Saturday, 25 July 2020

Classic OLYMPUS Advertisements

My first camera was a second hand Pentax ME Super. I didn’t remember the adverts for Pentax cameras. I remembered the adverts for Olympus cameras, the ones with photographer David Bailey. I wanted to be Bailey. Part of me still does. He was cool and hung out with rock stars, models and gangsters. 

The television commercials from the late 1970s and 1980s, screened during soap opera Coronation Street and sporting spectacles like the FA Cup final, reached millions, turning Bailey into a household name and Olympus into a household brand, except my house. “Who do you think you are, David Bailey?” would be levelled at anyone pointing a camera at a birthday party, wedding, in a pub, street, office, park or playground.

The bold, brilliant and often blokeish ads had Bailey being confused for someone else. In one, Monty Python’s Eric Idle reprises his 'nudge, nudge, know what I mean, a nod’s as good as a wink’ character, mistaking Formula 1 driver James Hunt for Bailey. The on set gossip is that Idle, after stepping on a nail, ad-libbed his way through infuriating the director. In another, Bailey is taunted for his tiny all-in-one Olympus camera by the all-gear-and-no-idea elitist ‘professional photographer’ played by George Cole.

The Olympus ads worked. Before Ian Dickens joined Olympus in a junior role in 1979, he worked in a camera shop. “I saw the sharp-end. After the first television ad [where Bailey, using the Olympus Trip, out-shoots an old school wedding photographer] people would come in and ask for an Olympus, the one Bailey used. They couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. I just had to take the payment.” Dickens was so impressed, it prompted him to apply for the job with Olympus where he remained for 21 years rising to Marketing Director. “The ads were designed to entertain, amuse, surprise and challenge. Build a brand perception that customers would have an instant warmth to.”

The creative agency behind the Olympus ads were Collett Dickenson Pearce, CDP, the same agency that paired Hamlet cigars with failure, Heineken beer with refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach and Hovis bread with brass bands and steep, sepia hills. And that’s jus the brands beginning with H.

“The agency’s brief was to do whatever they wanted, be as outrageous as they wanted and we’d take it from there,” says Graeme Chapman, Managing Director at Olympus from 1980 -2008 (including six years as European President of its Consumer Products division). Which is just as well, CDP had a reputation for only tolerating a certain amount of client interference. They took full advantage of Chapman’s advice, delivering humorous narratives and headlines. The philosophy was to treat the consumer with respect and provoke them into action.

The adverts displayed across these pages certainly provoke, one even suggests - ‘This Christmas, indulge in a little blackmail, extortion and torture,’ above a compilation of frivolous photographs featuring topless men, men with their tongues out, trousers down and sucking the toes of other men. The camera price is ‘… a drop in the ocean compared to the price you’ll be able to charge for the negatives’ it concludes, years before television shows offered financial rewards for the submission of embarrassing video clips.

‘Which part of the divine Ms Campell’s body holds the most allure for people? Her legs? Her lips? Her breasts? Perhaps her brain? No, it’s unquestionably her right hand’ declares another ad. At a time when fashion models were thought by some as a bit dim, Naomi Campbell holds aloft an all-weather Olympus Mju II under the copy, ‘Black. Sleek. Beautiful. Amazing features. Tiny brain.’ Naomi, a model with a large brain, was up for it. “She found the ad absolutely hysterical. She understood the humour as most celebrities featured in Olympus ads did.” says Dickens. 

Chapman always took legal advice. The only ad that presented any real challenge featured Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas. An undisclosed fee eventually being donated to a designated charity.

The business owners in the Japanese boardroom didn’t always understand the intent of the British ads but certainly understood the impressive sales figures. Their inspirational president believed in globalisation through localisation and Chapman and his team continued unhindered. Olympus UK were consistently the global market brand leader.

“It was a case of having a fantastic agency doing groundbreaking stuff. Other camera brand ads, sadly, were just pictures of cameras. We rarely did that. We wanted to stop the audience in their tracks” adds Chapman. 

“I used to hate cameras.” says the empowered looking American actress Koo Stark, probably better known for her relationship with Prince Andrew. “One day the paparazzi turned up on my doorstep, training their zoom lenses on me like a firing squad. It went on for years. In self-defence, I started snapping back at them.’ Stark went on to become an accomplished photographer and patron of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust.

