Early Career

Steen recalls:

One day a woman called Paddy Brosnan went to Smithfields to buy some meat. My dad asked Paddy if there was a job for me. She was the secretary to Tom Hopkinson, the editor of Picture Post. She said I could work for her as an office boy. On 1 April 1951, at the age of 15, I started work.[1] Picture Post carried staff writers and about eight staff photographers. I walked around the office delivering post and doing odd errands for the staff. One day I was in the photographers’ rest room, where they had their lockers, when the picture editor Harry Deverson, came in. He said to one photographer, ‘Come and talk to me about a job in Switzerland,’ and to another photographer, ‘Talk to me about a job in Tokyo’. I had rarely left Clerkenwell, certainly never been abroad. My ears started buzzing, and it was at that precise moment I decided that this photography game was for me. I soon started assisting the photographers.[2]

One of those photographers, Bert Hardy, took Steen under his wing. Hardy taught him not just about taking photos but also the importance of punctuality, being smart, wearing clean shoes and, above all, the love of the job. Between the ages of 15 and 18, when Steen’s friends were going out to pubs and parties, he was out and about, with a borrowed camera taking pictures around London by day and by night.

On sunny days mothers would leave their babies in prams outside their homes and, to earn extra money, Steen would borrow a camera, photograph the babies, and have the pictures printed at a chemist shop. He would pay a shilling a print and then knock at the door of the mother and sell her a photo of her baby for two shillings.

At the age of 17, he was doing small assignments, and at 18 he undertook his first foreign assignment, travelling to Paris to photograph Otto Preminger. “I stayed at the Georges VI hotel, dined at Maxim’s, and went to the Crazy Horse nightclub. This was the beginning of a great adventure that would last for decades.”

In June 1954, he began National Service, spending the first few months in Germany as an Army photographer. He was then despatched to Egypt where he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. “My mum and dad were very proud.” From his base in Ismialia, Egypt, he was sent by the War Office to cover many stories in the Middle East; Cyprus, Libya, Aden and Somalia. By the time he was demobbed (in June 1956) Steen had accomplished an immense amount of travel and photography.

He returned to Picture Post, but a year later the magazine ceased publication but soon he was offered a job as a photographer on Britain’s first newspaper for women, Women’s Sunday Mirror. The publication was started by Hugh Cudlipp, who gave Steen an assignment to photograph a woman delivering her own baby under hypnosis.

The pictures were amazing; the mother and her husband and me with a Rolleiflex in a small bedroom in north London. I entered a sequence of nine photos in the Encyclopædia Britannica Press Photographs of the Year Awards. I won first prize. I was 21, the youngest photographer to win.

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