Film Review: Picture Stories

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: Rob West

Launched in 1938, Picture Post was a publishing phenomenon. The brainchild of editor Stefan Lorant, the magazine documented real life through photography. Lorant had arrived in the UK fleeing Nazi Germany, and wanted to highlight the lives of ordinary people.

Lorant’s Picture Post, with its large, narrative-style photographs, was an immediate hit, garnering a readership of 5 million. His brand of left-wing, egalitarian politics permeated the magazine, as Picture Post examined pre-war anxieties.

The magazine’s photographers (including Thurston Hopkins, Kurt Hutton) adopted the new, portable Leica to capture events on the street, as they happened. The freshness and immediacy of the images, coupled with Lorant’s editorial perspective made Picture Post a must-have for UK readers as the Second World War took hold. But just as Lorant was hitting his stride, he was forced to leave Britain, when his application for naturalisation was refused.

As the magazine transitioned, Picture Post took on the challenge of documenting the Blitz, and tensions between the magazine and its publisher would see Picture Post changing direction, as it struggled to compete with emerging technologies such as television.

Directed by Rob West, Picture Stories is a documentary that looks at the history of this magazine. Using archive material and interviews with contemporary photographers, Picture Stories wisely allows the photographs to take centre stage. Showing readers what was happening beyond their town or city, the magazine’s imagining of post-war life was unashamedly socialist.

West also looks at the events triggering the magazine’s demise. As Picture Post became politically conservative, the documentary questions its decision to feature images skewed for the male gaze. “Plenty of thigh” sold issues, but the magazine’s ability to stay on the right side of history began to slip. While Picture Stories documents the magazine in exactly the way you’d expect – lots of images, great, period-style music from Stefano Fasce – the documentary is at its best when it questions its subject.

As the magazine headed into the 1950’s, its ability to cover controversial topics was called into question. An issue that asked “Is there a British Colour Bar?” looked at the Windrush generation; coming to the conclusion that these workers threatened to overwhelm local services. West doesn’t resolve these issues – partly because they do represent errors in judgement – mistakes, we feel, would not have been made by Lorant. Even in moments of late triumph – such as the story of British trans pioneer Roberta Cowell (with a powerful cover image to go with it) – the magazine was on borrowed time.

While West’s documentary leans heavily into the nostalgia of Picture Post, with interviewees enthusiastically sharing favourite stories, the critique is not covered in enough detail. We are left with an uneven film. The documentary succeeds in introducing the magazine to a new audience, discussing its artistic and political degree of influence, but the better story was always going to be the issue of accountability. While there is much to admire in Picture Stories, the decision to focus on the hits, feels like a missed opportunity.

UK screenings of Picture Stories will take place from 15 September and will be available on Digital Download from 30 September. 

The Reviews Hub Score

Flawed but fascinating

The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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