While grabbing the audiences attention, the Olympus ads also engaged with them. Below the hero images of Bill Clinton with a brunette, a staring, snarling Sarah Bernhard and glistening torsos of rowing heroes Ed Bayliss and Stu Turnbull, are highlighted some of the latest Olympus camera benefits (they were always referred to as benefits not features): built in flash; built in zoom lens; auto film loading; auto film speed setting; auto winding; auto rewinding; auto program; auto focus; drop-proof; waterproof and one of the biggest challenges, red-eye-reduction.

The ads were cheeky, irreverent and often topical, the kind that the satirical and current affairs news magazine Private Eye used to employ on their covers. Convicted financial rogue trader, Nick Leeson, is pictured in an ad for the Olympus Superzoom 120 above the slogan, ‘Perfect for those that like to take long shots.’ A Princess Diana ‘leg-a-like’ poses in a luxurious looking chair; ‘Avoid getting your head chopped off by the in-laws this Christmas’ is the quip for an Olympus AF-10 mini gift set.

Alongside Bailey, there was a royal rat pack of other more than capable photographers to endorse Olympus: Patrick Lichfield, Barry Lategan, John Swannell and Don McCullin. Not all the adverts featured celebrities, or cameras. One ad for binoculars takes the 'ooh er missus’ approach promising dedicated ornithologists; ‘We won’t resort to cheap jokes about birds, boobies and tits’ above a picture of Phalacrocorax aristotelis, or to you and me, The European or common shag, a species of cormorant.

Olympus are known for their innovative ads. They offer an insight and rich archive into the advertising and photography culture of a time when celebrities were nationally recognised and copyrighters were king. 

A version of this article first appeared in the October 15th 2019 issue of Amateur Photographer magazine

Football's Hidden Story

The shortlist for the assignment is down to two photographers and there is one question left to ask. “Do you shoot digital?” I don’t, but say yes. My colleague and competitor, says no. After being informed in 2007 that I had won the commission, I bought myself my first professional digital cameras, two Canon EOS 5D MKI’s. I put the batteries in and dialled the phone number of renowned photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale. “Marcus. Help! What settings should I use?”

Haiti ©Peter Dench

I had an inkling at the time it was going to be one of those jobs you remember for a lifetime. It’s taken me twelve years to fully appreciate just how phenomenal it turned out to be. Football’s Hidden Story (FHS) was a FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) funded initiative: 26 photo-stories in 20 countries across the globe: from Colombia to Brazil, Thailand, Nepal, Norway, South Africa, Senegal, Haiti and many places in between. A series of emotive human interest documentaries showing the positive impact that football has had at grassroots level on individuals and communities all around the world.

Liberia ©Peter Dench

In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, I photographed Martunis at home stood under a news clipping of him with then Portuguese national football team manager Luiz Felipe Scolari. Martunis was seven when the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami struck. He was found 19 days later wandering on the beach wearing the Portuguese national football shirt. Broadcast images of Martunis became a symbol of inspiration and hope. Visits were subsequently made by players from the Portuguese national team including Cristiano Ronaldo. Martunis was reunited with his father but his mother and sister were never found.

Indonesia ©Peter Dench

In east Africa I documented the Amputee Football Federation of Liberia, an answer to one of the most intractable questions in the postwar nation: what to do with around 100,000 former militiamen, many of whom started fighting as boys and grew up thinking that the unspeakable was acceptable. After over a decade of civil war, Liberians still grapple with the aftermath. Football and amputee football in particular, is as much about reconciliation as competition. Former fighters from enemy militias now play in the same team. Mixed among them are civilians who got caught in the violence. Together they share, sing victory songs and play the beautiful game.

Liberia ©Peter Dench

I captured Alessandro in Italy during a football therapy match in Rome. Before he got into football he was very sick, suffering wild hallucinations and hearing multiple voices. Most of these symptoms were ameliorated by football. There was 16 year old Laura, practising her football skills against a brick wall near her home near Birmingham, UK. She admitted to having once been a bit of a tearaway, missing lessons and bunking off school. After being told by a teacher that if she didn’t work harder, playing football would be forbidden, she turned her life around. Laura achieved at school and studied for her coaching and refereeing badges. There were Gypsy children in Bucharest clutching posters of Romanian soccer star Bãnel Nicoliþã at an anti-racism football game played in the Romanian capital Bucharest and I’ll never forget an historic football match between a Syrian team of Druze from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Arab-Israelis, the first ever Syrian-born team to play in Israel.

