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George Douglas



George DouglasGeorge Douglas (8 March 1922 - 28 December 2010) was a photographer with a phenomenal work rate. For four decades, from the 1940s to the 1970s, "Speedy George" astonished picture editors, colleagues and his subjects with his non-stop flow of ideas and his determination to get pictures in the bag and back in the office in double-quick time.

This relentless focus on his work – and the fact that he was a remarkable documentary stylist, who could turn his hand to anything from Hollywood stars to a feature on the Queen's rat-catcher or Britain's first female chimney sweep – meant that he amassed a portfolio of diverse pictures. A visit to his Regency home in Brighton, after a conversation in the street about my camera, led to a bottle of merlot being uncorked and a two-hour conversation about Picture Post magazine, Leicas and Rolleiflex cameras as well as a tour of the framed magazine covers in his hallway.

He gestured vaguely at a pile of boxes in a back room. "My negatives. Must sort them out one day." That was in the 1990s. He never did sort them out, but then, there were thousands of them.

The photojournalist Thurston Hopkins, who worked with Douglas on Picture Post magazine in the 1950s, recalled: "Speedy George beat me to Picture Post by almost a year and by the time I joined the magazine he was one of its busiest freelances, with a reputation for bringing in a tricky story almost before Harry Deverson, the fatherly picture editor, had a chance to complete his briefing. He was in and out of the office, a man possessed with his work, and with little time to spare for chatting over coffee. His total of published assignments was awe-inspiring."

George noted in his diaries that he covered 99 picture features for Picture Post alone in the 1950s, but he always had other jobs on as well. Grace Robertson, a photographer who also worked at Picture Post, remarked on his "wide-ranging talent, which meant he satisfied magazines as different in style and content as the story-telling Picture Post, the popular TV Mirror and the women's magazines wanting the glamorous, iconic images of 1940s Hollywood". She remembered him as "always gentlemanly in his relationships, both personal and professional".

George was born in Rottingdean, East Sussex, but in 1939 moved with his mother to Dallas, Texas. He trained in aeronautical design engineering, then worked for the Garrett AiResearch Corporation, in Santa Monica, California, but his heart was not in it. The Leica camera he bought from a pawnshop consumed his spare time and once he had sold his first picture, for $30, he handed in his notice.

He sold his first photographs to the Los Angeles Times in the 1940s and moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1948, where he was in charge of photography for the Sun Valley News Bureau, taking pictures of famous visitors including Gary Cooper and President Harry Truman. In 1949 he moved back to LA and began his career as a celebrity photographer with a picture of Angela Lansbury for Life magazine.

But it was an English magazine that intrigued him. He noticed that Life photographers he admired had trained in London on the Picture Post, which specialised in 35mm photography and a documentary style. "I knew this was the future and I wanted to work with people who were making it happen," he wrote.

He set off for England in 1950. A set of pictures of two children with their pet boa-constrictor got him through the door and became the first of many assignments he undertook for Picture Post. He fell "more than a little in love" with Audrey Hepburn when he spent a fortnight photographing her in New York as she prepared for the Broadway production of Gigi and became friends with the novelist Paul Gallico and the actor Peter Sellers.

In 1956 he photographed Walter de la Mare. The author, then 83, watched with amusement as George ran about organising the shoot, and told him: "I envy you – to you I am an old man, but in my mind I am as young as you are at this moment. With age, the body becomes a prison; every day the bars get tighter." He died shortly afterwards. When George himself was 78 he wrote: "That has affected me since. Now I myself begin to feel the bars and the jail the body will become."

Picture Post closed in 1957 and George turned to women's magazines and the TV Mirror. In 1964 the Beatles asked him to become their photographer on the set of A Hard Day's Night – Paul McCartney had been impressed by George's portraits of his then girlfriend Jane Asher – but two weeks at the Twickenham Studios besieged by screaming teenagers was enough to persuade George that he was not cut out for pop photography.

In 1970 he returned to California to care for his mother. He and his wife, Jill Renton, ran an antiques business in LA, then, in 2006, moved back to England. She survives him.




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Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024