Gifford is a Londoner, from Islington, though he later moved to Crawley in Sussex where his family held a catering concession at what was to become Gatwick Airport. As a child he had no particular interest in railways – though he lived within walking distance of Kings Cross station, he was never a locospotter. Instead, he would hover around the ticket barriers, fascinated by the ebb and flow of travellers and the bustle of station business as much as by the trains themselves. It was not until his student days in the late 1950s at Harrow School of Art that he found tangible expression for the visual possibilities that railways offered him. Though he was far more interested in illustration than in photography, he began taking shots of railway scenes around North London and especially along the ex-Great Central main line that passed through Harrow, gradually moving further afield as his new-found enthusiasm for railway photography began to take hold. The branch lines around his Sussex home were another fruitful hunting ground.
After college Gifford worked as a graphic designer in the West End advertising industry, often using his weekends and holidays to travel the country – by public transport wherever possible – to photograph railways. He preferred steam subjects, but unlike most contemporary photographers always took plenty of shots of diesel and electric traction.
Although Bill Brandt is often cited as a major influence, the style that made Gifford's name clearly owed much to the work of a man who is virtually unknown to British enthusiasts – the pioneering Swiss avant-garde railway photographer Jean-Michel Hartmann, whose book Magie du Rail (Editions Amart, 1959) revealed an eye for pattern and form that had a massive impact on Gifford's pictorial approach. Other than Hartmann, Gifford was always cagey about naming which, if any, railway photographers he particularly admired. O Winston Link was dismissed as 'too contrived' and 'pantomime' and he had even less time for the cosy coterie of British cameramen whose work – conventional in the extreme, obsessed with locomotives and of interest only to other enthusiasts – dominated the magazines of the 1950s and early 1960s. Gifford preferred to record things honestly and naturalistically, as he found them, much as the great Picture Post photojournalists had done. He firmly believed this was a way of making railway photography accessible to a far wider audience, although it would be many years before his approach was fully vindicated.
In the early 1960s Gifford joined the publishing house of Ian Allan as art editor and began slipping the occasional railway photograph into the magazines he designed. He took many of his most famous shots – including some stunning images of Bulleid pacifics at speed, captured from trains on adjacent lines – during the course of his daily commute; thirty years later, one of these images would be featured on a Royal Mail stamp. At Shepperton he restyled many familiar publications, such as the Combined Volume (the Winter 1962-3 edition is now a design classic, with its yellow cover featuring a green 4-CEP emu) and the expanding Ian Allan magazine stable. He was instrumental in reshaping and reinvogorating the austerely academic Railway World and helping transform the enthusiast-focused Trains Illustrated into Modern Railways, a quality large-format monthly for transport professionals that was driven by a strong visual dynamic. In a branch of publishing that was increasingly falling prey to nostalgia, Gifford's imaginative photographs of the current scene brought excitement and a breath of fresh air – the 'new' Euston was a particular favourite in Modern Railways. Many Ian Allan pictorial albums from this period benefited from his visual flair and creative design. There were even some elaborately contrived trompe l'oeil covers for Model Railway Constructor, including a speeding Trix 'Warship' and a 00 gauge BR Standard Class 9F seemingly emitting an enormous plume of smoke.
Away from the Ian Allan design studio, Gifford continued to build a photographic record of every region of British Railways using a Rolleiflex medium-format twin-lens reflex camera. He was also busily photographing the full length of the River Thames with the idea of one day making a book out of it. His work was predominantly black and white and for 35mm colour work he used cheaper, less sophisticated cameras such as the Russian-made Fed; in later years a Pentax SLR joined the faithful Rolleiflex TLR.
All this creativity came together with the publication in 1965 of Decline of Steam. Its effect on British railway photography was nothing short of cataclysmic – certainly to an audience that, for the most part, had never seen the work of Jean-Michel Hartmann. In place of endless front three-quarter views (with the sun always coming over the photographer's shoulder and the locomotive number clearly visible) here were misty industrial landscapes, sweating railway workers, rainswept nocturnal platforms, sulphurous engine sheds. The trains themselves were often almost an afterthought in this vision of the railway as a totality; some images did not feature trains at all. The design and layout of the pictures (by Gifford himself) was at least as important as the subject.