Israel ©Peter Dench

Many times during the 15 month campaign, I took a deliberate step back to absorb and appreciate the situations that having a camera allowed me to access. I understood that photography can help keep humanity alive. It can bring nations together and promote unity. It has the power to heal and to help, to motivate and give freedom to dreams. I learnt a lot and created memories I’ll never forget. It’s the assignment I refer back to when times are tough. I remember just how beautiful, inspiring, rewarding and diverse the profession can be. 

India ©Peter Dench

There are songs from the trip I can’t listen to as the memories associated with them are too intense. I can recall the voices of many people I met that lift the darkest of moods and I have photographs that I’ll be proud of for a lifetime. There are millions of us using photography, we can use it to bring a positive dimension to our lives and those of others.

If I can leave you with one valuable piece of advice I picked up when shooting the FHS story on landmine clearance in Iraq, never run into an uncleared field if you can’t find a toilet.

Iraq Peter Dench

A selection of images from Football’s Hidden Story is published by Fistful of Books 

A version of this artcicle first appeared in the 25th April 2020 issue of Amateur Photographer magazine

Friday, 12 June 2020

The Lonka Project

“We were watching TV, December 2018, there was a report on American news channel CNN. They’d done a survey in France and found that around 15% of French people had no idea what the Holocaust was, which was very shocking to both of us. We watched this and thought how can this be? France was occupied by the Nazis for four years during the war and split the country up, so we just started thinking what can we do as photographers to remedy this as a way of Holocaust commemoration and remembrance, to increase awareness in an educational capacity?” explains Jim Hollander speaking on the phone from his home on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Israel. Equally astounding, in a recent report by Claims Conference: ‘While there were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, almost half of Americans (45 percent) cannot name a single one – and this percentage is even higher amongst Millennials.’

Jim and his wife, Rina Castelnuovo, are both professional photographers. Jim, now 70 has worked for United Press International, European Press Agency and Reuters. Rina has photographed for The New York Times in Israel since the mid-nineties, as well as Time magazine, Stern, and the Associated Press previously. As well as general news, both have covered Holocaust survivors and associated events in Israel. They hit upon the idea of reaching out to the community they knew, at first photojournalists, asking them if they could volunteer to do a portrait of an Holocaust survivor. The response was overwhelming. No direct guidance was given except to avoid a simple headshot. “What struck us is the survivors have a powerful will to live that many people don’t have. They survived such horrendous years of torture and suffering and they’re powered to get on with life and to live and enjoy life - we expressed that to the photographers - we’d like a portrait of their power to live.”

The number of portraits received is heading towards 250, taken by some of the world’s leading photographers including Roger Ballen, Stuart Franklin, Steve McCurry, Gilles Peress, Alec Soth, Peter Turnley, Heidi Levine, Jane Evelyn Atwood, I could go on. The collection is called The Lonka Project, a tribute to Rina's mother, Dr. Eleonora ‘Lonka’ Nass (1926-2018). It’s a compelling testament to the power of living. Attara and Yosef Dekel, photographed in Hadera, Israel, touch hands sat on a bed surrounded by stuffed soft toys. Adam Han-Górski poses wearing sports kit at an outdoor gym in Plymouth, Minnesota, USA. Hungarian Olympic gymnastics champion, Agnes Keleti, stretches on her bed at home in Budapest, Hungary, her legs as wide as her grin. Anne Frank’s stepsister, Eva Schloss, is photographed in London stood by a string of 90th birthday cards. The Lonka Project isn’t trying to photograph Holocaust survivors across the globe but a few key countries remain important and elusive; a survivor can’t be located in Spain, a few survivors live in Portugal but a photographer has not been assigned.

Has Jim a favourite portrait? “There’s one I thought very lovely I would consider for the cover of the book [there are plans for a book, hopefully by the end of 2020, a German publisher Jim met at Paris Photo has expressed an interest]. It’s by Marissa Roth, who photographed Dorothy Bohm in London, the mistress of photojournalism photography in England. Bohm, who is in her late 90s, was friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Magnum crowd in the late 1940s. She was a survivor, her parents were able to get her out of Europe and bring her to London. She became a very well known photographer in the UK.” Bohm was closely involved in founding The Photographers’ Gallery, London and has published over a dozen books. In 2009 she was appointed Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. Her portrait has her stood stoically behind her Rolleiflex camera.

