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Picture Post: innovative journalism

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Picture Post was a revolutionary magazine, believing that the countenances of ordinary men and women are more striking, and their lives and doings are more interesting, than the faces and activities of celebrities. Carefully chosen words were used sparingly as a counterpoint and context for the pictures.

The first issue, published 70 years ago in October 1938, featured two exuberant cowgirls miraculously leaping across the cover. The last issue, published 19 years later, showed the same girls. The magazine was an immediate success.

Within a week it was selling a million copies and within six months a million and a half. On average five people read each copy. It was to remain at that level of popularity for many years.

Picture Post captured the hilarity of a knobbly knees contest at a Butlin’s holiday camp. It was not those who travelled on the transatlantic liner the Queen Elizabeth who counted, but the men who built her: the riveter, the boiler-maker, the engine room worker, the joiner.

Betty Burden, for example, might have remained in obscurity had it not been for Picture Post. The magazine searched for an “ordinary” girl and found 17-year-old Betty working as a children’s hairdresser in a Birmingham department store. The 30 shillings (£1.50) a week she earned went to her mother for board and lodging and she kept tips for herself.

Dictators and debutantes, statesmen, politicians, film stars and aristocrats were not neglected, however. Picture Post revealed Britain’s poverty, housing shortages, inadequate healthcare and lack of employment prospects at that time.

Even in the occasional solid pages of text there was a freshness of tone, with topics such as the Royal Air Force and the findings of modern science. The arts, particularly plays, films and opera, received regular coverage. The paper was always balanced and political attitudes were not assertive.

Latterly Picture Post lost its sense of direction, but television was the official excuse for its demise. Not only could television do much the same sort of thing as Picture Post, but also independent television, which arrived in 1955, competed with it for advertising. Back issues of the paper are much sought after today.

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