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Remembering Grace Robertson Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

14 January 2021

Grace Robertson, who documented postwar life in Britain as a rare woman photographer, has died at the age of 90.

She was born on July 13, 1930 in Manchester, the daughter of Picture Post journalist and broadcaster Fyfe Robertson. The weekly news periodical regularly published the work of a generation of pioneering photojournalists that included Bert Hardy and Bill Brandt.

She later recalled, "There were only three jobs considered by society as appropriate -- teaching, secretarial work or nursing, just to fill in until you got your man."

She left school early to care for her mother who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. One day while waiting in line at a shop and worrying if she'd ever be able to marry, she had an inspiration. "I was standing watching two women talking, it was drizzling and a bike had fallen over. And suddenly this butcher, whom I loathed, became a picture."

In 1949, her father bought the teenager a camera when she told him she had developed an interest in photography. He encouraged her to see what she could do in the male-dominated field.

At first she sent her photos in under the pseudonym Dick Muir, partly to avoid revealing the connection to her father and partly to avoid revealing her gender.

Her 1955 photographs of a woman giving birth were some of the first of their kind to be published.

In 1951, she had her first series, A Schoolgirl Does Her Homework, published. It featured photos of her younger sister Elizabeth.

Her other notable photo essays included Sheep Shearing in Wales (1951), Tate Gallery (1952)After touring Italy with the Bluebell Girls, a Parisian cabaret troupe, in 1952 she had begun a life-long focus on photographing women.

It led to her most famous photo essay, Mother's Day Off (1954), a record of a day-trip to Margate by a group of middle-aged and older working-class women she had encountered in a pub in Bermondsey, London, and befriended.

"After a couple of nights I noticed two things," she said about encountering the group. "One that the women were getting ready for a day trip that weekend and that around me younger people, ex-soldiers, were talking about new high-rise flats, new estates outside London. I knew at that moment I was capturing a bit of history and that it was all going to be broken up, the whole area."

So she documented the moment, traveling with the women to Margate. "These women were survivors. These were women in their fifties, sixties and seventies and they had been through two wars and that depression in the middle. They were incredibly exuberant."

The series portrayed the country as whole again after the war.

It was so popular that Life magazine commissioned another version of Mother’s Day Off featuring another group of women who were regulars at a pub in Clapham.

The girl standing in line outside the butcher shop who worried if she would ever find a husband married fellow Picture Post photographer Thurston Hopkins in 1955. They were still together in 2014 when he died at age 101.

Her 1955 photographs of a woman giving birth were some of the first of their kind to be published.

When Picture Post ceased publication in 1957, she worked freelance. In 1992, she was commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary about nonagenarians. And in 1999 she received the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to photography. That year she also was awarded the Wingate Scholarship, which she used to fund Working Mothers in Contemporary Society.

Robertson was an imposing 6-foot-two but easily became familiar with her subjects, putting them at ease.

"I remember reading that Cartier-Bresson painted all the silver bits on his camera black and I thought, Well, that is OK for Cartier-Bresson," she recalled. "He's a tiny man. I thought then the only way it would work for me would be to be very prominent until people got it out of their system."

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