Alongside each portrait is an accompanying story. Some are vague in detail, others are devastatingly poignant. Ralph Hakman photographed by Barbara Davidson: ‘Ralph regularly observed his SS supervisor driving to the crematoria in a Red Cross van, donning a mask and emptying three canisters of Zyklon B crystal pellets into designated ports. Ralph heard the screams of the dying Jews, and then 15 minutes later, when the doors were opened, he saw the bodies tumbling out.’ Miriam Ziegler photographed by Moe Doiron: ‘When Miriam was nine, all prisoners were put on cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz where Miriam was separated from her parents. Her father was killed in the gas chambers. Miriam was tattooed with the number A16891, shaved and was kept in the barracks where experiments were performed on the children. Miriam managed to survive until Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945.’ Film director, Roman Polanski, is casually snapped by Franck Leclerc, a jacket hooked over his shoulder. ‘ Roman’s mother, Bula, expecting a child, was taken from her family and sent to death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.’ The stories are distilled horrors of man.

Many of the portraits show the survivor with their identification tattoo but not every survivor portrait is from the death camps. Photographers can interpret holocaust survivor as they like. The Lonka project includes people who were hidden underground, in forests, homes, monasteries, nunneries, and fled to other countries. Ben Frenecz, photographed by Andy Anderson, is not a Holocaust survivor but he is responsible for hundreds of thousands of survivors. Born in Hungary on March 11, 1920, Frenecz was an investigator of Nazi war crimes after World War II, becoming Chief Prosecutor for the United States at the Einsatzgruppen Trial, one of the twelve military trials held by the U.S. at Nuremberg, Germany. All of the 22 men on trial were convicted: 13 received the death sentence, four were implemented. This wider range of stories increases the educational value of the project.

Photographers contributing to The Lonka Project have clearly been affected as Marty Umans recounts in her experience photographing Samuel Beller, aged 94, at his home in New York: ‘I had a very emotional shoot yesterday. In working through the weeks and process of setting up this portrait session I had not given much thought to what to expect emotionally when talking and spending time with our subject. I have traveled the world and photographed children in Africa for Operation Smile, Ethiopian Jews being resettled in Israel for Hadassah, teens in NYC for Avenues for Justice for over 20 years but never a 94-year-old in Brooklyn who still lives his past like it is today. It was a rewarding two hours spent with an amazing survivor and example of the unsung heroes of the Holocaust. Samuel is open and willing to share his experiences which are horrendous. He lives them every day without the ability to block them out. I did not expect that. It took him decades before he was able to share his experiences but I don’t think it has been a healing, more of a cause, and at 94 he doesn’t have the same energy to share his story. I am grateful for his two hours and cherish my time.’

93 portraits were exhibited in 100ft of space at the United Nations in New York on the 27th January, National Holocaust Day. More exhibitions are scheduled at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre, Moscow, in Berlin, maybe South Africa and other venues around New York. There will be a month long outdoor show in Jerusalem.

Two photojournalists working in stressful circumstances, I had to ask Jim how they have stayed married for 35 years.? “We’re both photographers covering the news, we used to work quite a lot together during the First Intifada (Palestinian protests and violent riots against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza), and some of the wars, the Scud war in the 1990s. Rina works with The New York Times and I work with Reuters and EPA, so we’re both out covering the story of the day. Israel being a very small country, you can be a conflict photographer on the front line all day long, then an hour and a half later your back at home with the kids, you have dinner and forget all about what you saw during the day and you become a family. It’s easy to get back home, so its not like you’re away on assignment for months and months at a time.”

Rina’s polish parents were both survivors. It was something that was never spoken about. They used code words when speaking about it with their survivor friends. They never sat Rina and her sister down and explained what they went through, only opening up a little more when Rina was much older on a trip to Poland, visiting family homes and concentration camps, five of which her mother survived including Auschwitz and Belsen.

On the 20th March, 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Aryeh Even, became the first Israeli to die of coronavirus. The Lonka Project has never been more relevant and urgent.

A version of this article first appeared in the 9 May 2020 Issue of Amateur Photographer magazine

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

The Longest Week

Hello dear reader. I’m writing this during a week when 20,000 troops are on standby to help deal with the coronavirus crisis. Schools have shut down and exams cancelled. Social distancing has been implemented; cafes, restaurants, pubs, clubs, gyms and bingo halls ordered to close. Supermarket shelves are being stripped clean. The worst in society are doing bad, the best are stepping up. Lockdown seems imminent. The Queen released a statement reminding us that ‘our nation’s history has been forged by people and communities coming together’ (as long as it’s no closer than two meters). Prime Minister Boris Johnson is ‘absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country.’ The situation is serious, the situation is changing rapidly. It will have changed again by the time you read this.

