Spies like us

Some of the most intriguing topics in fiction can be the hardest to illustrate. Any experienced picture researcher will be able to rattle off a list of impossible topics for which he or she has been asked to source images.

Those topics can be subdivided into two discrete types of impossibility. The first is the “things that don’t exist because they are a factual impossibility” type of impossibility: a request for a “photograph – and it has to be a photograph – of Marie Antoinette being beheaded” or “a photo of soldiers in World War One going over the top of the trenches: the image MUST be colour, MUST not be a recreation and MUST be in focus”. Photography is so easy now and so integrated into everything we do that it’s easy to forget that there was a time when photographs required the sitter to remain still for a long period of time… or indeed to remember that there was a time before photography.

The other type of impossibility – and the one that is perhaps most interesting to a researcher (at least it is to me!) –  is “things that don’t exist because no one thought to photograph them”. It’s impossible to count how many times I have been asked for “images of prostitutes with their clients in a dark street” or “a beautiful Victorian woman posing, half-hidden, with a child born out of wedlock”. Photos of these kinds of subjects are rare (if the exist at all) and it’s a great testament to someone’s research skills that so many novels are illustrated with photographs where the researcher has obviously had to think laterally rather than literally.

The latest James Bond adventure Skyfall reminded me of another one of those frequent requests: “photographs of spies spying”. If you’re researching images for a non-fiction book that is a particularly tricky request. Now, I’m no Q, but I imagine that a spy who has been photographed in the act of spying was not a particularly discreet spy.

Thankfully, with fiction works, you have more leeway to illustrate the idea of spies spying more subjectively: shadowy figures, surreptitious glances,  blurry briefcases, something that gives a whiff of the Cold War without having to be a photo of prisoner exchanges on the Glienicke Bridge. A whiff of cigarette smoke or a hat pulled down low are usually particularly welcome!

I’ve selected some favourites from the archive that have that elusive spy feel without actually being photos of spies… but who knows? Maybe one or two of the people caught in these photographs was carrying a microfiche in their shoe or a Walther PPK strapped to their leg…