Grace Robertson (1930 – 2021)
One of the foremost women in photography, Grace Robertson OBE (13 July 1930 – 11 January 2021) was a leading British photojournalist who published work in Picture Post and LIFE magazine. Her black and white photography stands out as an authentic record of life for ordinary women in postwar Britain.
Born in Manchester, Grace was the eldest daughter of Picture Post journalist and broadcaster, Fyfe Robertson. Founded in 1938 by Edward G. Hulton, the publication produced weekly news which documented life in pre-war, wartime and post-war Britain.
Recalling her early life, Grace commented, ‘if you were a middle-class girl there were three jobs – teaching, secretarial work or nursing, just to fill in until you got your man’. Grace had left school early to care for her mother, and such avenues seemed neither attainable nor appealing to her.
Defying social norms, Grace decided to turn her attention to photography after witnessing a scene of apparent mundanity rich with narrative; ‘I was standing watching two women talking, it was drizzling, and a bike had fallen over. And suddenly this butcher, whom I loathed, became a picture’.
Although photojournalism was an almost exclusively male profession at the time, Grace soon began submitting photographs for Picture Post with the full support of her father, who gave her a Leica camera in 1949. She was routinely assigned more ‘women oriented’ stories, which became the hallmark of her practice.
Her most recognised series – Mother’s Day Off – depicts the story of a group of working class women, who regularly spent time together in a pub in Bermondsey, on a day trip to Margate. As with many of her assignments, Grace spent an extended time developing familiarity with the group; the result is a series of spirited, candid images.
However, while Grace secured employment with Picture Post, she faced adversity in getting her stories to print. According to Guardian writer Amanda Hopkinson, ‘Despite the fact that her approach chimed with Picture Post’s celebration of working-class culture and of the welfare state, the magazine initially refused to accept [Grace]’s proposals for what were seen as “women’s subjects”. Her idea for Mother’s Day Off was originally rejected, and she had to shoot the outing without a commission.’
In 1955, Grace married the celebrated photojournalist Thurston Hopkins, who also worked for Picture Post. The same year, Grace became one of the first photographers to publish images of childbirth. The series, Childbirth, was originally considered too graphic for print and almost missed altogether; it was accepted only when Grace’s participant was already eight months pregnant.
In her later career, Grace worked as a freelance photojournalist and also moved into teaching, giving lecturers on women photographers. She was appointed an OBE in 1999, for services to Photography, and was awarded the Wingate Scholarship in the same year, which she used to fund one of her later projects, Working Mothers in Contemporary Society.
Reflecting on her career, Grace stated, ‘I took any opportunity to work on stories that allowed me to meet other women’. A groundbreaking proto feminist photographer (Sean O’ Hagan, Guardian), whose gentle compassion matched the strength of her classical reportage photography, Grace is remembered for championing the stories of ordinary women.
By Katherine Riley