The photo-industry is being decimated. It will recover but associated businesses and individuals might not. Photography shows, events and exhibitions have closed, cancelled or postponed. Camera manufacturers expect to take a big hit. Work has flatlined. The world has been reset. BC will come to mean something different. I am living my story, you have yours, I hope it’s not too terrifying. I reached out to a few to hear theirs.

“I’ve never know anything like it, the work has just dropped off, it’s like shaking a dead Christmas tree. A month of work gone in four days, upward of 15 jobs. One morning, in the space of 25 minutes, four jobs cancelled,” explains freelance photographer, Matthew Horwood from his home in Cardiff. “I’m just getting used to not having jobs to do, not having to be somewhere at 9 O’Clock - not having any work is really strange.” Matthew was staff photographer at the The Western Mail before being made redundant in 2014 and thrown into the world of PR and event photography. With no PR or event photography to do, he’s being proactive shooting news stock for Getty Images. “It’s a bit bleak to be honest, going out and shooting the same thing over and over again and having the same conversations. I am at least free to do what I want want.” He says with a chink of optimism.“I don’t think every photographer’s going to get through it without doing other jobs. It’s very bleak,” he adds. Does he expect to be able to photograph himself out of adversity? “I don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. Depends whether there’s new opportunities for pictures every day. Every photographer’s going to be doing this, there’s probably more competition than before, people who did PR and news are now just doing news. It does make it difficult.”

Fashion and celebrity photographer Jay McLaughlin has a strategy. “Everything is postponed until further notice. I had enough to pay all my bills. Now it’s like, what can I sell?” What he can sell are his books: Bailey’s Stardust, Vanity Fair 100 Years: From the Jazz Age to Our Age, his Peter Lindbergh and Mario Testino’s. “Do I need books when I have an internet of pictures, sure they’re nice to have but are they necessary?”

©Peter Dench

If Jay, is selling photo books, is anyone buying them? “Sales are going through the floor. In the last five days I haven’t sold a book online. On a normal week, 5 or 6 books a day this time of year,” says Colin Wilkinson, who founded Bluecoat Press in 1992. “2008 was the first shake up of the book publishing industry, the financial crisis along with the growth of the internet meant traditional bookshops and outlets vanished very quickly, publishers had to find new ways of selling and develop an internet presence. The problem now is people have got other priorities. He has one book potentially funded and the book, Juvenile Jazz Bands by Tish Murtha, is funded. “We hit the £10K crowdfunding target in two days, since then, in two weeks around another £1.5K, normally it would be treble. It’s quite obvious people are not spending. If in a years time we’re in a world recession, I would probably think there’s no point in continuing which is a great shame as I have six brilliant projects lined up which I really want to do.” These include books by Jim Mortram, Margaret Mitchell and Carolyn Mendelsohn.

I talk to Carolyn just after she’s rescued her eldest son from the University of Manchester party scene and is understanding about the situation at Bluecoat Press. With her three children safely back home, she’s being creative in the circumstances, making formal portraits of her daughter Poppy on the eve of her fourteenth birthday and snapping her as they walk around Asda supermarket. “My son Sam, who’s 15, is writing a journal and I’m taking simple domestic photographs. We’re going to put them together and make some kind of blog. It’s really for ourselves and I’m sure lots of people will be doing similar things.”  I hope they are and in time, can make a small but significant contribution to this extraordinary chapter of history.

Bluecoat Press

Also this week (it’s been a long week), The Church of England has restricted wedding ceremonies to five people. Does this include a photographer? I ask Lee Glasgow. “I’ve a wedding tomorrow and the registrar has said I’m not allowed in the room, only close family. I’m planning to set the camera up on a tripod and take pictures remotely from the room next door. It’s not ideal but a solution. I’ve advised the couple to hold the kiss for a second longer as the remote app is a lot slower.” Lee photographed over 50 weddings in 2019, 38 are booked for 2020 but is likely to reduce, he has taken £20K of deposits. “In the wedding industry we call them booking fees - apparently, legally, you don’t have to pay booking fees back because you’ve done an amount of work.” He’s not money grabbing, just being sensible. Lee is advising clients to call him for a conversation, keep things verbal, on a case by case basis, see what can be worked out amicably. He’s stepped in and volunteered a few hours of his time to photograph a wedding at short notice. “In wedding world, I think we’re up against it anyway because everyone’s a photographer, do weddings need a photographer, do they see the value a photographer brings? The price of quality cameras is coming down, picture quality of mobile phones is going up so the market has been shrinking for a long long time.” Lee is savvy and established and expects to be in business next year, weddings will still go ahead, just not now. Other photographers may not be so fortunate. “I know a number of photographers that want to work one day a week and left good jobs to become a wedding photographer and now realise the industry might be disappearing, they’re going to be buggered.”

