December 26: Holidays used traditionally to bring postcards inscribed with the greeting “Wish you were here”. Invariably, they were sent with the intention to generate envy and jealousy in the recipient, a function now being taken up by social media.
No-one has done more to elevate this genre of photography to that of an art than John Hinde, who died in 1997 on this, the same date as Arthur Fellig (*1899), known as Weegee, who died in 1968.
The two photographers present very different views; one grubby and sinister, the other pristine and sublime. While Weegee’s photographs of the underbelly of New York are in black and white, John Hinde was a pioneer of colour photography in Britain, developing a much more optimistic, rose-tinted image of his country.
As we know, skies in postcards are always blue the people all tanned and not a scrap of rubbish sullies the green pastures. In Hinde’s Piccadilly Circus and Eros Statue of 1962, even the water in Eros’s fountain is sky-blue, and against the predominant brown-greys of the tarmac and buildings, the sports car, buses and ladies’ coats vibrate with a redness branded ‘London’. It’s the world of the Beatles’ Please Please Me recorded on 26 November that same year, not the gaudy, run-down Britain of Martin Parr‘s Bad Weather or The Last Resort, both begun 20 years later.
There’s nothing attractive for the tourist of 1952 in Weegee’s vision of the corner of Piccadilly Circus’s US counterpart, Times Square. Men loiter outside a lingerie shop studded with naked plastic breasts and advertising its ‘drastic reductions’, atop which a gilded model of a tawdry showgirl is strutting her stuff. The underexposure of the negative smudges the smoggy distance; no blue skies here!
Born in Somerset, England and trained at the Reimann School of Photography by Frank Newens, a leading exponent of new methods of colour printing, Hinde set up a studio in London and worked as a documentary, war and advertising photographer. He was commissioned to take pictures for books by Adprint publishers who developed the Britain in Pictures series, including Exmoor Village (1947) and British Circus Life (1948) an association that applies his experience with war-time propaganda to tourism publicity.
Working on the last of these, Hinde decided to join the circus as a PR manager and attempted to start his own in Ireland until finally in 1956 he returned to photography and founded his eponymous postcard business. He issued his first 6 postcards in 1957, bright cards depicting English and Irish landscape that were even then considered gaudy and kitsch, but new and desirable, by an audience used to staid black and white views. However, in retrospect, Martin Parr regards the postcards as;
…some of the strongest images of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Hinde was showing off a palette much more colourful and saturated than ever before. He was fastidious about the colour, the saturation, the technique, and that paid off.
His big break was to be commissioned by the highly successful Butlins Holiday Camps, founded by Billy Butlin to provide affordable holidays for ordinary British families in ten camps built between 1936 and 1966, including one in Ireland and one in the Bahamas. The series he produced for them were so much in demand that by 1966 Hinde was running one of the largest postcard companies with worldwide sales in excess of 50 million postcards (or viewcards as he preferred to call them) by 1972. Hinde’s success in the postcard business parallels the post-war expansion of the tourist industry.
He put his experience as a showman to work in the meticulous staging of these images, which are always taken from carefully scouted vantage points in just the right weather conditions, augmented with strategically-placed flash units (with one-shot bulbs inserted) to light models chosen from amongst the people available but with strict direction. Everything visible in each shot has been orchestrated and yet no image revolves around a single focus.
To meet the high demand, two German photographers with high technical standards, Elmar Ludwig (*1935) and Edmund Nägele, and the Briton David Noble, were employed to execute the photographs to Hinde’s rigorously formulaic art direction. The placement of at least three bare flash heads can be determined from the shadows cast in Nägele’s shot below in which four ‘Redcoat’ Butlins attendants keep the subjects smiling. One flash, hidden high at the top of a landing, projects barred shadows at right, while another concealed behind the stairs creates a bright pool of light in the middle distance and still another is placed further back, to illuminate the little boy being shown the swimming pool.
In an interview with The Independent Nägele remembers that he and the other photographers were each required to take an average of 80 postcard subjects per season…
…which meant 95 4×5 transparencies in total, so it was expensive. Planning was so much more important then – we had to get it right first or second time. We’d work out precisely when the light would be right, and make sure the exposure was correct. It was like a film production: you’d pray the sun came out – or there’d be no film. And in Ireland, you can imagine… I’d ring John and say in my slow English, ‘Mr Hinde, it’s been raining for four days now…’. But we were instructed always to wait and get the best shot. Sometimes it would take weeks, so we’d kill time in the penny arcade.
Kodak Ektachrome sheet film, initially developed in the early 1940s and released in the UK in 1947, was the company’s first colour film that photographers could process themselves, as John Hinde’s photographers did in his bungalow in Bullock Harbour, Dublin, to make transparencies. E1 processing of Ektachrome was not only time-consuming (over an hour and a half, not including drying time) but also a quite poisonous process since the chemistry included Borane tert-butylamine, formaldehyde, N,N-Diethyl-p-phenylenediamine Sulfate and other toxic, irritant or corrosive agents.
Edmund Nägele recalls in his now much improved English;
After John had masked the transparencies, black and white negatives and the prints for the colour-notes would be made…John himself would prepare these instructions for the colour separations, which were produced in Milan (Italy). No PhotoShop in those days, only skilled Milanese Signores who would change colours, follow the scribble “make new sky” to the letter and insert the perfect holiday wish. They would eagerly remove objects of lesser desire; telephone posts and TV-aerials scored especially high. More desirable items included people and cars, thus the scribbles became frantic: “make jumper red” and “change colour of car to yellow”. Why red or yellow? Simple, it made the finished cards stand out on the rotating wooden display stands and make our competitors tear out their hair. It would take some 6 months before the printed colour proofs were transferred from one republic to the other. It was a very slow and expensive process, but also exciting to see ones work in its first form of print.
In Italy colour technology was more advanced. They are masterworks of the genre but of course, as a consequence, being postcards, they are at the same time quite ludicrous!
John Hinde presents us with the working-person’s family paradise. He adhered to a philosophy that “pictures should always convey a positive, good feeling, something which makes people happy, which makes them smile, which makes them appreciate some tenderness”.