An English Eye

When asked to define his photography Roger says: 'I bring an English sensibility to my work - even when travelling abroad. This shows itself not only in the subjects I choose, but the way I photograph them. It's a softer approach. I like understatement. I try to avoid caricature and false heroics - no overacting in front of the camera. A Hollywood star was once asked how he'd spent his morning on the film set. "I gave a great look," he said. That's the essence of a good portrait - a great look. But how do you evoke that look? When photographing a person I ask them to avoid laughter, or the opposite extreme - the laser-beam stare. Pitch it in between I tell them. Relax. The result is more natural-looking and you reveal their character.


'I began using this technique in the 1980s, particularly at Henley Regatta. Besides journalistic pictures I wanted to take portraits of the rowers. Bill Brandt told me although he admired Cartier-Bresson the Frenchman's work looked all the same. I agreed. Cartier-Bresson either took candid pictures, or portraits, but seldom mixed the two when shooting a photo essay. I wanted a greater variety of photos and decided to do both. But there was a problem. How do you take a subtle portrait of a stranger when your subject can spare only a couple of minutes? The picture of the American rower Allan Green (left) illustrates the technique. Asking Allan to adopt an in-between expression meant I was able to secure a proper character study in a few seconds.

'This gentler approach to picture-making stems from my English upbringing. I've lived in London all my life. I went to English schools and holidayed in Bournemouth, Brighton and the Isle of Wight. Each week my grandma bought the illustrated magazine Picture Post. As I lay on the floor in her Pimlico sitting-room pouring over the pages, I little realised how those pictures would influence my life. Grandma also took me to the cinema. As a youngster movies enthralled me. My school took me to the Science Museum cinema. The museum screened classic documentaries directed by Humphrey Jennings, John Grierson and even Leni Reifenstahl. I saw her movie about the 1936 Hitler games a number of times, though Olympia held little appeal for me. I preferred Night Mail.  

Grierson's BBC - The Voice of Britain. Made in 1935 this documentary took me inside the BBC's headquarters, Broadcasting House. Here were the announcers, comedians, actors, dance band leaders and Children's Hour presenters whose voices I recognised - voices loved by millions of listeners. I saw commentators at work, studios, humming transmitters, and aerials beaming radio waves around the globe. There was Stuart Hibberd reading the news. Decades later we met (above) when he took part in my radio series The Announcers. There was John Snagge describing the Boat Race (below). High up at the top of BH lay the Control Room. I worked in that same space in 1990s when it became a production office.


'Grierson's film changed my life. From that moment - I was about seven years of age - I knew I must become a broadcaster. Apart from the cinema, radio and later television, dominated my youth. At that time I had few friends. Illness ruined my childhood. I was crippled by asthma and lost a year's schooling. I stayed at home, coughing and wheezing, fighting for breath. My only companions were the voices coming out of the radio. If only I could escape from my dreary life. Radio took me into different worlds where exciting things happened. But where did the voices come from? What did the broadcasters look like? How did radio work? Grierson's film showed me. For the first time I gazed inside the magic kingdom and realised how voices reached me out of the air. The BBC was a gateway to adventure. But that lay years ahead.

'In the meantime I languished in Pimlico. As a child my parents and grandma took me for long walks. I got to know Chelsea, Battersea, the royal parks, Knightsbridge, Victoria and the West End as only a walker could. Summer and winter we trudged those hard pavements. Oh, those long walks along the Chelsea Embankment beneath leaden skies! Were they as melancholy as I thought at the time? Whatever the truth that sadness crept into my Chelsea photos decades later when I produced a book on the locality. The statue of the naked lady still stood on the Chelsea Embankment (left),but she now faced in a different direction. You can see the Picture Post influence in this photo.

'Why work in an old-fashioned style? Well, it's natural to me as breathing. Besides, it would be absurd to pretend I'm Mr Cool and ape modern methods. More to the point it suits my subjects. This is the way I see the world when I have a camera in my hands. But Picture Post is just one of the influences behind my later work. There are others - the photos produced by the U. S. Farm Security Administration and Humphrey Spender's pictures for Mass Observation. I applied their techniques to much of my work from the 1980s onwards - although I went up-market and photographed middle class subjects and the rich, rather than the poor and working classes, although perhaps I did that in Russia.


'I was never a radical, nor wanted to change the world - just record it. I'm a bourgeois photographer and proud of it - a New Elizabethan whose pictures show how things were - and are - during the reign of Queen Elizabethan II.

'At a time when critics are questioning the multi-cultural society and asking what it means to be British perhaps my photos offer some clues. They may not point the way to the future, but they show where we've come from and what we're in danger of losing - our national identity. Meanwhile, I shall continue to record what I know and admire - and occasionally dislike.'


And what does Roger say to those who claim his work is old-fashioned?

'Fine. That's the point. They're pictures from times past. Old is beautiful.'

An 1980s and early '90s Album

If you look at the album on the next page you can see how Roger interpreted people and places at home and abroad during the 1980s and early '90s - or at least some of them. By this time he'd returned to 35mm and the more mobile cameras freed up his work. We start in New York - pictures snatched between broadcasts while Roger rushed around the city reporting for the BBC. The photos show mainly architecture and views, rather than people. Roger's many visits to Moscow and Leningrad/St Petersburg produced a richer harvest. Here he took candid shots, as well as portraits using his pitch-it-in-between technique.

'The Russians took to it effortlessly,' says Roger. 'I was conscious my photographs looked different from the way the Russians depicted themselves. There was a congruence between the images produced by the Soviet propaganda machine and the way many in the West saw their Cold War opponents. Those May Day parades, with marching hordes of hatchet-faced automata, defined the Soviet image. So did pictures of heroic workers with open-necked shirts and necks wider than their heads.

'But what were individual Russians really like? My agenda was different from news reporting. News deals with extraordinary events, high drama and politics. As a photographer I was more interested in ordinary life. I photographed a naval rating on board the tsarist cruiser Aurora (left) in Leningrad in the same manner I adopted when photographing people at home. He, too, had elegance and style. The Soviets were never cool in a Western sense, but they knew what they were doing when wearing military uniforms. Leningrad/St Petersburg is a great military city. Everywhere you look you see soldiers and sailors. So I photographed them as well as civilians.

'St Petersburg is one of the best-preserved 19th-century cities in the world - a city of imperial splendour and grand gestures. Back in England I was working on a smaller canvas. Henley Regatta was confined to a small area on the River Thames about one and half miles long. And London's fashionable Chelsea retained much of its village-like charm. This is where the beautiful people go. It's interesting to compare their photos with the portraits I was taking at the same time in Russia.'