Press photographers have been making the headlines recently as stories of digitally “doctored” images become more widespread. A staff photographer on a North Carolina paper found himself out of a job when it was revealed that he had enhanced the colour of the background in a picture of a firefighter silhouetted against the sun. And last year a Reuters freelancer was found to have duplicated plumes of smoke in his pictures, for added dramatic effect, during the bombing of Lebanon.

Realism or what it is that constitutes the “truth” in an image has always been a contentious issue in news photography. Rewind 65 years to a grainy, black and white photograph by Fred Morley of a milkman cheerily making his rounds in London on October 9 1942, the morning after a devastating German bombing raid. Used and reused by newspapers during the war, Morley’s picture was not quite what it seemed. While the image told the story of the buoyant British people “getting on with it” during the Blitz, the milkman was the photographer’s assistant, cleverly employed to combat the over-zealous censors of the time. The resulting picture afforded an unerring view of the destruction without eroding the morale of the public.

Morley’s controversial picture is among a handful of gems on show at London’s National Portrait Gallery as part of an exhibition celebrating British press photography. The show spans eight decades of Fleet Street from 1900 to the beginning of the mass exodus from the press hub led by Rupert Murdoch in the mid-1980s.

Its focus is overwhelmingly on the mid-market papers set up to cater to an increasingly literate public; at the same time, lighter cameras made it easy for photographers to break free of the traditional studio portraits and “snap” while out and about on the streets. Events could be captured as they happened; readers could get to see the great, the good and the infamous as they were in the real world. Fittingly for the NPG, the show is a chronology of celebrities as much as of anything else. A 1931 image of Charles Chaplin strolling along the Embankment in London is a strikingly early example of the paparazzi at work.

From the beginning, many of the images show awareness on the part of photographers and their subjects of the mutual benefits to be gained from their relationship. Public figures quickly learnt to use the press to their advantage. A young Winston Churchill, then home secretary, is depicted conferring with police officers at a siege in east London in 1911, doubtless aware of the camera’s presence. Later, in a beautifully composed shot, he is pictured surveying bomb damage in 1941, the very image of a caring prime minister.

The rise of the internet and the ubiquity of camera-equipped mobile phones has meant that we are bombarded by still and moving images to an unprecedented degree. It is not surprising that there is much talk of what the future holds for newspaper photographers. Stories of unethical image-tweaking add to the unease.

Yet what the NPG show makes clear is the extraordinary power of a good image. True, there is much that is unremarkable: the snapshots of yesteryear. But many of the photographs here are more than a nostalgic nod to the past. Be it a fleeting shot of Bobby Moore lifting the World Cup in 1966 or (to my mind the star of the show) a beggar holding out his cap to George V as the royal carriage goes by on Derby Day 1920, a picture can capture a moment with startling immediacy and economy.

Until October 21 2007

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