A photographer who worked with many icons from the classic era of film.
Bert started his career in 1932 when he applied for a job as a pageboy at the Gaumont Studios in Lime Grove.
When he got the job he was immediately despatched to Savile Row to have a suit made; a far cry from the runners of today.
After several years as a pageboy and many unusual experiences, Bert was told he was under consideration to start in one of the departments and he was advised to look around and pick where he may like to go. He paid a lot of attention to this decision and concluded that one of the happiest people around was the man who ran the Stills department.
There began his lifelong devotion to creating the perfect picture. He learned by spending hours in the Dark Room mastering printing, negative developing, all the tricks of enlarging, reducing, copying and glazing.
Bert went on to run a Dark Room at Pinewood Studios and was then asked to become printer and assistant to American photographer Lee Garmes. Lee promised to teach Bert all about portrait photography and he did. Lee was also an experienced movie cameraman and said it was easier to light films than stills, for if it was wrong on screen it was momentary whereas in a still, it was forever.
The training that Bert experienced was the embodiment of the analogue era of photography; where the processes of image capture and composition were as much about the craft as the art, in ways that do not exist today.
Bert has written more about this in his notes “Click and Tell”.
The War disrupted many careers, including Bert’s, but when he returned from the Middle East he was welcomed back to the Bush Studios and immediately started what turned out to be a stellar career in photography.
His first assignment was to photograph Margaret Lockwood in retakes of “The Wicked Lady”. She was so kind to him saying “Take your time Bertie; I know this is your first picture”.
Numerous films followed: Dear Murderer, The Huggets, and it was evident that the cumbersome cameras of those days were extremely unsuited to a movie set as they flashed and thumped, making the stills man’s job very hard as he could only shoot on rehearsals or after the take when no one wanted to reconstruct what they had just done.
Bert decided to introduce the twin lens Rolleiflex; a camera that could be used discreetly on set to take pictures without upsetting anybody. It was considered fairly radical at the time as the negatives were much smaller. However Bert proved to be a trailblazer and when the magazine ‘Picture Post’ printed a 3 page layout featuring his images, other photographers rushed out and also bought up ‘Rollies’.
Bert worked with many legendary photographers including Larry Burrows who was an acclaimed photographer of the Vietnam War. His pictures are featured in the museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Sadly Larry died while photographing that war, though he had visited the set of Gone to Earth on which Bert was the Stills photographer. So impressed was Bert by the quality of the pics that Larry took with the Speed Graphic that he purchased it from him. It is today a treasured possession of Bert’s daughter, Sally James.
Bert’s next major film was Tales of Hoffman with Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. A film Bert described as one of the most pictorial films there ever was. Bert won the coveted Still of the month award from “Cinema Studio” with the citation; “This still was representative of an enormous collection of stills which set such a high standard of excellence as to impose a seal of outstanding quality not only on the film itself but upon the work of the man who took them”.
Film after film followed, as well as many important assignments for Life Magazine.
Bert covered many significant events including the Coronation of Her Majesty the Queen in 1953, where he was entrusted with capturing the moments in colour, alongside the great Henri Cartier-Bresson whose signature B&W shots were also used. Other notable assignments included The Queen Mother at the Royal Film Show, Sir Laurence Olivier, Gene Kelly, (Invitation to the Dance) Gregory Peck and Orson Welles in Moby Dick to name a few.
Bert worked with a host of wonderful leading ladies from that era including; Jennifer Jones, Linda Darnell, Janet Leigh, Anita Ekberg, Rita Hayworth, Maureen O Hara, Nancy Kwan, Vivien Leigh, Ursula Andress, Sophia Loren, Jane Fonda and Brigitte Bardot. He got on famously, his cockney charm endearing him to them all. He had to sing cockney songs to Jennifer Jones in return for letting him take her picture, look after Linda Darnell’s cameras, brush sand off Ursula Andress, stop Anita Ekberg being attacked. The stories go on.
Those were incredible days of film making and Bert left us a fabulous legacy of photos and stories.
His journey through all the different technical challenges is fascinating as were his location experiences. We salute Bert for being one of the creators of many iconic images that we still recognise today, but few know the man behind the lens.
Graflex Speed Graphic