Inner workings: picture agency Camera Press toasts 70 years in the business

(Image credit: © Clive Arrowsmith/Camera Press)

When portrait photographer Tom Blau founded Camera Press in 1947 – one of the UK’s first picture agencies – photography’s role in the world was far more innocent than it is today.

The changing role of picture agencies and photography’s presence in the press over 70 years reveals itself in an exhibition of images from seven decades of the agency’s archives: ‘Camera Press at 70 – A Lifetime in Pictures’, at Art Bermondsey Project Space.

Blau moved to London from Berlin in 1935 and was earning a living photographing the major political figures, musicians and film stars of the day. His formal photographs keep a respectful distance from his subjects – these were official photographs that were meant to be kept, and remembered, to represent their subject’s eminence.

The first photographer Blau signed to his agency was Yousuf Karsh, and later, Cecil Beaton joined his roster, among many others in the years to come. Their first assignment was to capture Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s wedding – immortalised in Baron’s iconic 1947 image of the newly wed couple, smiling at the camera, surrounded by rich crimson curtain and carpet. There’s an imperfectness to the picture’s composition that makes the Royal couple look natural, unassuming, despite the loftiness of the occasion.

A girl lying on the car

Film maker and visual artist Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015. 

(Image credit: © Chris Floyd / BAFTA/ Camera Press)

This innocence starts to be ruptured in the 1960s, as the camera begins to probe identity more. From innocent to invasive, photographers such as Elio Sorci — among the first paparazzo — used a close-up approach, entering the private, intimate space of celebrities. A 1962 portrait of the ultimate sixties blonde bombshell Brigitte Bardot is an early example of this, oozing the savant sexiness of the era but also pushing the camera closer to its subject – whether they’re complicit or not.

As well as the extensive collection of Royal photographs, the exhibition features each decade’s best known celebrities: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen shot by Steve Emberton at Vicious’ Maida Vale home in 1978; Kate Bush in 1980 through Clive Arrowsmith’s lens, Madonna in garish 80s garb, Public Enemy in the 1990s and the Spice Girls shot by Blau’s granddaughter, portrait photographer Emma Blau. There’s certainly plenty of nostalgia here for the people, their aesthetics and fashion, and the proliferation and style of the portraits from the 70s on reflects photography’s increasing influence within mass media, depicting a world where the private was no longer kept at a shy distance.

The exhibition is a perspective on the last 70 years through the genre of portraits, people who defined their time – but it’s also a compelling visual journey through the shifts in society and politics that have dictated what we want to see, and how we see it.

Grace Jones pictured at Studio 54

Grace Jones pictured at Studio 54, New York, 1981. 

(Image credit: Adrian Boot/Camera Press)

Clint Eastwood in Via Veneto

Clint Eastwood in Via Veneto, Italy, 1965. 

(Image credit: Elio Sorci / Camera Press)

Elizabeth Taylor at the David di Donatello awards in Rome

Elizabeth Taylor at the David di Donatello awards in Rome, Italy, 1962.  

(Image credit: Elio Sorci / Camera Press)

Louis Armstrong, nicknamed Satchmo

Louis Armstrong, nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, American jazz trumpeter and
singer pictured in 1971.  

(Image credit: Jon Blau / Camera Press)

Gilbert and George pictured at home

Gilbert and George pictured at home in Spitalfields, London, UK, 2015. 

(Image credit: Tom Oldham / Camera Press)

Christine Keeler pictured in a secret screen test

Christine Keeler pictured in a secret screen test for the movie The Christine
Keeler Story
, 1963. 

(Image credit: Tom Blau / Camera Press)


‘Camera Press at 70 – A Lifetime in Pictures’ is on view until 10 June. For more information visit the Camera Press website


Art Bermondsey Project Space
183-185 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3UW


Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.