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15 October 2014
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Becoming a Wartime Press Photographer: In Kent and Sussexicon for Recommended story

by Rod Balkham

Contributed by 
Rod Balkham
People in story: 
Rod Balkham
Location of story: 
Kent and Sussex
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Contributed on: 
21 April 2004

Four years after war broke out I achieved my ambition and became a press photographer, working for the Kent and Sussex Courier. Many of my assignments involved photographing the damage wreaked by German bombs in the nearby towns and this brought the war into close focus for me.

It took a while for the news of a distant air raid to reach us, so that by the time I got to the scene of devastation, repair work on broken gas and electricity mains was well under way. As yet I had not learned to drive a car so I was either rushed off in a Courier van or, more likely, obliged to make my way by train or bus. Bomb damage pictures chosen for publication had to be carefully inspected for anything that would give away their location. Road signs, street names and especially clocks, which usually stopped at the time of the bombing, had to be blocked out on the negatives before printing. After these precautions the prints were sent for official approval. If a publication day was missed as a result of this censorship it could sometimes be close on two weeks before the pictures appeared in the paper.

My photographs of the bombing of a certain West Sussex town, however, made the deadline in a remarkable three days. It was at 8.30 on the morning of Tuesday, February 9th, 1943, that a stick of six bombs caused havoc in the small town of Crawley. I got over there by lunchtime and learned that a German plane had made several low-level passes, strafing the streets with machine gun fire before releasing its bombs.

This very first visit to the town where I was destined to live, work and raise a family, was made memorable for me because I fell through the rafters of a bomb-torn school. Having photographed the shattered remains of a house and the Baptist Church in Station Road, followed by the badly damaged Post Office in the High Street, I made my way across to Ifield Road in search of West Green school. (Fortunately the children had not assembled before the bombs fell).

Gazing across the large crater where the playground had been I found myself thinking about my hero, Bert Hardy, and his pictures of the blitz. He wouldn't have taken a ground level picture, I told myself. He would have climbed up inside the building for a dramatic view through the broken windows. When no-one was looking I darted inside and made my way upstairs through dust and debris to a half demolished storage room. In order to see through a gaping hole to the crater outside, I crept stealthily along an exposed joist ... and promptly fell down into the classroom below. Bert Hardy rapidly faded from my mind and I had to be satisfied with yet another ground level view, shooting side-by-side with the Sussex Express & County Herald photographer, the man I had been trying to scoop.

The Courier made the most of my enthusiasm during that fourth year of the war when I was the only full-time newspaper photographer in Tunbridge Wells. When I was not gathering pictures of all the run of the mill weddings, fetes and presentations, I was covering a constant succession of volunteer task force parades. Just about everybody who was not eligible for the armed services was 'in' something or other.

Those who were not in the AKP, the Mobile Wardens or First Aid, might find themselves in the AFS, the Special Constables, the Home Guard, the Red Cross or the ubiquitous WVS. Yet others might be found producing meals at the new British Restaurants or involved in the Fuel Economy Campaign. The special church parades, dedicated to Civil Defence Day, Wings for Victory Week or Warship Week, followed one after the other - and all these people went marching, including the Land Girls, the Sea Cadets, the ATC, the GTC and the Boys' Brigade.

It was no mean task to get a representative picture of every group of stalwarts as they marched past. Shooting pictures with the large press cameras of those days was a far cry from today's automatic 35mm cameras. No question of shooting off yards of film just to make sure of getting one good picture. Glass plates took the place of film, loaded singly in metal holders called darkslides. By the time I had replaced the sheath on my darkslide, removed the darkslide from the back of the camera, replaced it with another and withdrawn the sheath in readiness for the next shot, a whole platoon could disappear into the distance. My self-imposed hours of practice on the Courier roof stood me in good stead, though, and with all this operational experience I was improving all the time.

Hulton's magazine Picture Post was in its heyday. I considered it to be the only publication worth looking at because it was full of what was the very breath of life to me. The photographs were alive and full of atmosphere. Even the newsprint had a strong, distinctive smell, seductively making me feel it was something very special. I waited impatiently for it to appear on the news stands each week for I was enthralled by its breakthrough in photo reportage. The available light techniques with the consequent spontaneity of the pictures, made possible with the fast lenses and unobtrusiveness of the miniature camera, grabbed me right from the start.

I set out to mould my own picture taking on the examples of the Picture Post cameramen. One of them was Bert Hardy, the first to be given the acknowledgement of a by-line for his photographs of the London blitz in 1941. Thereafter his name was magic to me. I took the firm's press camera everywhere with me, even when I was not officially on a job. It was to be a long time before I would have a miniature camera of my own but I found, even with the cumbersome VH plate camera, that I could sometimes get a usable available light picture.

One day I was sent to the Assembly Hall to cover an army boxing tournament. I was not expected to get any action shots - in any case we hadn't any of the long-peak flashbulbs essential (in those days) to high speed shutter synchronisation. Consequently I was required only to get the boxers and promoters outside in the early evening daylight before it all started.

I'd never even seen a proper boxing match before but I figured it was worth a try to get a shot without a flash even though I would have to time my exposure for when the boxers were virtually motionless.

I waited for the main fight contestants to come into the ring. They were Irish Guardsman Paddy Roche (the then Middleweight Champion of Ireland) and Sgt. Arthur Danahar (ABA Lightweight Champion). Just a split second was all I needed, and as they faced up to each other I got it. Employing the classic grip, where one corner of the camera is pressed into the left shoulder with the elbows tucked well in, I took the mandatory deep breath. Then, as I steadied myself with a slow exhalation, I let go with a tenth of a second at f4.5, on a P1200 plate. Though it was far from being a brilliant action picture it was the best that could be done in the circumstances and I was quite proud of myself when the Courier used it as a single-column support to the group picture.

As I worked my way towards the summer of 1943 everything I did gradually took on a new piquancy, for I was made forcibly aware that it would not be long before I would have to leave it all behind. I had already registered for enlistment, in itself a somewhat disturbing experience. To me, it meant that I was no longer free. I was caught in a net and I felt the first intimations of an oppression that was to follow me through all my days in the army. An all-powerful authority held me ineluctably in its grasp, to be clinched by the medical board at Maidstone with their pronouncement that I was Al.

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