Observer picture archive: The standalone photograph

Jane Bown captured the Amalfi Grocer when on holiday in Italy. It was published on page 8 of the Observer on 29 August 1954, and is a classic example of a standalone photograph, published during the heyday of the genre

When David Astor became editor of the Observer in 1948, the eight-page paper was not renowned for its photography, the majority of illustrations were revenue generating advertisements. Astor decided to change that. He immediately appointed Mechthild Nawiasky as the paper’s first dedicated picture editor, poaching her from Lilliput magazine. The vehicle for visual change was to be original portraiture and the introduction of the standalone photograph.

A schoolgirl's plaited hair, 1950.
Published on page 11 of the Observer on 2 April 1950, with the caption: ‘A sight that schoolboys affect to despise but that, secretly, may set their hearts on fire: the pretty hair of a schoolgirl, plaited and tied with bows.’ Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

The following year, Nawiasky hired photojournalist Michael Peto and, having seen the potential in her student portfolio, introduced Jane Bown to the Observer. These two appointments were to be key in establishing the Observer as the destination for quality photography for decades to come.

Standalones were to inform or entertain without the need for lengthy text. The images were to hold the readers attention and bring a different, essential, element to the paper. They would reveal humanity and elevate the mundane.

Published on page 1 of the Observer on 28 May 1950: “A Pearly King, splendid as a Maharajah, photographed in his home before setting off for Epsom Downs. He is Mr J. Marriott, and bears the title Coster King of Finsbury. His family and that of his son (making six persons in all) live in two rooms. He sells toys in summer and works as a labourer in winter. The annual visit to Epsom is made, not as a costermonger, but as a patron of the event. It is a great day, filled with banter and gaiety all the way, including a hobnob with the nobility behind the Grandstand.
Published on page 1 of the Observer on 28 May 1950: ‘A Pearly King, splendid as a Maharajah, photographed in his home before setting off for Epsom Downs. He is Mr J. Marriott, and bears the title Coster King of Finsbury. His family and that of his son (making six persons in all) live in two rooms. He sells toys in summer and works as a labourer in winter. The annual visit to Epsom is made, not as a costermonger, but as a patron of the event. It is a great day, filled with banter and gaiety all the way, including a hobnob with the nobility behind the Grandstand.’ Photograph: Michael Peto for the Observer/Courtesy of the University of Dundee, The Peto Collection

Initially Nawiasky plundered Bown’s portfolio and Peto’s back catalogue for striking images of people, still lifes, moments captured on their travels. Often, the subject matter was of the dignified poor and the noble working-classes, chiming with Nawiasky’s left-wing sensibilities. These images may have been from a world that the readership of the Observer would never witness or be party to. To supplement the largely domestic imagery, Nawiasky utilised the contacts she had built up while working alongside Lilliput’s founder, the hugely influential Hungarian photojournalist Stefan Lorant. She brought readers images from abroad by great photographers such as Brassaï and Henri Cartier Bresson.

Jane Bown said in August 2000: “Mechthild’s magic was that she would have such an untidy desk and pull out a photograph by Cartier Bresson. She was very international. She had a magic wand which she’d wave to produce something.”

The Cow’s Eye taken on Dartmoor in 1947 and published on page 8 the Observer on 22 July 1951
The Cow’s Eye taken on Dartmoor in 1947 and published on page 8 the Observer on 22 July 1951 with the caption: ‘What the townsman sees in the placid, liquid eye of a cow is symbol of country peace. What the cow sees is still a controversy for scientists: probably it cannot distinguish colours well, and may be short sighted.’ Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

Once a photograph had been selected, it was time to write a caption. Bown recalled “I remember the extraordinary situation of Cyril Dunne writing a caption for the Cow’s Eye. Mechthild would choose a picture and then run around trying to get someone to write a caption for it.” The results were sometimes poetic, sometimes enigmatic, but always a triumph.