©Peter Dench

It’s not just professional photographers who are in turmoil, amateur photographers and those studying it across the United Kingdom are being affected: projects have been suspended, some have collapsed. Camera clubs, many who have members in the vulnerable category for coronavirus, have temporarily closed. Harrogate Photographic Society cancelled a coach trip to Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. Open Eye won’t miss out out on 40 plus visitors because it closed their doors to protect staff, artists and clients. Likewise The Photographers Gallery London, Side Gallery Newcastle and Anne McNeill, Director and Curator at Impressions Gallery Bradford, made the decision to close the building. “It’s really important to stress how crucial the building is to us, it’s not just four white walls, it’s a community space as well. The reason I do it is for photographers and visitors to experience photography in real life and to have a meeting place, we wouldn’t want to lose that.” Enterprising Anne, gave an impassioned message to her staff as they left to work remotely from home. ““Use this time as thinking time, we might come up with a great new idea, we might not, that doesn’t matter - work out a strategy how we can build up our virtual community and reach out to all photographers, what learning advice we can offer for free, are there any paid opportunities we can do online for photographers. Even when the building opens again, hopefully this new way of working will stay with us.”

©Peter Dench

From the gloom there always springs hope and the photography industry has sprung high. There’s a Photographers Under Quarantine Facebook Group, group video chats, free expert advise across all social media or at a knock down price with the proceeds going to charity. “Every situation is neutral, nothing is good, nothing is bad, it’s only how you feel about it that makes it good or bad - you can choose. We have forced free time, if you cannot work what can photographers do?” Ponders Jay McLaughlin, a keen reader of philosophy and influenced by Marcus Aurelius. I ask on social media what photographers can do? ‘Review hard drives, memory cards, back up important images, update websites, improve SEO, make prints, write more blogs, record vlogs, keyword stock, be kind.’

Stay safe, sane and sanitised - thanks for reading and hope to see you smiling on the other side.

A version of this article first appeared in the 11 April 2020 issue of Amateur Photographer magazine

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

John Downing : Legacy

John Downing MBE, doesn’t look terminally ill. Pulling open the front door to his Henley on Thames home, the 79 year old Welshman and former Chief Photographer at the Daily Express newspaper, looks a rakish Sir Ian McKellen. His crisp white shirt is unbuttoned and wavy grey hair combed back behind the ears. “I’ve lost two stone and half a lung,” he says laughing and directs me into the kitchen. The lines around his pale blue eyes suggest he’s laughed a lot. His photographs often document the less hilarious parts of humanity.

At approximately 2.50am, after a long day covering the 1984 Tory Party conference, the type of assignment he says can be “mundane and hateful,” John heads to the bar of The Grand Hotel in Brighton, “as all good journalists would,” he grins.  Down on his haunches, talking to a husband and wife sat at a table, at 2.54am, the Irish Republican Army bomb goes off. A 5-tonne chimney stack comes crashing down through the floors into the basement tearing a hole in the Victorian hotel’s facade. The bar goes dark and fills with debris, dust and silence. An earlier briefing at Chelsea Police station and John’s own experience of bombs kick in. Fearing a shower of small sharp shards of glass will devastate the woman’s face, he pulls her to the floor and covers her head with his body, emasculating the husband. While others in the bar are being led to safety, John works his way to the front entrance to photograph what he assumes is a car bomb. The entrance is stacked with fallen chimney. Climbing through a window, he sees an injured policeman lying on the ground and takes a photo. Out of the corner of his eye, he recognizes the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s private detective running at full pelt. Charging after him, John asks if Thatcher is OK? The detective isn’t sure and endorses John to the gathered Police who allow him to stay. Coming down the fire escape, John spots a composed Thatcher. She calmly puts her attache case in the boot of a car and climbs in alongside her husband Denis and aide, Cynthia Crawford. The car takes off at speed. John instinctively jabs his pre-focused lens towards the car and depresses the shutter. One shot, one flash. He has the exclusive and knows what to do next. Covered in dust, he runs to the nearest hotel to use the phone, well aware that the deadline for closing the edition of the Daily Express is imminent. John pleads for it to be held. On Saturday the 13th October, under the front page headline ‘UNBOWED’ is John’s remarkable photograph of Thatcher, complete with pearls, earrings and handbag, looking stoically straight ahead.

