Harry Hammond, East End photographer

Photographer Harry Hammond came from a more gentle age, when celebrity snappers were out to make the best of their subjects – rather than catch them off guard, inebriated or partially clothed. ‘I always tried to catch the star looking their best or most glamorous,’ he explained, ‘That’s how picture editors liked their photos in those days’. And the stars were grateful. As Cliff Richard fondly recalled. ‘In the days of Harry Hammond, photographers only wanted to show the best of you – that’s why it was always such a pleasure to have Harry around.’

But although East End boy Harry found fame in the Tin Pan Alley Days of fifties London, he was already decades into a career that had begun in the Thirties, making portraits of everyone from Noel Coward, to HG Wells, to Errol Flynn. Along the way he had captured the great bandleaders of the 1930s (including Whitechapel’s Bert Ambrose) and snapped the early and sparsely attended London gigs of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, as well as debs and Dukes. And in a wartime departure from glamour, he had worked in reconnaissance for the RAF – a low-tech operation involving hanging out of the side of the plane with a handheld camera.

The Bow boy (his dad worked for London Transport and his mum was a dressmaker) left school at 14 and headed straight into an apprenticeship in Fleet Street – four years learning his trade at the London Art Service. He had an early brush with glamour, as he remembered years afterwards. “A dapper stranger in a sharp suit sauntered into the studio and said, ‘The model agency sent me to do the Brylcreem advertisement’. We took a few head shots of him to match the art department’s layout, which were in due course used in the national press. He agreed to the usual model fee of one guinea, and I asked his name for our files. ‘Flynn’, he said jauntily, tapping the ash from his cigarette. ‘Errol Flynn’.”

By the late thirties Harry was moving between society portraits of aristocracy and beautifully composed publicity photos of the cream of London arts, cinema and literature. The debutante season provided a new stream of clients each year, and there were publicity and press shots of the big bands, led by Ted Heath, Geraldo and Ambrose. Little wonder that Hammond displayed an extraordinary ability to adapt to his clients and make them comfortable whoever they were – an invaluable talent in a photographer.

His next gig was a major departure, though, in every way. At the outbreak of war he volunteered for the RAF and found himself taking observation pictures from planes in North Africa. This was a crude affair, which involved Harry and his pals hanging out of the plane, camera in hand. He took it with his customary charm and calm and – as a bonus – met his future wife Peggy, a WAAF fitness instructor.
Back in London he went freelance and became the house photographer for the Musical Express, recently bought and relaunched by promoter Maurice Kinn as the New Musical Express. Both Kinn and Hammond realised the old musical order was dying, but were rare among the older generation in taking rock and roll seriously. A decade or more later, Andrew Loog Oldham, then-manager of the Rolling Stones, recalled: “He always stood out away from the other snappers who loathed us, wished us no good, and couldn’t wait to get back to snapping Vera Lynn.

Today’s photographers use digital cameras that can hold hundreds of images and slip into a pocket. But back in the early days of rock and roll, even compact film was a distant dream. Harry had to capture the best of a two-hour gig, featuring half a dozen artists, with just half a dozen plates. Hammond, though, always seemed to get the killer shot.

In the fifties, Hammond was alone in creating portraits of the American rockers who would inspire the Stones, the Beatles and the rest. Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane and many others were immortalised in stunning chiaroscuro shots. And when the British answer came along, Harry was on hand with camera. Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Billy Fury and the rest queued up to have their pictures taken by the man who had captured their heroes.

By the Sixties, the charming Harry, now into his forties, was the house photographer for British pop music. Those were the last days of Harry as a snapper though. From being the dominant player in a field of one in the early years of British pop music, he now found himself jostling for shoulder room with an increasing pack. That, and the inevitable collapse of a personal relationship with the artists, decided Hammond to call it a day in the mid-Sixties. He didn’t turn his back on pop music though: it says much for his empathy with pop musicians that he decided to make the move into management with the Overlanders. And in an era when managers were notorious for ripping off their charges, Harry was respected for the fairness  of his dealings.

His retirement was a long one but there was still music – his own. Not Ambrose, Sinatra or Buddy Holly this time – Harry taught himself to play the violin, as well as indulging his loves for vintage cars, poetry and chess. He died in 2009, aged 88.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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