I am long fascinated by a photographer’s take on power, such as Platon’s photos of world leaders at the UN or Avedon’s study of America on the bicentennial year. Flipping casually through a Life magazine from 1944, I stumbled upon a photoessay called ‘Leaders of Britain’ by the great Yousef Karsh.
After the success of his photograph of Churchill, Karsh crossed the Atlantic in 1943 onboard a Norwegian freighter carrying a cargo of explosives from Canada to Britain. He stayed in London to photograph wartime leaders and intellectuals, whose portraits were published in the Illustrated London News to raise the nation’s morale. Of this selection, it is interesting to note what Life (and Karsh) decided to publish in 1944.
In the photo-essay at least, Britain of 1944 was a martial society; the King appeared in uniform, alongside Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Bomber Command; Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Admiral Cunningham, who was already secretly supervising the preparations for the D-Day landings, and submariner Max Kennedy Horton.
And then there were a smattering of politicians who would re-shape post-war Britain. Two future prime ministers were there (Attlee and Eden) but other faces proved to be more influential in the coming years. Plans of Lord Woolton, firstly as Minister for Food and then as Minister for Reconstruction, were more immediately felt, but Bevin as the Minister for Labour would enshrine an industrial settlement that remained in place mid-1980s. Cripps as the supremo for both economy and finance, was at the Exchequery for three years in the post-war cabinet, and would preside over a devaluation, rationings and nationalisation of coal and steel industries. Even Lord Mountbatten — photographed as Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command but later Viceroy of India — left behind a bitter legacy in the subcontinent.
Intellectuals photographed ranged from George Bernard Shaw on the cover to writer H. G. Wells to cartoonist David Low. Others photographed by Karsh during his sojourn in England [but not published by Life] included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Halifax, Field Marshalls John Dill and Jan Smuts, and actor Noel Coward. Life opened the essay which the person the magazine deemed most powerful in Britain — the newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, the master of assembly line, who was the minister of supply in the war cabinet.
Notably missing from the essay was the photo that started it all — Churchill’s growling portrait from 1941.