George Rodger was an important pioneer of photojournalism who broke new ground with his work. David Clark writes about George Rodgers life and photography

Image: George Rodger in the Sahara 1941. © George Rodger/Magnum Photos

George Rodger was, by nature, an adventurer with a taste for travel. His restlessness drove him to spend long periods abroad, often in exotic locations. Although he became a photographer almost by accident, he established himself as one of the pioneering photojournalists of his generation during the traumatic years of the Second World War.

Rodger is best known for his photographs of the Blitz in London, his harrowing images of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and his groundbreaking documentary pictures of remote African tribes. He was also one of a small group of photographers who formed the Magnum agency and, although more reserved and self-effacing than his more famous co-founders, was respected by them as an equal.

Born in 1908 into a family of Scottish descent who had settled in Cheshire, Rodger was sent to a succession of boarding schools, finishing at St Bees College in Cumbria. He rebelled and while at St Bees, as a prank, he planted a ‘loud-sounding firework’ under the platform where David Lloyd George and other dignitaries were due to attend a prize-giving ceremony. The device didn’t explode, but Rodger was later named in what one newspaper described as an attempted assassination’. His enraged father withdrew him from school before he took any exams.

In the years that followed, Rodger initially worked on a pig farm before signing up for the merchant navy as an apprentice deck officer on the SS Matra. After two years he resigned his post and went to live in America, working in various low-paid jobs on building sites, fruit farms and in factories. He stayed for six years before returning to England and, in 1936, surprised himself by getting a job as a portrait photographer for The Listener magazine.

Rodger had been taking photographs since he was 15, but had no experience of studio work or using the Speed Graphic half-plate camera that was assigned to him. Luckily, his assistant had trained as a photographer and was willing to instruct him. However, he didn’t enjoy studio work and was happier working in his next job as a freelancer for the Black Star agency.

He photographed London during the Blitz (1940-41) and one of his picture essays was accepted by Life magazine. ‘Each bomb that fell left horror, tragedy and grief in its wake, but I left those emotions to the Press Boys of Fleet Street,’ he later wrote. ‘I was concerned more with the ordinary people of London and how they coped with their new lifestyle – just a record of a courageous, unflappable public.’

He was later employed by Life as a war correspondent, during which time he travelled to 61 countries, and assignments included covering the recapture of Syria from the Axis forces, the war in Burma and the liberation of Paris. During the course of this work he was awarded 18 campaign medals for his courage.

The turning point in Rodger’s career came when he became the first photographer present at the liberation of the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Years later, in the book Dialogue with Photography by Paul Hill and Thomas Cooper (1979), Rodger recalled his feelings about photographing Belsen’s holocaust victims and how the experience affected him.

‘It wasn’t even a matter of what I was photographing as what happened to me in the process,’ he said. ‘When I discovered that I could look at the horror of Belsen – 4,000 dead and starving lying around – and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop.’

Rodger later resumed photography, but his work changed direction. After joining Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David ‘Chim’ Seymour in the formation of the Magnum Photo agency in 1947, each member chose the locations they wanted to cover. Rodger chose Africa and the Middle East. In 1948, he set off on an epic two-year journey by Jeep in which he covered more than 28,000 miles.

During this journey, he encountered the remote Nuba tribe of central Sudan in 1949 that was living in the same way it had for generations and which, Rodger said, was ‘untouched by our Western ways’. He continued to make journeys to Africa and photograph its people and landscape for over 30 years, often on assignment for National Geographic magazine.

These documentary images, like the rest of Rodger’s work, were unpretentious representations of what he saw and experienced. As former Picture Post editor Tom Hopkinson wrote in 1995, ‘The only “style” George Rodger cared about in a photographic sense was its truth. As a result, his own pictures have a special quality: direct, straightforward, but strongly composed, usually taken at a sufficient distance to show men and women active in their own setting.’

Rodger continued returning to Africa until 1981, when he made his final trip to photograph the Masai tribe in Kenya. Afterwards, he retired to a relatively quiet life in the small Kent village of Smarden.

Shortly before he died in 1995, he oversaw the publication of his only monograph, Humanity and Inhumanity, and was present at the opening of a major retrospective of his work at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. Although Rodger rejected the idea that he was an ‘artist’, it was fitting that the photographs he produced in his long and extraordinary life had finally been displayed as an entire body of work.

‘Many of George Rodger’s images contribute to our collective memory,’ wrote Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1994, in tribute to his friend. ‘[He] belongs to the great tradition of explorers and adventurers. His work is a moving testimony through time and space.’

Biography

  • 1908: Born on 19 March in Hale, Cheshire
  • 1921-26: Educated at St Bees College in Cumbria
  • 1927: Joins the merchant navy as an apprentice deck officer
  • 1929: Moves to the United States, where he works in a variety of low-paid jobs
  • 1936: Returns to Britain and is employed as a portrait photographer for The Listener magazine
  • 1941: His photographs of the Blitz lead to job as war correspondent for Life magazine
  • 1945: Becomes the first photographer to enter the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen
  • 1949: While travelling across Africa, he photographs the Nuba tribe of the Sudan. His pictures are later published in Village of the Nubas (1955)
  • 1949: His first wife, Cicely, dies in childbirth
  • 1952: Marries his American assistant Lois (Jinx) Witherspoon, with whom he travels widely. They have three children together
  • 1981: Makes a final trip to Africa and photographs the Masai tribe in Kenya
  • 1995: Dies on 24 July at home in Smarden, near Ashford in Kent, aged 87

Books and Websites

Books: The best collection of Rodger’s work available is Humanity and Inhumanity: The Photographic Journey of George Rodger (published by Phaidon). His official biography is George Rodger: An Adventure in Photography 1908-1995 by Carole Naggar (published by Syracuse University Press).

Websites: George Rodger’s section on the Magnum website (www.magnumphotos.com) includes brief biographical information and a good selection of his work from throughout his career, including images from out-of-print books including The Blitz (1990) and En Afrique (1984).