ALL ABOUT GEORGE
by Roger Bamber, a friend and fellow photographer who inherited the archive of George’s pictures.
George Douglas in his 80s was a quiet man with a very dry sense of humour who politely regarded most aspects of life in the 21st century as stark staring bonkers. He loved art and antiques, especially Regency furniture. He listened to jazz and opera on vinyl records in the evenings and had a tiny, ancient TV that was rarely used.
Very few of those who knew him had a clue that he had once been a dashing photographer who supplied images to all the top magazines in Britain, America and Europe and could turn his hand to anything from Hollywood stars to a feature on the Queen’s-rat catcher or the last days of a wartime aircraft carrier.
I had been his neighbour in Brighton for at least a decade before he chanced a remark in the street about my new digital camera. He raised an eyebrow at its complexity. I agreed that things were better when only torches had batteries and cameras used film. Somehow this led to a visit to his Regency home, a bottle of Merlot being uncorked and a two hour conversation about Picture Post magazine, Leica and Rolliflex cameras and a tour of the framed magazine covers in his hallway and up the narrow, winding staircase.
He gestured vaguely at some shabby metal filing cabinets in a back room. “My negatives. Must sort them out one day.” That was in the 1990s. He never did sort them out but when you looked at the size of the job you could understand why. The cabinets were full to bursting with thousands of images, in no discernible order and only a treasured few actually named and dated.
There were many more meetings after that, many more bottles of Merlot. We would always agree that the dreadful job of sorting his negs out would have to be tackled one day soon but perhaps not just now.
More important were his memories.
He was born in 1922 in Rottingdean, a seaside village just outside Brighton but his father was American and the family moved to the States in the 1930s, first to Texas and then to Santa Monica, California.
Santa Monica, guaranteed sunshine apart, was not that different to Brighton. It was a holiday town with a pier, and a bit of a racy reputation, and a busy beach where interesting stuff was always happening. George bought a battered old Leica camera from a pawnshop for a few dollars, and patrolled the seafront, capturing the locals doing their thing.
His pictures from that time show a world before leisure wear was invented. If you went to the beach you wore a bathing suit for swimming and showing off…or men wore a suit and hat and ladies swirled in elegant sundresses.
There were beach volleyball tournaments, bodybuilders showing off and the occasional film star hanging out because it was the nearest bit of seaside to Hollywood . It was an ideal place to learn the art of great magazine photography.
When he left school there was a war on and he got an apprenticeship as a trainee engineer with a team designing Boeing B-17 bombers. When he wasn’t at the factory, he carried on taking pictures. He came across the legendary Jane Russell sunbathing one day. She was the big pin-up girl of the 1940s and star of The Outlaw, one of the most successful movies of the decade. “Miss Russell, would you let me take a picture of you?” he asked. “You’re the pin-up of our aircraft design group.”
Miss Russell obliged. George started to sell some of his pictures to The Los Angeles Times.
After a few months, the LA Times picture editor tipped him off that a trendy ski resort called Sun Valley, in Iowa, was looking for a keen young photographer for a season. “You want to be a real photographer, you got to get some experience,” he said. Rather to his surprise, George got the job and soon realised why. It was was gruelling work.
Anyone remotely famous who visited Sun Valley had to be photographed and this often involved waiting for hours in the snow, with a heavy old Speed Graphic camera, both photographer and camera freezing solid.
Gary Cooper told him straight away that he didn’t want his photo taken so George got up at 6am every morning for a week to be certain of catching the great American movie star as he set out for the day.
“Changed your mind yet Mr Cooper? ” he asked politely every morning. Finally Cooper looked up from strapping on his ski boots in temperatures of 10deg. below zero. “Look fella,” he said when George approached, “if you don’t mind this cold, I guess I don’t mind you taking my picture.”
Shelley Winters, the double Oscar winning actress was much easier. She took a fancy to George as he snapped her clowning about on the slopes and carried him off for apres ski cocktails afterwards. Later that evening, she dropped in at his chalet and invited him to photograph her in her red flannel pyjamas….There were no pyjama pictures in the archive but there was a signed photograph of a laughing Shelley with the message “For the best photographer and sweetest character I ever met.”
Pictures like that gave him the break he needed. His work began appearing in magazines like Life and other publications all over America but he wasn’t content. What he admired was the daring style of the ground-breaking British magazine Picture Post, which was setting new standards in photojournalism.
In 1951 he travelled to London by ship, busked his way into the Picture Post office the day after he arrived and managed to sell them a feature. Two days later he sold them another. George and Picture Post were made for each other. He sold them 99 stories in three years – serious features, silly celebrity stunts, beautiful reportage on the lives of everyday working people in England and always, whenever possible, beautiful girls.
The other photographers called him Speedy George because he produced so many stories. Picture Post was his favourite magazine but his work also appeared in Life, Esquire, Harpers, TV Mirror, Everybody’s, True, the German magazine Heute, Paris Match, and at least a dozen other magazines.
The commissions rolled in as he met and photographed a myriad of celebrities and chased stories all over the world.
Then, when he was still only 48, he decided to give it all up, shrugging off the decision with: “Press photography is a young man’s job.”
He told friends the job had lost its glamour. Meeting impossible deadlines and dashing round the world at a moment’s notice was becoming an exhausting chore, not a thrill any more.
He wanted to settle down, take more care of his old mum, spend more time with his wife Jill.
His huge archive of prints and negatives, together with a collection of hundreds of of the magazines they appeared in, were packed away and with typical George energy he immediately threw himself into a new business. For the rest of his life he split his time between Sussex and Californa as an antiques dealer.
This involved spending summers in Brighton, filling shipping containers with finds from local auction sales, and winters flogging the antiques to Californians from his magnificently eccentric shop, marked by a giant Union Jack, in Santa Monica.
By the time he died in 2010 most of his acquaintances thought he had only ever been a rather shy expert on Regency furniture and old silverware.
After his death Jill tried alone to put his chaotic collection of negatives into some sort of order in his memory. She spent untold hours indexing folders and trying to identify the subjects of the piles of negatives spilling from every drawer.
She only survived him by a year, but it was her work, as well as George’s that made the first exhibition and everything that followed possible.
And the reason we can tell the stories behind the pictures in his own words is also down to her. Among the piles of negatives and old hand-made prints we found George’s unpublished biography. It runs to more than 60,000 words, all neatly typed by Jill.