The Brighton bombing cemented John’s name as one of Fleet Street’s finest. His earlier photographs from Uganda established it. A year after Idi ‘The Butcher of Uganda’ Amin seized power in a military coup, John was in the country covering the expulsion of Asians, many of whom were British passport holders. The assignment was going well until Amin declared that all Europeans were spies. John was arrested in his hotel room and taken for interrogation. In the frightening chaos that ensued, he had an army colonel press a gun to his ear before being tossed into the bowels of Kampala’s Central Police Station prison. They had forgotten to confiscate his camera. John did what he was paid to do. He took pictures of prisoners alongside him in the open sewer prison. He took pictures as they lined up to get food, the camera hidden under a towel, the shutter clicks masked by coordinated coughing. Once deported, on Friday 22nd September 1972, the Daily Express ran five and a half pages of his pictures. The set includes an exceptional photograph of British brothers, Andrew Stanley (4) and Robert (2), the tough and adaptable boys climbing the prison bars as if in a gym, staring into a ferocious sun at a world gone mad.

The Daily Express wasn’t the tabloid newspaper obsessed with royals and right wing political parties it is today. Launching as a broadsheet it 1900, by the time John arrived (after a five year internship at the Daily Mail he started aged just 15), it was a pioneering power with the largest newspaper picture team in the world, around 64 staff photographers and 14 freelancers, of which John was the lowliest. He worked his way up by being talented and smart. He recounts his first big break, an assignment to Eastern Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to document the Cholera outbreak rife among refugee camps. John was the only photographer to have an up to date Cholera inoculation, they had to send him. A photograph from the reportage, of a nurse trying to administer a vaccination to a terrified child, won 2nd prize, general news singles, at the 1972 World Press Photo contest. Not bad for a relative beginner. During a career that has spanned over five decades, 100 countries and all seven continents, John has witnessed wars in Vietnam, Rhodesia, Beirut, Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Croatia, and Bosnia. He’s reported on natural, man-made disasters and famine. He has covered royal tours, political events, photographed the famous, infamous and poor. His efforts have accumulated a cluster of awards including seven for British Press Photographer of the Year. He was appointed a judge on the competition panel so he couldn’t win an eighth.

©Peter Dench

Moving into the showpiece lounge, I’m introduced to his third wife, Anita. When I telephoned to make the appointment with John, it was Anita who answered. From her articulated voice, I thought I’d dialled the 1950s: “Hello Henley on Thames 123.” Sitting on the sofa in white jeans, mustard coloured top and precise cut bobbed hair, she resembles a 1963 Una Stubbs - the Summer Holiday year. When Anita met John, she was 33 and-a-half years younger than him, she still is. She is younger than me and John’s two sons. The room is a forest of Get Well cards. Who sends Get Well cards to a terminally ill man? Anita, an established pianist and teacher at Eton College, explains they were sent after John’s lung removal operation. “Clinton Cards don’t really cater for the terminally ill market.” Perhaps they should do, ‘Oh Well’ or ‘Demise with Dignity’ cards? As we take a tour around the sun saturated apartment, the humour is often dark.

John’s MBE nestles among his awards in a glass display cabinet. “I felt a failure to my father, who was a teacher, not having got into Grammar school. The MBE and awards are a part way of resolving that.” Moving on, he locates the four toilets, the walk in shower he’s always wanted, a bedspread from India, mirror from Jordan, chest from Iran, stick from Burkina Faso and a Mosque themed clock that plays the Muslim call to prayer. John’s not particularly religious. “I’m not down on dying,” he says, entering the walk in wardrobe. A trumpet hangs silently in the centre, not the best instrument for a man with half a lung missing to learn. “I’ve lived a fulfilled and healthy life,” he adds, running a hand across the red members jacket of his beloved London Welsh Male Voice Choir. He last sang as a bass before Christmas 2018 and hopes to have the breath to rejoin the choir for rehearsals. “My only regrets are leaving Anita…” he sighs, plopping down on the music room seat next to her Austrian Bösendorfer piano, “…and not having had a book of my work published.” 

