Larry Herman, who died aged 79, was a news photographer who turned his back on Fleet Street to take a longer view of the human condition at the community level. The communities he chose to photograph were mostly working-class and mostly poor, but Larry never showed them as oppressed. It was their agency, their dignity and their cohesion that interested him, and what they were looking for. Larry was a socialist and incorrigibly optimistic about the world.
He would spend months researching and preparing, obtaining 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 fishing-dependent family in the Norwegian Arctic, and exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.
In the mid-1970s he documented the region 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 Center in Glasgow, and he later spent long periods in North Birmingham. with the Caribbean community (We’re from There, completed in 2002) and with low-wage workers in central London (Waged London, 2011). He visited Cuba for several years beginning in 2013 and traveled to the Deep South of the United States (for Land! Land! Land!), where he lived with small black farmers struggling to survive.
Larry worked with the Republican community in Northern Ireland in 1972-73 and befriended the poet Seamus Heaney. Larry told an interviewer in 2013, “The closest relation to photography is poetry in that both art forms have an extraordinary ability to be very explicit about a very specific thing.” Of his work he said: “I am a documentary photographer who has rejected the usual role of spectator. I align myself with those I photograph… I consider myself a portrait photographer. I photograph people in the context of certain aspects of their surroundings.
He has exhibited in solo exhibitions, including at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, 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, until his death.
Larry was born in New York City to Anne (née 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 being called up to fight in Vietnam. The previous year he had married Welsh writer Barbara Rees, whom he had met in Rome where she worked for the UN, and when they moved to London she was pregnant with their daughter, Melissa.
Larry practiced as a sculptor, but then decided to apply his artistic eye to creating shapes with his camera. In London, he toured the picture desks of national newspapers claiming to be a professional photographer. The Times editor took a chance and Larry got to work. But he quickly realizes that everyday news doesn’t really interest him and decides to slow down and pursue his own documentary projects.
His images are distinctive: all are black and white, all taken in available light – without even using flash, let alone lights – and all on film. He never took a digital photo; all of his work was done in the vast darkroom of his small London flat. You can tell a photograph of Larry Herman on sight. Often they are offbeat or even unsettling, depicting people (rarely looking at the camera) from unexpected angles.
He used Leica cameras, almost always with a single 35mm lens. He covered the Brixton Riots in 1981 and was crushed in the face as he took a photo by a baton-wielding police officer. The blow broke his finger and scarred his face, but he liked to brag that the Leica was intact.
Shortly after Brixton, Larry turns his back again, this time on photography itself. He was a member of the International Marxist Trotskyist Group (IMG) and decided to follow its policy, adopted in 1979, of “turning towards industry”. This forced members to quit their jobs and take industrial jobs, get involved in union organizing, and spread revolutionary ideas. Larry first went to the London Underground, working as a guard on the Piccadilly line.
After five years, he moved to Sheffield to work in the steelworks, notably at the Forgemasters foundry. In 1986 and 1988 the NUJ held its annual conference in Sheffield, where Larry the Steelworker surprised us by showing up to sell the Militant newspaper outside the gates.
In 1990, he could not find industrial work, blacklisted for his union activities and he returned to photography. Friends said he wasted his talents over the past 10 years, but that’s not how he saw it. Advocating for socialism alongside the workers is what he did.
He did so in his 50 years at NUJ, as a stubborn debater who would never give an inch while retaining everyone’s affection, most of the time. His recent activity has been to help young journalists and students enter the profession.
And he did it in the housing estate where he lived in Whitechapel, east London, after leaving Sheffield in 1999. He got himself elected secretary of the tenants’ association, got the estate improved , hosted social events and picked up business for his neighbors. He continued to advocate for socialism as a member of the Communist League, a successor group to the long-defunct IMG.
Larry’s last project was with garment workers in Bangladesh, where he documented the movement to improve appalling working conditions. During his second visit to Dhaka in 2019, he broke his back in a fall, and after that he was in constant pain. There was no medical solution. He just endured it and planned another project. His determination, humor and exuberance were evident until the end of his life.
He and Barbara separated in 1974 and divorced soon after. He is survived by their daughter, Melissa, a documentary filmmaker, and his grandchildren, Dani and Noa.