In the 1980s, the V&A acquired an extraordinary piece of musical history – 9,000 images chronicling the eve of the boom of British pop music. The Harry Hammond Photographic Collection encapsulates the rock 'n' roll mood of the 1950s and 60s, with iconic portraits of stars such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jonny Kidd, Eddie Cochran, Dusty Springfield and many more.
Harry Hammond (1920 – 2009) was born in London. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a Fleet Street studio. He served as a reconnaissance photographer during the Second World War and on his return, worked as a freelancer, covering society events. While shooting the balls and fashion shows, he took an interest in the musicians who were performing there. Eventually, he began following them back to their natural habitat, 'Tin Pan Alley', otherwise known as Denmark Street – the home of London's music industry. By the late 1950s, Hammond had developed a specialism for photographing the British pop music scene.
Hammond became the primary photographer at the iconic music magazine New Musical Express (NME), covering every trend of the early 1950s, from swing to trad jazz and skiffle, from ballads to calypso. He then embraced the first British response to rock 'n' roll, taking definitive photos of Lonnie Donegan, Cliff Richard, Billy Fury and Adam Faith. Rock 'n' roll was viewed by many as a passing fad. Hammond was one of the few to take the new sound seriously, securing seminal images of the era.
For over two decades, Hammond captured definitive images of leading British musicians, as well as visiting Americans, up to and including the emergence of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Many of these images had an influence that outlasted the stars themselves, immortalising style and swagger. Hammond's shots of Gene Vincent, newly clad in black leather, were to be particularly influential on later stars, including David Bowie and Ian Dury, while his portrait of Buddy Holly on stage was to become the image for the long-running West End musical Buddy.
The Harry Hammond Collection includes many photographs of stars relaxing off-stage in dressing rooms, hotels and restaurants. These informal images convey a distinct sense of intimacy, as if Hammond is right there to document not just the music, but the very essence of the lifestyle – the venues, the atmosphere, the in-jokes. Known for his courteous manner and ability to pictorially flatter his subjects, it is clear he was welcome in the environment. He once explained:
I always tried to catch the star looking their best or most glamorous, that's how picture editors liked their photographs to be in those days.
Hammond frequently photographed musicians during television appearances, including the pioneering shows of the late 1950s, Six-Five Special and Oh Boy! In 1961, he photographed an early BBC TV pilot for Top of the Pops, capturing the hairstyles, fashions and dance moves of the era.
Harry Hammond's work set the standard for following generations. As his reputation grew, a photo session with him came to be seen as a mark of success. Having had the field virtually to himself, by the arrival of the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960s, there were now at least 20 photographers at every concert. His legacy, however, was set and he soon became known as 'the founding father of music photography'.
Find out more about the Harry Hammond collection.