Colin Osman – Amanda Hopkinson

Colin Osman Obituary written by Amanda Hopkinson for The Guardian newspaper, April 16 2002.

Colin Osman, who has died aged 75, was the founder and editor of the seminal photographic magazine Creative Camera. He was also the owner of an extraordinary archive – in part through the portfolios deposited with the magazine, photographs supposedly loaned to it and books sent for review.

The emergence of Creative Camera coincided with the 1960s renaissance in British photography, and Osman featured the likes of Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn and Philip Jones-Griffiths, although he also produced portfolios on earlier masters such as Kurt Hutton, Martin Munkacsi and Alexander Rodchenko.

Colin Osman on the roof of the Doughty Street premises, date and photographer not known.

His interests were not merely catholic and international. Researches into, say Picture Post, brought him up against Weimar Germany’s Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) photography, which led him to the work of the German communist worker-photographers after the first world war, and the American Photo-League, from 1936 until its suppression during the anti-communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s.

By the 1980s, Creative Camera had published special issues on Drum – the South African picture magazine targeted at black readers – 50 years of picture magazines, and the British worker in photographs. Other issues mixed literature, criticism and fine art, and featured, for example, Victor Burgin on Roland Barthes; William Burroughs; and Roy Strong on RB Kitaj.

Born in London, Osman was educated at Alleynes school, Stevenage, and Queen Mary College, London Uni versity, where he read English and Anglo-Saxon, and met his future wife, Grace. His studies were interrupted by two years of national service in the navy.

He began by taking photographs for Racing Pigeon, a weekly founded in 1898 by his grandfather, whose obituary succinctly identified the work required as “winners in a sort of beauty contest for four-minute-miler pigeons”. Twenty-five years on, Colin had graduated to a different kind of beauty contest, which he described as “bikini jobs”, flogging the pictures of models and showgirls around Fleet Street in the 1950s.

A decade later came Amor Amor: In Praise Of Women (1969), a book of nudes published by King’s Road Publishing, whose cheesy title was equalled by the contents. Colin regarded it as “a watershed in nude photography”, although he was a little perplexed by the publisher’s choice of accompanying texts, from Muset to Heine.

When Photography, the magazine which usually bought Osman’s pictures, collapsed, he became involved with Bill Jay at Camera Owner. Camera club enthusiasts, the backbone of its readership, were popularly regarded as the scum of the earth by professional photo-graphers, but Osman was convinced he could serve the interests of both in one magazine. So Camera Owner became Creative Camera, which covered “tits and bums and all the technical stuff”.

At times, Osman’s role as owner and intermittent editor led to conflicts. The fact that he lived in his grandfather’s home in Doughty Street – between the magazine and the bookshop run by his wife and sister-in-law – hardly aided a hands-off approach. Differences with successive editors, and with the main funding partner, the Arts Council, whose bureaucracy he deeply resented, eventually led him to sell up, though he remained on the board of trustees into the mid-1990s. He left Doughty Street for suburban Cockfosters, and a house paid for by an early photo-album, Streets Of London.

Many of Osman’s passions were sparked by such albums, and postcard collections bought off the barrows on Farringdon Road, most of which were resold off other barrows at Camden Lock. Increasingly, however, he discovered that some of the early items were worth more than barrow-prices, and the Osmans established fruitful outlets with Christie’s and the University of Wales at Cardiff, where an archive is named after them.

The works he found it hardest to sell were those he used in his photocopied news-sheet, The Photo Historian, which, although it had only a few hundred readers, earned him an honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society.

Out of it also came idiosyncratic articles and monographs on early travel photographers, such as In Search Of Thomas Child Of Peking (1989), R Turner Mills: Calotype Paper Maker (1997) and The Later Years Of James Robertson Of Constantinople (1992). Others, particularly on the remarkable Beato Brothers, were published in Germany or, as with Robert Murray and Pascal Sebah, found their way into his book on Egypt (1997).

Attempting to emulate the Israeli (and former Picture Post) photographer, Tim Gidal – with whom he had an unfulfilled project for a book on Jerusalem – Osman would first acquire everything available in a field, devise a book, then sell the collection for a price inflated by the revised interest he had created.

Although known as a rogue – to those who had provided him with books and photographs that were never returned – Colin was also immensely generous in sharing his time and his magpie knowledge, even loaning his works to other photographers and specialists. Henri Cartier-Bresson sent three original slides of nudes; Richard Avedon contributed his favourite Munkacsis. Such trust would not have accrued, and such images would not have been published, without the existence of Coo Press and its most important publication, Creative Camera.

Osman is survived by his wife and two children.

Colin Osman, photographer and editor, born August 16 1926; died April 12 2001.

©Amanda Hopkinson, The Guardian.