Saturday, 28 February 2009

Profile: George Rodger

The liberation of Brussels 1944 - Image by George Rodger

Last year, the blog's photographer profile series looked at Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, two of photography's most iconic figures. Their role in setting up the Magnum photo agency has become a integral part of photographic history, but two other photographers were involved in establishing Magnum alongside Capa and Cartier Bresson. They were David 'Chim' Seymour and George Rodger. We start with George Rodger, a British photographer whose experiences during World war II read like a boys adventure handbook and had a profound effect on his post war work.

George Rodger was born in Hale, Cheshire in 1908 and was the son of a Presbyterian father involved in the shipping and the Lancashire cotton trades. He was educated at St Bedes college in Cumbria in Northern England and distinguished himself as a brilliant shot and a keen horseman. At the age of 18 he entered the merchant navy, becoming an apprentice deck officer on a tramp steamer. By the time he was 19 he had circled the globe twice. George Rodger had wanted to become a writer and in 1928 he managed to sell a story about the gardens of Assam to the Baltimore Sun. The drawn illustration that was supplied by the newspaper for the article appalled Rodger. He later said ' I was pictured encircled by snakes, cutting my way through the jungle. Perfectly absurd!!' It was then that Rodger decided that he would illustrate his stories himself by taking the images himself for use with his writing. During the depression years, George Rodger made his way around America working as a machinist, wool sorter, steel rigger and farmhand. He continued to take photographs and often developed the film in the bath. His big break into professional photography came when he returned to the UK and got a job with the BBC, photographing guest speakers for the BBC's The Listener radio programme. Rodger also photographed the BBC's early television broadcasts but disliked the noisy shutter of the Speed Graphic camera that he was using. He changed to the lighter, smaller and quieter Leica 35mm camera.

The BBC closed down its photography department at the outbreak of war in September 1939 and Rodger found himself out of work. Initially he thought about joining the Royal Air Force as a rear turret gunner on a bomber, but he found out that photographers were in the 'reserved occupations' category so he joined the Black Star photo agency. The agency had been established to supply the vast number of illustrated magazines that had become hugely popular during the 1930's. George Rodger spent considerable time waiting on Shakespeare cliff near Dover to photograph the German invasion fleet, that never actually came, coming across the English channel. The other aspect of the war was the bombing of British towns and cities and it's Rodger's photography of war torn London and Coventry during the Blitz that remain some of his most enduring images. The photographs capture the human spirit's ability to endure all sorts of trauma and change from clothing restrictions to sleeping on a tube station platform. The city of London was photographed extensively and the images capture the immense damage done to the streets and transport system. One of my favourite Rodger images of this period shows a temporary bridge spanning a massive bomb crater in Charing Cross Road. Other photographs show windowless shops complete with humorous signs stating that the Oxford Street shop was ' more open than usual'. One female shopper even stops and is photographed checking the material quality of a coat in a shop window - thanks to the lack of glass in the shop window. Air raid wardens, newspaper vendors and the local parish priests all come into focus as part of the blitz coverage by Rodger. A book of these photographs called The Blitz – The photography of George Rodger contains many great images from this period in Rodger's career.

By the end of 1940, Rodger was in North Africa photographing the Free French force harassing the Italians in Chad and Libya. The project should have kept him away just a few weeks but Rodger would not return to Britain for two years. After a busy period of photographing the conflict taking place in North Africa and the Middle East, Rodger made his way to Rangoon where he arrived during the middle of a Japanese attack. He stayed and photographed several stories for LIFE magazine including, amongst others, the Flying Tigers squadron made up of American volunteers. The Japanese advance could not be stopped and soon Rangoon was to fall. Fortunately Rodger managed to make his way out and link up with the Indian army at Scwegyin in Burma. From there he went to take images of the Burma road, the only supply route to and from China. However the Japanese advance cut Burma in two and Rodger and the other correspondents had to find a way out. Eventually after many adventures including a navigating a dangerous river, Rodger managed to make it to the Indian border and onto a train to Calcutta. The photographs Rodger had produced during this time had, unbeknown to him, been extensively published in LIFE magazine making George Rodger a famous name in the USA,- something that Rodger found difficult to deal with especially as he was suffering from shell shock. He was called to New York and lecture tours around the USA were arranged by LIFE magazine. For the rest of the war, Rodger travelled to the various battlefronts. During this time, George Rodger was the only British freelance photographer to work on the front line. Most of Rodger's fellow photographers had been drafted into the army to work as army correspondents. The training was tedious and the army's photographic equipment was rather old fashioned. Bert Hardy, a photographer who had worked for the Picture Post for many years, was forced to go through the British army photography training programme even though he was far more experienced than the instructor. Hardy ditched his bulky army speed graphic camera and used his own Leica until it broke. The army refused to have it fixed.

After periods at the front in Italy where he met Robert Capa for the first time, Rodger continued to photograph the war through France and Germany. It was in 1945 that a turning point came in Rodger's career starting with the photographer accompanying British troops into the concentration camp at Belsen. The sheer scale of death horrified Rodger but the photographs he produced there also troubled him. ' The dead were lying around, over 4000 of them' recalled Rodger many years later 'and I found that I was getting bodies into photographic compositions. And I said my God what has happened to me?' As the final days of World War II came to an end, George Rodger decided that he could no longer work as a war photographer. After the war he helped set up the Magnum photo agency with his friends Capa, Seymour and Cartier-Bresson. Like these other great photographers, Rodger had been increasingly frustrated with the lack of control he had over his images. With Magnum established George Rodger returned to Africa to photograph a continent that he'd fallen in love with. His image of Nuba tribemen in southern Sudan carrying a victorious Nuba wrestler remains one of his most famous and iconic images of Africa. In 1959 he settled down in Smarden, Kent and continued to travel and photograph on assignment. George Rodger died in 1995 after a lifetime of photographic achievement. He was extremely well travelled, probably the best travelled of the four Magnum photographers. Ironically he is often left out of the founding names of Magnum. George Rodger's images reflect his love of humanity, travel and the ethnic and cultural diversity that he came across during his lifetime. His work remains highly influential to this day.

All Images are by George Rodger
  • Top left - George Rodger
  • Top right - Robert Capa and George Rodger, Sicily 1943
  • Middle right - London Blitz, 1940
  • Middle left - The Blitz; The Photography of George Rodger
  • Bottom right - Western Desert, 1941
  • Bottom left - Flemish former SS guard in prison at Breendonk prison, 1944
  • Bottom - Belsen concentration camp, 1945

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