Post, all of which would feature Kurt’s photography.
Kurt’s Jewish origins put him and his wife at great risk in Germany and, after travelling to London to photograph Wimbledon in 1934, he made the decision to follow Stefan Lorant and move to England. He was accompanied by another Munich photographer, Hans Baumann who, on arrival. changed his name to Felix Man and joined Kurt as one of Lorant’s photographers.
Kurt photographed all tiers of English society including the residents of the East End. He had a natural talent for portraiture and his photographs of Churchill, Hemingway, Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman are instantly recognisable. Characteristically, he employed a natural style to capture the spirit of his subjects. His output was prolific and, at times, made up nearly half of the photographs in some editions of Picture Post. Notable series included his photographs of George Orwell’s Wigan in 1939 which provide a unique visual record of life in that town just before the war.
An acknowledgement of the quality of Kurt’s photography is that his work was used as the standard against which other photographers were measured when learning their trade. Grace Robertson, an immensely talented photo-journalist in the fifties, recalled her work being thrown on the ground by her teacher who shouted “Kurt Hutton would never have taken pictures like these!”
The essence of Lorant’s vision for Picture Post was reflected Kurt Hutton’s approach to photography. It can be summed up in an editorial response to criticism over the inclusion of too many ‘ordinary people’ in the images appearing in the magazine. The response, which was probably written by Stefan Lorant read, “Picture Post firmly believes in the ordinary man and woman, thinks they have had no fair share in picture journalism, believes their faces are more striking, their lives and doings more full of interest than those of the people whose faces and activities cram the ordinary picture papers”
This statement explains why so many series of photographs about everyday life were included in Weekly Illustrated, Lilliput and Picture Post during the thirties and forties, when other publications focussed on celebrities, politicians and royalty.
For a time, Picture Post with Kurt Hutton and Felix Man as its leading photographers could do no wrong, but Stefan Lorant had not taken into account the impact of the impending war on his German refugee staff. In advance of the invasion of Poland, there was a fear that Britain would do a deal with Hitler and this would involve ‘insurgents’ such as Lorant and Hutton being sent back to Germany to certain death. Although this never came to pass, some emigrated to America, including Stefan Lorant who sailed for New York on board the Brittanic in July 1940, after having his freedom in Britain severely restricted.
Between September 1939 and April 1940, panic set in amongst some of the refugee photographers who were opposed to Hitler or had been forced to flee Germany due to their race, religion or political beliefs. A suspicion of all things German took hold of the public and, under special measures, ‘enemy aliens’ were interned. Amongst these were Kurt Hutton and Felix Man, whose cameras were confiscated when they were sent to the Isle of Man in 1939. It robbed Picture Post of its most experienced photographers. After it lost its editor and when all of its refugee photographers and journalists were interned, the magazine was down to only five members of staff.
Kurt Hutton remained in custody on the Isle of Man until 1941. His absence, along with the absence of the other leading lights in photojournalism at the time, offered a golden opportunity for new British photographers such as Bert Hardy, who stepped up to fill the gap, becoming the new lead photographer for Picture Post. Yet, even while interned on the Isle of Man, Kurt managed to get his hands on a camera and photographed holidaymakers there. He possessed an energy that was not be easily suppressed and, on his release in late 1941, he made his way back to London to start again.
The strength of Kurt’s work is immediately apparent when examining his archive. The wild abandon seen in one of his most well-known photographs of young women on a rollercoaster in 1938, as well as the risqué nature of the shot, typifies the unforced nature of his work. Unlike Bill Brandt, Kurt was drawn to employing what were known at the time as ‘miniature’ cameras – those using the relatively new 35mm format such as the Leica III. These were highly portable, versatile cameras and allowed for contact prints, which assisted editorial decisions. However, the cameras were mocked by ‘serious’ photographers who thought they were no better than toys, although the quality of Hutton’s work, and that of others who adopted the Leica, proves them wrong.
Kurt’s photography is not ‘street photography’ like that of Wolf Suschitzky or Henri Cartier-Bresson, yet neither is it in the poetic style of Bill Brandt and it is unlikely that Kurt considered his photographs to be Art. As social documentary, his work is a powerful record of everyday life during a period of profound social disruption. His photographs were produced in the knowledge that they would be coupled with text, but their quality was such they required no further explanation.
Kurt Hutton retired to Aldeburgh and produced a final photo series on Benjamin Britten who became a friend. It is a revealing series into the private life of this composer and a fitting finale to an extraordinary career of a pioneering photographer who is now mostly forgotten.
‘A large family’ London, 1945
Street artist David Burton working in Swiss Cottage, February 1945
Commissionaire talking to his dachshund in Piccadilly, 1938
Roasted chestnut seller in Piccadilly Circus, 1938
Young women on a rollercoaster, Southend Fair, 1938
Unemployed man with dog from The Wigan of George Orwell, 1939
Life in a back alley, from The Wigan of George Orwell, 1939
Father with children, from The Wigan of George Orwell, 1939
Holidaymakers relaxing on a bench in Douglas, Isle of Man, 1939
Winston Churchill, 1939
Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock, 1948
Entrance to Old Buildings and Old Square, leading into Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1951
Brokers at the London Stock Exchange in Throgmorton Street, November 1951
Benjamin Britten in his studio at The Red House, Aldeburgh 1958
Audience at a Britten performance, Aldeburgh Festival 1949
Picture Post photographers Kurt Hutton (left) and Bert Hardy in 1950
Photographs copyright © Estate of Kurt Hutton
You may also like to read about
Edith Tudor-Hart, Photographer
Wolfgang Suschitzky, Photographer
Bill Brandt, Photographer
Bert Hardy, Photographer
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