While his name might not resonate widely today, there are few photojournalists whose work has not been affected – even indirectly – by the late Stefan Lorant, a man who made his mark with his restless genius and massive ego.

Unruffled by his mercurial image, author Michael Hallett first met Lorant when, approaching 90, he was invited to England by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

The result of that brief encounter and the content of Hallett’s subsequent article for the British Journal of Photography started a literary relationship.

It has taken until now for the result of his in-depth exploration of Lorant’s inner workings to reach publication. His discoveries blossomed into a revealing biographical account of the life of the professional loner who, almost single-handedly, changed the face of European magazine publishing, long before Henry Luce dreamed up the highly successful Life picture magazine concept in the US. Based upon hours of conversation during visits to Lorant’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts, Hallett has done much to demystify the legend. As a virtual hermit in the magazine publishing world, where teamwork is a key element, Lorant used every element of his background as a photographer, silent film director and “pictures-on-a-page” pioneer to survive and prosper against the odds, time and again.

In 1938, the hard-nosed henchmen of quintessentially British publisher and day-dreamer, Edward Hulton, achieved the impossible. They persuaded the brilliant Hungarian-born editor, Stefan Lorant, author of I was Hitler’s Prisoner, to reconsider his rejection of a lucrative editorial contract, after their paymaster had expressed admiration for fasc ism.

Close to bankruptcy at the time, Lorant was placated by the prospect of money and power. He sold Hulton his monthly magazine, Lilliput, for a cool £20,000 and paid off his considerable debts.

At the time, the young Hulton believed he had given Lorant a free hand to create a Conservative weekly in the Spectator mould. Instead, Lorant set about reinventing the picture magazine format he had perfected amid the political turmoil of Germany after the First World War. The result was to become, for almost two decades, the UK’s most cherished weekly picture magazine.

In Lorant’s time at the helm (1938-1940), as creator and editor of Picture Post, he was the ultimate “godfather”, often irritated by the fact that he could not publish the magazine without the interference of an editorial staff. The layout of the pictures, the style of the captions and the grudgingly conceded space for words, were based on the numerous German and French magazine layouts that he had created in the 1920s.

For those who believe that photojournalism began with the class of ’62, Lorant’s life story will come as something of a shock. Those photographers, with whom Lorant would trust the early Picture Post assignments, were fellow refugees from Hitler’s Germany and it was their professionalism which was to rub off on young innocents – like myself – in the final decade of the magazine’s existence.

This neatly presented book expands on the life and foibles of a man to whom publishers, editors, photographers and the public at large owe much, because he stepped on to the photographic stage at the very time when photographers had been liberated by the advent of the 35mm camera. It was this, and moving pictures that implanted an appreciation of the classic picture sequence, which enabled Lorant to create his high-impact layouts on the printed page.

Michael Hallett’s biography of the godfather of photojournalism is both detailed and honest. The text is presented in short, crisp, readable chunks, which unfold Lorant’s tumultuous life story in a very personal way.

The layout of the 22 pages of pictures is clearly influenced by the Lorant “formula”. Predictable and, in part, somewhat self-indulgent, they provide a window on the world of the man whose stamp of personality did much to influence the evolution of European narrative photography. Now, its secret power rests only in the minds and memories of “the last of the few”.

Charmed by his temperamental genius, I exchanged friendly postcards with him from time to time and when we met on one occasion, he growled some good advice: “Get rid of that beard Chillingworth, it makes you look old!”.

John Chillingworth