Shops, TV adverts and children’s t-shirts galore are now stamped with colourful sporting adornments as the 2012 London Olympics draw nearer. We are in somewhat of a neon whirlwind, made evermore rich due to the locality of this year’s games. Last mirrored 64 years ago in 1948, when London was last given the role of sporting host, the Olympics were hugely successful, with the British team winning 26 medals and London swelling with celebrations.
[Image above: Dorothy Tyler (b. 1920), Surrey, 2008. High Jump (silver medal winner). Competed in three Olympic Games winning silver in Berlin in 1936. Dorothy was a driver for the army during the war. She still plays golf competitively.]
With more than a spark of homage and tribute, members of that 1948 team, decked with their deserved pride, will decorate gallery walls across the UK in a touring exhibition created by photographer Katherine Green. Presenting these sportsmen and women and their oral histories, it offers an insight into their experiences and worthy representations of their achievements.
For the past six years the social documentary photographer has been tracing, tracking and traveling the UK to meet the members of the 1948 British Olympics team. Initially commissioned in 2007 by Waltham Forest Council to photograph people who had memories of the 1948 games, Katherine soon realised that there were Olympians who were still around with fruitful tales to be shared.
[*Gordon Thomas, (b. 1921), Shipley, 2012. Cyclist. Gordon won silver medal for the team road race, went on to become professional. He won the Tour of Britain in 1953.]
Having already formed an interest in documenting people’s memories throughout her previous photographic works, she was drawn to dig far deeper, meet the athletes, explore their experiences and draw parallels between their Olympic time versus that of 2012. Through an exhibition of images and oral histories their stories are told in a multidimensional form as Katherine explains…
Compiling the photographs
The British Olympic Association have been the link between myself and the athletes. They have been a fantastic help. I wrote letters to them, and they then sent these letters on to the athletes on their databases. It was then up to the athletes to get in touch with me if they wanted to.
With my portraits I always aim to capture a sense of pride and to celebrate the subject. My subjects are usually those that have been overlooked or go unseen, so much of my work is about bringing people into the public eye. In this case, I was really hoping to create celebratory images of older people, which make the viewer think more about the elderly people in their own community and the stories they might have to share.
All of the people I have met have been inspiring and modest. Many overcame great difficulties to get where they did and as amateurs, they were not allowed to be paid for their work, so they took unpaid leave. I found the women particularly inspiring. During the war they had to completely adapt their lives, and manage families, as well as find time for training.
Most recently I met an amazing and inspirational woman called Denise St Aubyn Hubbard (pictured above). Denise was a high board diver, she trained in Egypt, where her parents lived before moving back to the UK during WWII. Upon arrival she tried to sign up for the Army or Navy, but both were full up. As she spoke Arabic and French she was asked if she would like to learn Japanese, she did, and was trained to read Japanese in a six month period. She then worked at Bletchley Park in the Japanese cipher section. After her swimming and diving career ended, she began sailing. She joined the Royal Navy Auxiliary Service and for eight years became the only woman skipper. She started her own school in seamanship and navigation, and at the age of 64 she sailed single handed across the Atlantic. All done whilst raising a family and retold with the utmost modesty.
I met the fabulous basketball player Lionel Price in Hampstead for a morning shoot and interview. Lionel had grown up in Soho with a love of the theatre, and was full of joie de vivre, at 11am he cracked open a bottle of bubbly, and by the end of the interview we were both quite tipsy.
Creating the exhibition
It has taught me a great deal of respect for older people. It’s so important to take the time to stop and talk to people, and listen to people’s experiences. They have so much of value to share. It also taught me about how much we have now in terms of possessions and wealth. In today’s terms, the UK in 1948 was a difficult place to be, resources were scarce. Many athletes had to improvise by training at home or in parks because gyms and equipment weren’t being manufactured, athletes trained on very little food due to rationing, many handmade their own kits. There was an amazing make do and mend, and ‘mustn’t grumble attitude,’ the most frequent phrase I heard was ‘people just got on with it.’ This was really inspiring and gave me a greater respect for what I have in life.
Katherine Green’s touring exhibition 1948 Olympians can be seen at the following locations:
Until 16 June
20-21 Visual Arts Centre
Church Square, Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire DN15 6TB
10 May – 21 June
The Hat Factory
65 – 67 Bute Street, Luton, Bedfordshire LU1 2EY
02 July – 30 August
Rugby Art Gallery & Museum
Little Elborow Street Little Elborow St, Rugby CV21 3BZ
01788 533 201
Images courtesy of Katherine Green
Words: Kaye Patrick