George Rodger was one of the founding members of the highly acclaimed Magnum Photos which was established in 1947. Robert Capa and himself, once photographers for Time & Life Magazine, imagined a photographic career not dictated and copyrighted by magazines, but under their own names. Magnum Photos has now been running for 67 years, Jinx Rodger, George’s wife recalls the early Magnum days with blissful nostalgia and she says “it was sort of like a club,” in conversation with me. Taken from Jon Rodger’s website, George Rodger Photographs, and with inclusions of my other research, here is a short biography of George Rodger, to introduce my photographic project with Jinx, the archivist of the George Rodger Archive.
George Rodger was born in Hale, Cheshire in 1908 and spent his childhood in Cheshire and in Scotland. He attended St. Bee’s College, Cumbria but left early to join the British Merchant Navy, spending two years travelling the world. At twenty, he went to America where he worked at various jobs during the depression. Returning to England in 1936, he joined the BBC as a photographer.
From reading the George Rodger Biography by Carole Naggar, she explains that during Rodger’s time at the BBC’s magazine “The Listener” he was taught all about lighting by his assistant, Esmerelda. Nagger says that “Rodger always felt that without her, he would never have made a life as a photographer.” (Naggar, 2003) In my mind, this was an integral part of Rodger’s career as a photographer: he admitted before “There was no-one around me to tell me what to do, so I had to teach myself by making mistakes and learning from them.” (George Rodger citation, Pg 38)
At the outbreak of war he became a war correspondent for the American magazine LIFE, and for the next seven years his assignments took him to sixty-two countries where he covered over eighteen war campaigns. Some of his most notable photographs during the war included the London Blitz, West Africa with the Free French, the fall of Burma, the Sicilian and Salerno landings, the Battle of Monte Cassino, the D-Day Normandy landings, the Liberation of Paris, Brussels Holland and Denmark, the Surrender at Luneberg and the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp. Known as “The quiet Englishman” because of his self-effacing demeanour, George Rodger described himself as a dreamer who took up photography to see what the world had to offer beyond his horizons. This exploration would take him into desert, jungle, war and many parts of the world. And in 1947 he would join Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David (Chim) Seymour in establishing the renowned photographic agency Magnum Photos.
“take a deep breath here is a great new scheme. There are seven of us in the original setup: five photographers Cartier-Bresson who has had a great success over here this year; Capa, Chim, you, and Bill Vandivird. In addition there are two females: myself to run the New York Office and Maria Eisner to run the Paris office and cover all of Europe. The tentative title of the company is Magnum Photos inc. it will be incorporated here in New York with all 7 original members as directors, myself as president, the rest of you all vice presidents…” (Letter from Rita Vandivert to George, George Rodger Archives, 1947)
His main work concerned the vanishing tribes and wildlife of Africa and the documentation of ethnic people in remote areas. He also travelled extensively throughout the Far East, India and the Middle East, writing and illustrating articles for magazines in Europe and America.
Jinx Rodger, when talking to me about the archive, says that it is a collection of George’s Africa. The archive is a living space where this Africa still is very much alive and Jinx still lives in this world. Her house in Kent is full of African inspired ornaments, not to mention the “velvetty black and white photography [and] luminous images of african tribesmen on the wall” (Pitman, 2009).
“When I could look at the horror of Belsen – and think only of a nice photographic composition I knew something had happened to me, and it had to stop” In 1959, George Rodger and his wife settled in the small village of Smarden, in Kent, where he wrote and illustrated for magazines but still continued his travels, mainly to Africa which, with his camera, was his favourite hunting ground.
Jinx told me the story of how they came about settling down in Kent and how the George Rodger Archive then started to be collected together from various offices and friends’ homes. Jinx told me about how they decided to start filing the photography and the stories.
“I may juggle the composition, as the strength of a picture is in the composition. Or I may play with the light. But I never interfere with the subject. The subject has to fall into place on its own and, if I don’t like it, I don’t have to print it”
Rare footage of Nuba bracelet fighting and Latuka Rainmakers filmed in 16mm by George Rodger while on assignment in Kordofan, Southern Sudan in 1949. Includes original soundtrack. Edited by Peter Rodger. He died at his home in Kent in 1995. His archives remain under the care of his wife Jinx and his son Jon. Magnum Photos continue to distribute his work from their four offices in Paris, New York, London and Tokyo. “You must feel an affinity for what you are photographing. You must be part of it, and yet remain sufficiently detached to see it objectively. Like watching from the audience a play you already know by heart”
I believe the last quote is from the famous letter that George sent his son, Jon when he was young. Jinx says that George’s photographic career never really ended; since his death in 1995, Jinx has only continued to keep George’s legacy alive by looking after the archive. Only recently, George’s son, Jon, has made the website to honour his work. For me, the archive serves not only photographic histories of Magnum, George, Capa, Henri etc but cultural histories of Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Hopkinson, T. 1986. George Rodher and How He Operates. Phototechnique. Naggar, C. 2003. George Rodger: An Adventure in Photography 1908-1995. Syracuse, New York. Pitman, J. 2009. The Man Who Showed Her The World. The Guardian, UK (Read by Jinx Rodger, recording by Kate Green, unpublished) Rodger, J. 2013. George Rodger Photographs Biography. Available online: http://www.georgerodgerphotographs.com/biography/. Last Accessed 3rd March 2014 Vandivert, R. 1947. Letter to George Rodger. George Rodger Archives. Last Accessed 27th November 2013