Photo by Bob Carlos Clarke
“Bob had been one of my students at the London College
of Printing where I lectured in photo-journalism.
His death in 2006, at the age of only fifty-six,
was a great loss to photography.”
Pop psychology books often boast they will ‘change your life’.
One book certainly changed mine but it had nothing to do with pop psychology.
Since childhood, my burning ambition had been to study medicine and become a doctor. For my tenth birthday I was given a microscope and for most of my teenage years I dissected my way through any non-flattened road kill I came across as well as sheep’s eyes, ox hearts and even pigs brains obtained from our local butcher.
To record my dissections I began to photograph them and then expanded my photographic interests to record scenes around the village where I was brought up. You can see some of these images from the 1950’s in the Village Life folder under the Buildings and Places tag.
By the age of seventeen I had become as interested in photography as in science and it was hard to know which to choose as a career. I eventually opted for medicine since it seemed to offer a more secure and – in my father’s eyes – far more respectable way of earning a living.
A couple of years into my medical studies, however, while browsing in a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road I came across a rather tattered second hand copy of a book entitled People I Have Shot. Published by Methuen, in 1934, it was the biography of James Jarché, one of Fleet Street’s earliest news photographers. I read Jarché’s book and was immediately hooked on the excitement of press photography.
A few weeks latter, crouched over a formaldehyde soaked limb in the dissecting room and surrounded by the picked apart corpses of pickled pensioners, I had an epiphany. I suddenly pictured myself in middle age signing sick notes and scribbling scripts in a dingy basement consulting room. Compared with the apparently glamorous life of a globe trotting photojournalist there was no contest.
The next day I hung up my stethoscope, turned in my Gray’s Anatomy and, shortly afterwards, enrolled at what was then the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Photography (now part of the University of Westminster) on a three-year City & Guilds diploma course.
The school, headed by Margaret Harker FRPS, taught photography in a very traditional way. For the whole of the first year students never pressed a camera shutter in anger or ventured from the spacious studios overlooking Regent Street.
at Hampton Court in 1960
All our pictured were taken on solidly built half-plate Kodak view cameras with plates being exposed by the simple expedient of removing a lens cap and counting out the seconds.
In the second year, during architectural field trips to local stately homes, we used beautiful mahogany and brass Gandolfi plate cameras on solid wooden tripods. Even here exposures tended to be long with shutters triggered by a puff of air by means of a hand squeezed rubber bulb.
The course offered a craftsmanship based, approach to photography but one very different to the world of the photographer greats – such as Margaret Burke-White, Robert Capa, and Eugene Smith – who had become my new heroes.
During the second I spent two very uncomfortable weeks on a North Sea Trawler (see North Sea Trawling sequence) to produce my first photo essay. This form of reportage has now all but disappeared from the publishing scene but was, at that time, still in vogue with major European and American magazines.
My pictures won an award and I knew I had found my true vocation, not as a news photographer but as a photojournalist covering the stories behind the news.
The only problem was – how on earth did you actually become a photojournalist?
The course completed I wrote confidently to every national newspaper and picture magazine in the UK, sure I would land a job with ease. After all I had a City and Guild’s certificate to prove my photographic skills! A few months later having gathered a fine collection of rejection letters from those publications that bothered tosend any reply at all, I began to wonder whether my father might not have been right in believing medicine would have been the better option.
Since no one else would employ me I decided to work for myself and spent the next couple of years freelancing for local and National newspapers.
as a 22-year-old
equipment that I was using
to earn a living in
my Paris appartment
South of France with
Leica M2 and
Nikon F2 in 1967
During Street Fighting
In 1969 I joined a Fleet Street based agency, Features International, based at 1 Gough Square. Adjoining Dr Johnson’s House, it was situated in what was then the heart of the UK’s newspaper industry. In addition to producing and syndicating their own stories and pictures, Fleet Street International represented major prestigious European publishing groups allowing me access to the cream of French, German and Italian news magazines.
One of the first assignments I shot while after joining the agency was to cover the start of the ‘Troubles’ in Belfast. It was to be the first of many such trips I made to Northern Ireland over the following seven years, culminating in my unlucky thirteenth visit that almost killed me.
of Nelson to photograph
a pigeon’s eye-view of
Trafalgar Square, London.
to the tail of a Tiger Moth aircraft
to photograph aerial stunts.
Over the years I covered a vast range of picture stories, always being more interested in exploring the way people worked, played and lived together than in celebrity.
In order to extend my picture taking capabilities I learned SCUBA diving and skydiving as well as flying.
In the days before motorised cameras taking skydiving pictures presented significant challenges. A heavy twin lens reflex camera attached to the helmet had to be wound on by hand after taking each picture, a manoeuvre calculated to destabilise the photographer in an instant. The twin lens camera is called a Rollop. A British copy of the Rolleiflex it was a good deal less expensive to replace if it failed to survive the landing.