Not everyone was happy. In 2000, the great street photographer Roger Mayne wrote to me of his earlier frustration: “When Mechthild Nawiasky was picture editor she only used photographs from stock, mostly of the street scenes. She did not think my work fitted the Observer house style and explained that it had taken her two years to train Jane Bown to work in that way. However, she did like my work and made a special effort to make it fit in. I enclose a cutting with her invented caption. A photograph from the previous year - it was awkward that Guy Fawkes day ‘56 fell on a Monday.”

Roger Mayne’s Guy Fawkes photograph in the Observer on 4 November 1956.
Roger Mayne’s Guy Fawkes photograph, sandwiched between football match reports, in the Observer on 4 November 1956. Photograph: The Observer

As the years passed, the Observer - under Astor’s editorship - cemented its reputation as an influential global newspaper, campaigning against the death penalty, championing human rights and highlighting the plight of black Africans. The reliance on the domestic standalone became anachronistic. David Astor recalled: “I remember a particular picture led to a protest. It was the picture of an old fashioned train, a steam train going through some woodland. It was just a romantic picture. It had no news merit. The Managing Editor came to me and said that this was going too far”.

Something had to give. The pace of change did not suit Nawiasky’s considered approach and, in 1957, she left.

The Motor Show, 26 October 1952
This photograph was published on page 1 on 26 October 1952 above a photograph of a young man looking at cows, by Michael Peto. The caption read: ‘There is no firm division into age groups when contemporary marvels are being considered, as they were at the two great shows in London last week. The old gentleman drawn to the Motor Show is fascinated by the gleaming intricacies of the modern car. The young man at the Dairy Show is equally absorbed by the qualities of British Friesians’ Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

By the beginning of the 1960s, three factors changed the look of the Observer: the invention of Nikon’s first SLR camera, the Nikon F; the rise of photo agencies with improved transmission capabilities covering foreign news; and the arrival at the Tudor Street offices of a swathe of young British photojournalists including, Don McCullin, Colin Jones, Philip Jones Griffiths and David Newell-Smith. Now, as a matter of course, photographers covered the news with reporters and foreign stories could be easily illustrated. The standalone became an embellishment rather than a staple.

Of course, Jane Bown would continue to conjure up memorable images to break up the news cycle. Other photographers would, from time to time, produce beautiful standalone images to grace the pages, but the halcyon days of the standalone were gone.

Peter Coy photographed in 1948, published on page 6 of the Observer on 13 March 1949 with the caption: “This little boy, playing in a back street of Camden Town, expresses in his attitude all the pride and hope of his few years.”
Peter Coy photographed in 1948, published on page 6 of the Observer on 13 March 1949 with the caption: ‘This little boy, playing in a back street of Camden Town, expresses in his attitude all the pride and hope of his few years.’
Photograph by Michael Peto for the Observer, Courtesy of the University of Dundee, The Peto Collection
Photograph: Michael Peto for the Observer/Courtesy of the University of Dundee, The Peto Collection

Today in print, with fewer pages to fill as the industry falls prey to the internet, the standalone exists primarily to fill a space above an awkward advert. It is usually a photograph of a young woman at a music festival or a crowded beach on the south coast. No longer the majesty of the street urchin or the Pearly King.

Patrick O’Donovan wrote specifically about Jane Bown’s cow’s eye photograph in his introduction to a collection of her work, 1980’s The Gentle Eye, but spoke too the genre: “The very idea of such a picture sounds absurd ... But this idea of a picture, at once eccentric and blindingly simple, sticks. I saw it first many years ago and I recall it more easily than some of the great images of war and death made in photography.”

He said, “It is possible to produce the greatest photography while working for a newspaper,” and sometimes a poetic caption is all you need.

The Guardian and Observer archive has more than 200 years of articles and images available to view. Find out more about how to access them.

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selected by Greg Whitmore Observer picture editor

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