CNN Photos

Briton captured the drama of war, and of daily life

Bert Hardy had the one quality that makes a great documentary photographer: He was able to get close to people. He would interact with anyone, from royalty to the children of Glasgow’s slums.

He had a keen eye for light and composition, but it was the ease with which he approached people that turned the beloved British photographer into a star.

“He could mix with all sorts of people, people from bottom and top,” said Hardy’s widow, Sheila, pointing out his close-up shots of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.

Hardy often photographed people in their homes, capturing intimate moments of their lives for the pioneering photojournalism magazine Picture Post.

A couple sitting on a sofa, seemingly unaware of the photographer; kids happily playing among graves in a cemetery; a young woman shedding a tear, waving goodbye on a station platform – his photos offer a rare insight into the everyday lives of ordinary people in post-war Britain.

Born in 1913 in London’s deprived Elephant and Castle neighborhood, Hardy often returned to the poorest areas of the country, exposing poverty through his photos. He rose to fame and traveled the world, but he remained very sympathetic to people living in hardship.

His favorite photo was a snapshot of two young boys with runny noses walking down the street in Gorbals, Glasgow, their interlocking arms wrapped in worn-out sweaters.

“It was reminder of where he came from,” Sheila Hardy said. “The photo was never published in the magazine, but it was his favorite, because he was once a boy with a stuffy nose and socks rolled down to his ankles.”

Although he is most famous for those sharp, spontaneous photos of anonymous Brits going about their daily lives, he established his name as a war photographer. Documenting the D-Day landing, the Blitz or the liberation of Paris, he served in the army in the War Office communication department.

Sheila Hardy says he never considered himself fearless or brave even though he risked his own life to capture the right moment on several occasions, following firefighters into smoke-filled, collapsing houses during the Blitz or travelling with front-line soldiers.

Taking pictures was what he did. “I never seemed like work,” Hardy said of his career as a professional photographer. “It was always good fun.”

In a way, Sheila says, Hardy thought photographing war was easier than capturing everyday life.

“His attitude to war photography was, you can’t go wrong in war, because it’s all happening; there are pictures all around you,” Sheila recalled. “There is a drama. Everyone is affected. Something is always happening.”

In daily life, he thought, it is harder to create action, a good photographic moment. Sheila says he felt that it was more difficult to make some of the simple stories of everyday life interesting visually.

“It was more work for him to make the stories work,” she said.

If there was any hard work behind Hardy’s images, it is not visible in the results. His snapshots seem natural; he makes documentary photography look easy.

- Ivana Kottasova, CNN

Bert Hardy's photographs will be on display at the the Photographers' Gallery in London through May 26.

All images courtesy Sheila Hardy, copyright Getty Images. Headshot courtesy Colin Davey/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.