After meeting a remarkable man named Joe Weston Webb, showman extraordinary, I became interested in finding new ways of filming stunts, designing and building special rigs to hold motorised and often radio controlled Nikon cameras onto various parts of cars, motorbikes and aircraft that were to be crashed, blow up, sunk in rivers or flown into the ground (See Destruction Squad).
Nikon’s were, during the early seventies, the workhorse cameras of press and magazine photographers. They were tough and reliable pieces of kit that could survive an extraordinary battering and still carry on taking photographs.
On one occasion I had one of my cameras struck by a jet fighter while photographing gravel pit arrester trials (See Military). The pictures survived undamaged and when I took the battered remains of the camera into the repair shot and explained what had happened, the mechanic said casually: “Struck by a Lightning jet fighter at 100 mph as it? I repaired one damaged in much the same way a couple of weeks ago.”
(See Blowing up Cars for Art)
(See Underwater House Malta)
Another camera that I very much enjoyed using was the Leica M2, with its black body and almost silent shutter it was ideal for working on film sets or on other assignments where discretion was required. It was a great camera for use in riots or demonstrations where there was a need to work quickly and unobtrusively. The Leica was tough as well.
Covering street fighting in Belfast in 1973, it caught the full impact of a descending British soldier’s rifle but. After a few weeks in the repair shop it was as good as new. I still have it and it still takes great pictures.
For underwater photography, of which I was doing an increasing amount, I used two Nikonos cameras that were launched in 1963. One was equipped with a special housing for a 21mm lens that I had built for me by one of the greatest American underwater photographers of all time – Flip Schulke. (Check out his biography on the Internet).
For the next twelve years I travelled the world producing photographs that were published by magazines, such as Match, Stern, Oggi and Life as well as newspapers in the UK, France, German, and Sweden.
For two of those years I also ran a course in photojournalism at the London College of Printing where my students include the late Bob Carlos-Clarke, who became one of the country’s foremost fashion photographers, and Chris Niedenthal. Chris, of Polish origin, moved to Poland in 1973 just when everybody else was moving in the opposite direction! He became a photographer for Newsweek and later for Der Spiegel. In 1986 he won a top award in the World Press Photo contest.
I also wrote a series of articles about my work for the photographic press, especially for a magazine called Camera User. Copies of some of these features can be downloaded as PDF’s from this web site.
In 1976, having left Features International with the intention of working for Camera Press, one of the premier agencies, I was seriously injured while covering rioting in Belfast – on what turned out to be my unlucky thirteenth visit to the city.
By this time, the market for photography was changing fast and changing forever. The rising demand for glamour and celebrity shots combined with the growth of television meant that the extended photo-essay that I mostly wanted to produce struggled to find a market. It was time to move on.
After convalescing I decided to hang up my cameras and again changed careers, returning to University and seek to make sense of much of the cruelty and sadness that I had witnessed over the years.
I went back to the Polytechnic of Central London, where I had studied photography fifteen years earlier, to read for a BSc (Hon) degree. I then transferred to the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex to conduct research for a doctorate that was awarded in 1984.
In 1976 as many of my negatives and prints as I still had in my possession were place in store where they remained for the next thirty-three years. Early in 2009, at the urging of my partner I looked at the pictures, some of which I had taken a more than half a century earlier.
Time had not been kind to some of the projects, poor storage combined with the fact that many had been processed at speed to meet newspaper and magazine deadlines, meant that of the some 15,000 images I had taken in the course of my career only around a third remained usable.
A few projects could only be reconstructed by scanning contact sheets or from a series of black and white slides that I had made while lecturing at the London College of Printing.
Again, at the suggestions of friends, I decided to put these surviving images on the web. Not because I regard them as great examples of the photojournalist’s art, I only ever saw myself as a jobbing photographer able to turn his hand to almost any assignment and produce a reliable and workmanlike job against a deadline.
My purpose in opening the archive to a wider audience was to throw some light on a world so very different, in many significant ways, from today.
It was a time, for example, when:
- Ordinary London policemen could control thousands of demonstrators, whilst still wearing their everyday uniforms, numbers clearly displayed, without any need to transform themselves into heavily armoured Robocops.
- When young people were allowed to grow up without being cosseted like china dolls and learn to take reasonable risks and learn from their experiences.
- When adults too were able to risk their necks if they chose to do so without having to refer their every action to Health and Safety inspectors.
- It was also, of course, a time when children could be physically abused in schools without a hair being turned. In 1964, at a private school on the South Coast, for example, I secretly photographed a teenage boy being savagely caned for some minor infringement of the rules. (See Education).
- It was also a period when Britain was under grave threat from IRA terrorists and acts of great brutality and hideous cruelty were perpetrated by all sides in Northern Ireland.
The past, as L.P. Hartley’s memorably put it, truly is a foreign country where they do things differently.