Mandela to McCartney: Exploring the photographs of Michael Peto

Today the National Portrait Gallery announced news of the first museum display of portraits by photojournalist Michael Peto. Michael Peto Photographs: Mandela to McCartney will be held at the Gallery from 17 September 2013.

I have been quietly working on the project for many months alongside curator Terence Pepper and colleagues at the University of Dundee, researching the largely unexplored Peto Collection of some 130,000 negatives and prints, donated to the University by the photographers family, following his death in 1970.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor web small

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton by Michael Peto, 1963 © University of Dundee The Peto Collection

The ten photographs by Michael Peto (1908-1970) taken in London during the 1950s and 1960s to go on display will include the photograph shown above of Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton during the recording of the acclaimed BBC radio production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in October 1963.

Celebrated subjects in the display will also include Samuel Beckett photographed in his Paris apartment in 1961, Nelson Mandela photographed during his brief visit to London in June 1962, Jennie Lee photographed near the Houses of Parliament in 1965, and Paul McCartney with The Beatles during the making of the Richard Lester directed film Help! (1965).

Born in 1908 in Bata, Hungary, Peto moved to Budapest in the 1930s, and it was his work in exporting Hungarian crafts which enabled him to flee the country in the summer of 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Aged 31, he found himself in London, a refugee needing to build a new life. He first took up photography in 1947, buying an old Leica, intending to illustrate some of his own articles.

Seeing the work of photographer Ervin Marton, Peto realised that photography offered a greater opportunity for his creative expression than writing. Marton encouraged him to explore the possibilities of the medium, and with no background of technical training, Peto worked hard to learn and continually experiment with darkroom technique.

I work in black and white because I do not see in colour. If I did, I would have been a painter.” (Peto quoted in Cameras, May 12 1961)

Peto’s work was first published in The Observer in March 1949, and he subsequently became a regular contributor until 1967, documenting social and humanitarian issues, and  recording the key cultural and political figures of the era. During the 1960’s Peto also became involved in the London ballet scene, becoming especially known for his portraits of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. Peto’s celebrated publications include The Dancer’s World (1963) with text by Nigel Gosling (under the pseudonym Alexander Bland) and About Britain (1967) with text by journalist Kenneth Harris.

The Dancers World

The Dancer’s World (1963) with photographs by Michael Peto and text by Nigel Gosling (under the pseudonym Alexander Bland).

In his lifetime, Peto was celebrated as one of the leading photojournalists of his age. Mechtid Nawiasky, former picture editor of The Observer wrote upon the announcement of his death (‘Peto, the man who loved life’, The Observer, Jan 3 1971):

He had such a capacity for seeing life and beauty in places where one had not seen it before. A great love of all creatures who had maintained themselves intact in this difficult world inspired his photographs.

[…] He brought with him his romantic philosophy as a kind of gift to a materialistic age which, he believed, would soon see what matters most in life if only it could be shown truthfully. Money mattered little to him. He nursed his negatives as a vintner tends his grapes to produce a grand cru.

Compared to his contemporaries which included Jane Bown, David Keen and Peter Sim; today Michael Peto is lesser known. National Portrait Gallery display Michael Peto Photographs: Mandela to McCartney (17 September 2013 – 31 May 2014) will be the beginning of a season of exhibitions, which will continue with displays at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at The Lincoln Center in New York (2 October 2013 until 5 January 2014) and The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh (2014).  I hope this collaborative project with the University of Dundee will help reaffirm Peto’s reputation as a leading figure in the history of twentieth-century photojournalism.


I recently met photographer Colin Jones for the first time, and greatly enjoyed hearing his recollections of Michael Peto. Please share news of this forthcoming display and our continuing research into Peto’s work. I would be delighted to hear from photographers, editors and personal acquaintances, who would be willing to share their memories of this often over-looked but highly significant photographer.


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