John Hedgecoe (c) Topfoto
John Hedgecoe, one of the most significant figures in the history of British photography, has died.
Though best known for his portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which was used by the sculptor Arnold Machin to create an official plaster version – 200 billion copies of which have been printed on British and Commonwealth stamps – his influence spread much further than his own award-winning photographs.
His best-selling how-to books, in particular the Manual of Photography and The Photographer’s Handbook, provided the first educational building blocks for amateurs and professionals alike, and more than 30 million copies of his 30-odd books were sold worldwide, and were published in 37 languages.
He also established the department of Photography at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1960s, becoming the first ever professor of photography in the UK in 1975. He continued in that role at the RCA until 1994, and held the position of professor emeritus until his death, which came last Thursday (03 June).
As a photographer he shot portraits for magazines including Vogue, Life, the Observer Magazine and The Times, and subjects included Stephen Hawking, Henry Moore, Igor Stravinsky, Francis Bacon, Ted Hughes, Agatha Christie, John Betjeman and David Hockney. His work is represented in art collections worldwide, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the National Portrait Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and he produced many high profile advertising campaigns in his career. In late 2006 he joined the Topfoto picture agency, who set about scanning thousands of his negatives.
Hedgecoe was once also a regular contributor to BJP.
Born in 1937, he began taking photographs in his teens, and studied at Guildford School of Art under under Ifor and Joy Thomas, who also taught Jane Bown, Tessa Traeger and Jack Tait. His first staff position was for Queen magazine, whom he joined in 1957, later establishing himself as one the leading portrait photographers of the 1960s, shooting commissions for broadsheet newspapers and magazines, and then being asked by the postmaster general to photograph the Queen. Arnold Machin made an exact likeness of the chosen photograph in plaster relief, which has been used on British stamps ever since, and is said to be the most widely reproduced photograph ever.
He began writing photography books in the mid 1970s, and his first two publications, The Book of Photography and The Handbook of Photographic Techniques, were an overnight success, and dozens more followed. In later years he lived in Norwich, and although officially retired, continued to write technique books, such as The Art of Digital Photography published in 2006, for which he travelled around the world for two years to produce instructive images.
In what is claimed to be his last ever interview, for Amateur Photographer, he reflected on the changes to the medium brought by digital technologies. “It has really opened up photography to a lot more people, and made it easier for people to produce good images,” he told David Clark. “However, I think in some ways photography has become too easy. Many people don't really know how to operate a camera and just let it make all the creative decisions. In the past, you had to work hard to get a really good image, but now it's so much easier and that makes it much more difficult to be unique. Technology has made it less of a challenge and I think that has taken some of the magic and mystery out of photography.”
Mike Roles, who was mentored by Hedgecoe while studying for an MA at the RCA, says: “John’s work at the RCA greatly changed attitudes in bringing photography in line with other arts by shifting its emphasis away from it being purely a craft-based subject to an expressive and creative practice. The number of high-achieving photographers who were under his stewardship at the RCA bear testimony to his ability as a teacher and communicator. And in his writing [The Manual of Photography, The Photographer’s Handbook among others] he did much to bring photography, and the potential of creativity in photography, to a much wider audience.
“As a photographer he was talented and passionate, with a great eye for detail, the unusual and the absurd. He hated the trend towards image theory. When I once mentioned semiology to him, he joked that ‘Frenchmen with flags had nothing to do with image making’. Ironically, one of his successors to the chair at the RCA is Olivier Richon, the incumbent and a French semiologist.
“John was flamboyant, arrogant and imbued with a love of the high-life and vintage cars. He could be blunt, uncompromising and argumentative, particularly in his criticism of work. Superficially, he could be seen as a cross between Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson, but he had a soft underbelly and could be very kind, helpful and understanding to both students and colleagues alike. John was a man I liked and respected, warts and all.”
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