Larry Herman was a photographer who aligned himself with his subjects – mainly poor and working communities
Photo: © Larry Herman, Clydeside 1974-76, Estate of Larry Herman
Photos: National Galleries Scotland © Estate of Larry Herman
Larry Herman, who has died aged 79, was a news photographer who turned his back on Fleet Street to take a longer view of the human condition at a community level.
The communities he chose to photograph were mostly workers and mainly poor, but Larry never showed them as oppressed. It was their agency, their dignity and cohesion that interested him, and what they were striving for. Larry was a socialist and incorrigibly optimistic about the world.
He would spend months researching and preparing, securing commissions and planning exhibitions for his in-depth portraits. His first project, in Norway in 1972, was A Northern Family, capturing the life of a family dependent on fishing in the Norwegian Arctic, and shown at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.
In the mid-1970s he documented the area around the Clyde in the west of Scotland at a time of acute industrial decline in the series Clydeside 1974-76, exhibited at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, and he later spent long periods in north Birmingham with the Caribbean community (We’re from There, completed 2002), and with low-paid workers in central London (Waged London, 2011). He visited Cuba over several years from 2013 and travelled to the US deep south (for Land! Land! Land!), where he lived with black small farmers struggling to survive.
Larry worked with the republican community in Northern Ireland in 1972-73, and built up a friendship with the poet Seamus Heaney. Larry told an interviewer in 2013: “Photography’s nearest relation is poetry in that both art forms have an extraordinary capacity to be very explicit about a very specific thing.” Of his work he said: “I’m a documentary photographer who has rejected the usual role of spectator. I align myself with those I photograph … I think of myself as a portrait photographer. I photograph people in the context of some aspect of their environment.”
Larry Herman was born in New York but emigrated to the UK during the Vietnam War. An award-winning documentary photographer, his projects have included A Northern Family, on the working lives of two fishing families in the Norwegian Arctic, and Waged London depicting workers who sell their labour by the hour. He is best known in Scotland for his series Clydeside 1974-76, which documents the area around the Clyde during a period of acute industrial decline.
He exhibited in solo shows including at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and in Frankfurt and Paris, and his images are held in collections at the Museum of London, the National Galleries of Scotland, Tate Britain and the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as in private collections.
He was a dedicated member of his union, the National Union of Journalists, remaining active in the London Freelance Branch, where he and I met in 1976, right up to his death.
Larry was born in New York, to Anne (nee Wilkins) and Saul Herman, a rabbi, whose own parents had fled persecution in eastern Europe. After leaving school, he studied sculpture in New York at the Arts Students League and the New School for Social Research, and in Italy at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma.
In 1968, he moved to the UK to avoid the call-up to fight in Vietnam. The previous year he had married the Welsh writer Barbara Rees , whom he had met in Rome where she was working for the UN, and when they moved to London she was pregnant with their daughter, Melissa.
Larry was practising as a sculptor, but then decided to apply his artist’s eye to making shapes with his camera instead. In London he went round the picture desks of the national newspapers claiming to be a working photographer.
The picture editor of the Times took a chance on him and Larry began to pick up work. But he soon found that daily news did not really interest him and decided to slow down and pursue his own documentary projects.
His images are distinctive: all are black and white, all taken in available light – not even using flash, let alone lights – and all on film. He never took a digital picture; his work was all made in the capacious darkroom of his small London flat. You can tell a Larry Herman photograph on sight. Often they are quirky or even unsettling, portraying people (rarely looking at the camera) from unexpected angles.
He used Leica cameras, nearly always with a single 35mm lens. He covered the riots in Brixton in 1981, and was smashed across the face while taking a picture by a truncheon-wielding police officer. The blow broke a finger and scarred his face but he liked to boast that the Leica was undamaged.
Shortly after Brixton, Larry turned his back again, this time on photography itself. He was a member of the Trotskyite International Marxist Group (IMG) and decided to follow its policy, adopted in 1979, of the “turn to industry”. This required members to abandon their work and take industrial jobs, involve themselves in trade union organisation and spread revolutionary ideas. Larry went first to London Underground, working as a guard on the Piccadilly line.
After five years he moved to Sheffield to work in the steel mills, notably at the Forgemasters foundry. In 1986 and 1988 the NUJ held its annual conference in Sheffield, where Larry the steelworker surprised us by turning up to sell the Militant newspaper outside the doors.
By 1990 he was unable to find industrial work, blacklisted for his union activities and he returned to photography. Friends said he had wasted his talents for the last 10 years but that is not how he saw things. Arguing for socialism alongside working people was what he did.
He did it in his 50 years in the NUJ, as a dogged debater who would never yield an inch yet retained the affection of all, most of the time. His recent activity was to help young journalists and students into the profession.
And he did it on the housing estate where he lived in Whitechapel, east London, after moving back from Sheffield in 1999. He got himself elected secretary of the tenants’ association, secured improvement to the estate, organised social events and took up cases for his neighbours. He continued arguing for socialism as a member of the Communist League, a successor group to the long-defunct IMG.
Larry’s last project was with female garment workers in Bangladesh, where he documented the movement to improve appalling working conditions. On his second visit to Dhaka in 2019, he fractured his back in a fall, and after that was in constant pain. There was no medical solution. He just endured it and planned another project. His determination, humour and exuberance were evident to the end of his life.
He and Barbara separated in 1974 and divorced soon afterwards. He is survived by their daughter, Melissa, a documentary film-maker, and his grandchildren, Dani and Noa.
Larry Herman, photographer, born 26 February 1942; died 29 December 2021