All over Britain, Gifford was either hailed as the new Messiah or reviled by the old guard (who could never quite articulate why they were so uneasy with his work – contemptuously describing a photograph as 'an out of focus blur passing some grainy cooling towers' was about the limit of their critical evaluation). Soon popular magazines such as Railway World and Railway Magazine were offering an uncomfortable mixture of Gifford-inspired avant-garde (or what passed as avant-garde) and the traditional. By 1967, however, Gifford had left Ian Allan and devoted himself to photographing the final years of British steam virtually full-time, often in the company of his young protégé Ian Krause, a student at Harrow School of Photography (it was Krause, rather than Gifford, who was behind the 'New Approach' photographic feature that first appeared in Railway World in 1966 and continued after Gifford's departure). This association introduced Gifford to the infamous MNA (Master Neverer's Association), a group of (mostly) Midlands-based photographers centred on the legendary Paul Riley, an ex-roadie and professional hellraiser. The long overnight car journeys and inevitable ego clashes were not to Gifford's taste – he is a soft-spoken and unassuming man – and he returned to public transport and his own company for the final months of steam. He never did own a telephoto lens in steam days, although it became the hallmark of the Gifford-inspired 'New Approach' to railway photography that had featured in Railway World and reached its apotheosis in the Ian Allan album Steam Portfolio (1968). Style sometimes triumphed over substance but in the work of young photographers such as Malcolm Dunnett and Roderick Hoyle, Gifford's influence was unmistakable; in the book's static page layout, however, the absence of his subtle design skills was all too obvious.
The best of Gifford's prodigious output from these years found a place in Each a Glimpse, his second masterpiece, published by Ian Allan in 1970 and once again designed by Gifford himself; it sold for an unbelievable four guineas, a fair proportion of which was absorbed by the laminated plastic dustjacket. Many of the pictures dated from 1967 to 1968 and the influence of Jean-Michel Hartmann – almost overwhelming in Decline of Steam – was far less marked in a book that showed how, in those final years of steam, Gifford had begun to experiment with new techniques (possibly stimulated by his association with David Percival and other young photographers) and find his own visual language, less graphically dynamic and more pictorialist than before. Forty years on, those photographs of a long-vanished Britain have the poignancy and social relevance of films such as Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or This Sporting Life. Their value is enhanced by the fact that very few Gifford photographs have ever been published twice – he was always careful to keep his work fresh and unlike most of his contemporaries, never allowed publishers to hang on to his photographs on the off-chance they might be used one day. He was (and continues to be) reluctant to allow his work to be published unless he has designed the page layouts himself.
Although he had amassed a collection of some 18,000 negatives between 1958 and 1968, with enough unpublished material (including his rarely glimpsed colour work) for many more books, Gifford's understandable fastidiousness about his work became something of a stumbling block. The Thames book failed to find a publisher, while sales of Steam Railways in Industry (Batsford, 1976) were disappointing, as was the reproduction quality. There was talk of an album of ABC-style locomotive portraits – not a style Gifford would automatically be associated with, but he certainly had all the material. Meanwhile, a projected seven-part region-by-region study with Ian Allan ground to a halt after just one volume, Steam Finale North (also 1976), had been published and Gifford was not best pleased when Ian Allan subsequently brought out Steam Finale Scotland, superficially a continuation of the series but in practice containing nothing by Gifford. Things had looked far more promising when, the previous year, Gifford had signed with New English Library (an American-owned company) to produce the companion-piece to Each a Glimpse, entitled And Gone Forever. With an eye on the export market and foreign co-editions, extensive use of colour was stipulated for the first time. A mock-up of And Gone Forever was presented at the 1976 Frankfurt Book Fair but the book was never, alas, to reach production, at least in the form Gifford and his publisher anticipated; deadlines came and went and though most of the design work was eventually completed, the contract was terminated in 1978 – a very different book of the same title finally appeared from Oxford Publishing Company in 1994, but without the colour photographs that had been promised 18 years earlier.
In that same year, Royal Mail published a set of five postage stamps featuring a selection of his photographs, chosen in collaboration with the designer Brian Delaney; as with all Royal Mail stamp issues, the designs were personally approved by the Queen. There was an exhibition at the National Postal Museum to mark the event, which included items such as Gifford's notebooks and treasured Rolleiflex camera. Gifford had by then moved to Hertfordshire – and learned to drive – but for the next decade and a half little was seen of his work, other than occasional magazine articles and the odd small exhibition.
By the end of the 'noughties', however, rumours began to emerge of a new, revised edition of Each a Glimpse with enhanced, digitally scanned images taken from the original negatives. The old rifts having evidently healed, Ian Allan would once again be the publisher but at the time of writing (March 2011) nothing concrete had emerged and there were suggestions that no formal contract had yet been signed. Another distinct possibility was an album of Gifford's colour work, based around a stunning set of around 100 images that had been exhibited at Kidderminster Railway Museum in 2009 under the title 'In the Wink of an Eye'. There was even mention of the River Thames book once again but, as ever with this gifted and charismatic photographer, only Gifford himself can know what the ultimate course of events will be.Each a Glimpse (1970)
Decline of Steam (1965)
Steam Finale North (1976)
Steam Railways in Industry (1976)
And Gone Forever (1994)