Words - 20th Century Greats - Denis Thorpe


20th Century Greats series (2001)

Denis Thorpe (1932 - )

Enchanted by the medium from the time he discovered the limitations of the written word in a local newspaper, for Denis Thorpe photography became his passport to another world. John Chillingworth recognises the unique qualities of a great artist, unfazed by the corrupting influences of daily newspaper journalism.

In recent years, much has been said, written or seen of Denis Thorpe who is a natural picture-maker, arguably born out of his time, but who by his artistry has always transcended the stereotype image of the Press Photographer.

His work in another age could have been that of the gentleman pictorialist or an inspired artist-photographer. Instead, blessed with an iron determination and a highly individual way of seeing pictures, he used the medium of local, provincial and national newspapers to provide the platform upon which to nurture his natural gifts of composition and personal empathy with the world around him.

Lesser people with equal skills would have turned to other lifetime pursuits after knocking on a handful of doors, but Denis Thorpe’s need to make pictures kept him focused on the end game like every successful artist. He needed recognition of his contribution to the reputation of photography as an art form, as well as its power as a means of communication.

Career ascending
His career has been documented on many occasions, but dates and names cannot adequately explain his extraordinary staying power and ability to climb the proverbial greasy pole to The Guardian, which dominated heights of creative journalism. He did so with his camera, an achievement that has placed Thorpe amongst the greats of the 20th Century.

His brief, it is said, when he joined the (Manchester) Guardian in 1974 was, ‘just to go out and take pictures’! Such a breathtaking opportunity would not have arisen had he been more experienced at the time he asked Picture Post editor, Tom Hopkinson, to look at his work in 1950.

Thorpe’s good taste in revering the work of Picture Post staffer, Kurt Hutton, one of the original pioneers of 35mm photography for reproduction, was entirely justified. Kurt was, after all, my own mentor as I worked alongside him on the magazine from 1949 to 1956.

Had Thorpe joined our happy band, he would have found the romance of working for Britain’s National Weekly Picture Magazine to be in the eye of the beholder, rather than at the ‘coal-face’ reality of weekly magazine publishing at its best.

It has been far better for photography that Thorpe achieved ‘icon’ status through his work for The Guardian, than by his dream of emulating others in the days of his youth.

The complete photographer
In his fifty-year work-span he has, through a combination of sheer professionalism, discipline and artistic merit, achieved more than most of his early role models.

With an eye for the spectacular, the romantic and the Bressan inspired moment, Thorpe has won numerous awards, including the 1979 Worlds Press Photo Gold Medal and Ilford Photographer of the Year in 1988.

His various exhibitions have been reverently received and his work admired in galleries around the world, but the best is yet to come. With the launch of the spectacular new LOWRY at Salford Quays, comes his latest exhibition entitled ‘Denis Thorpe: On Home Ground’, which opens on 5 May until 22 July. A beautifully designed book with the same name accompanies it.

Printing his own images for exhibitions, he considers the craft of photographic printing to be part of the wider art of photography. Yet despite his need to be ‘known’ and to be recognised for his artistic achievements in a medium populated largely by photographers demonstrating very different qualities, Thorpe seems often to be surprised by his success.

In Denis Thorpe, every working photographer has a living inspiration to look more closely at our crazy world, in which each portrait, every scene has a story to tell.

© Copyright John Chillingworth