"I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made them tick."
Grace Robertson OBE was born on 13th July 1930 in Manchester, the eldest daughter of Picture Post journalist and broadcaster, Fyfe Robertson. Picture Post, founded in 1938 by Edward G. Hulton, was a weekly news publication that sought, through pioneering photojournalism to document life in pre-war, wartime and post-war Britain.
'In those days', as Robertson remembers, 'if you were a middle-class girl there were [only] three jobs [considered by society as appropriate]- teaching, secretarial work or nursing, just to fill in until you got your man'. Having left school early to look after her mother who had rheumatoid arthritis, Robertson feared she could not aspire to either work or marriage, then one day, whilst queuing at the shops, she had a revelation: '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'.
Photojournalism at the time was considered an exclusively male discipline and yet when Robertson spoke to her father about her new-found ambition, his response, far from prohibitive, negative or derisory, was 'Right, you need a camera'. Not wanting to trade on her father's name, her first photographs were published in Picture Post under the pseudonym of Dick Muir but it was not long before she began using her own name. In 1951 Robertson received her first and 'most idyllic' Picture Post assignment, to document the life of sheep shearers working on a hill farm in Snowdonia, Wales. The following year she accompanied the Bluebell Girls, a Parisian cabaret troupe, on tour to Italy, a project which marked the beginning of a life-long commitment to photographing women.
At 6ft 2in Roberston was hardly inconspicuous, and yet her tactic was to spend time with her subjects, to become familiar and therefore unremarkable. 'I remember reading that Cartier-Bresson painted all the silver bits on his camera black and I thought, Well, that is ok for Cartier-Bresson. He's a tiny man. I thought then the only way it would work for me would be to be very prominent until people got it out of their system'.
In 1954 Robertson embarked on arguably her most celebrated series, Mother's Day Off, which documented a day trip to Margate undertaken by a group of women who often drank in a pub in Bermondsey and with whom she had spent the previous four nights. Robertson recalls: 'After a couple of nights I noticed two things- one that the women were getting ready for a day trip that weekend, and that around me younger people, ex-soldiers, were talking about new high-rise flats, new estates outside London. I knew at that moment I was capturing a bit of history, and that it was all going to be broken up, the whole area.
'So I set off on the Saturday with the women in the coach. Their energy was awesomeThese women were survivors. These were women in their fifties, sixties and seventies, and they had been through two wars and that depression in the middle. They were incredibly exuberant. ' Nine of Robertson's images were published in Picture Post, proving at once so affective and effective that two years later American magazine, Life, commissioned Robertson do re-shoot the story, this time featuring a group of women from a pub in Clapham.
In an interview published in The Telegraph in August 2010, Robertson said that what she and her fellow photographers at Picture Post were endeavouring to do in taking photographs of life on the home front, was to help a country fractured by war reimagine itself whole by communicating in visual terms, by showing 'this is how that group of people lives' at a time when photojournalism was in its comparative infancy.
Robertson was a true pioneer, conceiving of a number of stories considered contemporarily to be revolutionary. Her 1955 photographs of a woman giving birth, for example, were some of the first of their kind to be published (and indeed were nearly not published at all, having been rejected by Picture Post until Robertson's subject was 8 months pregnant).
After the collapse of Picture Post in 1957, Robertson worked as a freelance photojournalist, submitting work to a range of national magazines as well as to the Pictorial Press Agency. In 1992, she was commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary about nonagenarians. Robertson has written and lectured extensively on the role of women in photography and in 1999 received an OBE in recognition of her services to photography, the same year in which she was awarded the Wingate Scholarship, which she used to fund her then current project Working Mothers in Contemporary Society. Robertson is the only British photographer to have featured in an exhibition at the National Photography Gallery, USA, celebrating the first women in photojournalism.
British Photography / The Hyman Collection