©Peter Dench

When news of John’s illness hit friend and renowned photojournalist, Tom Stoddart, Tom initiated a process to get a book of John’s work published before, well, you know. A crowdfunding campaign was launched and a day later, I’m here to talk to, and photograph John to help drive momentum. There is no need. Seven hours after the launch, the £8,000 funding target is breached. By the time I arrive in Henley, it’s doubled. My day with John and Anita has become a celebration. We head  across the road for a late lunch at Shaun Dickens at the Boathouse. Over plates of Porthilly oysters, tartare of salmon, pork tenderloin, skate and chilled glasses of Languedoc wine, we exchange stories as boats chunter merrily along the River Thames. John recounts dressing in a Burqa to enter Afghanistan; a shooting challenge with the son of a Mujahideen chief in which the loser would be shot dead (John won, no one was killed); starting the Press Photographers Association (now The British Press Photographers’ Association) as a response to the creeping trend in paparazzi photography and a way to preserve quality; mastering black and white photography, “I had a secret method for preserving detail in the blacks.” The challenges of shooting colour. “Only two things work better in colour, fire and blood, but I never felt so in control.” For a man rapidly losing weight, John can eat what he likes. When the waiter brings low in salt butter, we ask for more salt. When the Languedoc runs out, we ask for Sauterne.

John is not in pain. He is not bitter at the possible causes of his asbestos related cancer. He’ll refuse Chemotherapy as long as he can. We walk through Henley in the August warmth among men returning from Lord’s loosening their Marylebone Cricket Club ties. “I don’t feel like you’ve asked me anything important,” he says. I embrace the important and inspirational Press Photographer I’ve only just met and may never meet again. As the train pulls out of the station, I check the crowdfunding campaign - it says, 28 days to go.

John Downing: Legacy published by Bluecoat Press: hardback book with dust jacket, size 270 x 290mm (landscape) and 192 pages.

A version of this article first appeared in Amateur Photographer magazine UK 19/10/2019

©Peter Dench

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Raiders of the Lost Archives

Canning Town is the most depressing place I’ve been to in London and I’ve been to the Emirates Stadium to watch Arsenal play football. It’s a place you pass through not go to. There are bus depots and taxi ranks. Underground and overground trains. Subways and bridges. The whole area is on the move. The walk to my destination is brutal and bleak. Lorries pin me to razor-wired walls. Electricity cables crackle ferociously above. There are warning signs, police sirens, guard dogs, dirt-filled pot holes, dust, discarded laughing-gas canisters, CCTV cameras, tyres, hub caps and skips. The parrot in The Durham Arms swears at passing strangers. I have a clearly printed ‘how to get here’ sheet of paper and get lost twice. Stood among the industrial units of Toolstation, Edmundson Electrical and Screwfix, there’s a clue to my destination. A man smoking a roll-up cigarette wearing a brown apron sips hot tea from a mug. On the mug it says Getty Images.

Welcome to the Hulton Archive, a remarkable visual resource of over 80 million images contained within 1500 individual collections. At the turn of the 21st Century, Getty Images merged London based Hulton Picture Collection with Archive Film and Photos, New York creating Hulton Archive. The buzzer says press firmly and await response. I fluff the firmly bit and await response. This state-of-the-art facility was around two years in the making. I push open the state of the art door and breathe in.

Melanie Llwellyn (née Hough) in the Hulton Archive ©Peter Dench

The gigantic archive is overseen by one of the world’s smallest curators. Melanie Hough is ‘five foot nothing.’ Her jaw is strong, face freckled, grip firm and blue eyes imposing. Melanie is in her thirties and third year as curator of Hulton Archive. She has been in the photography and gallery business for over a decade, working her way up after graduating from Goldsmiths University, London, with a BA (Hons) History of Art and an MA Contemporary Art Theory. Stepping onto the temperature-and- humidity controlled level one (of two) of the Hulton Archive, the scale of her task is staggering. This is what The Cloud must look like. 13 kilometres of racks and rows of boxes, packages and files. That’s 8,530 head-to-toe Melanie’s.

The heart of the Hulton collections is the seminal British weekly Picture Post magazine and it’s one of the first things you see. Melanie snaps on pair of latex gloves. “I find cotton gloves clumsy, these more dextrous,” she says, and flips to a spread by photographer Bert Hardy of 'Firefighters during the London Blitz, 1941'. From the accompanying contact sheets you can track the picture editors forensic eye and process. Another latex flip and there’s a lay out of Hardy's iconic images from the Korean War Battle of Incheon, which James Cameron wrote the article for. Between 1938 and 1957, over 9,000 articles were commissioned for Picture Post. Only 2,000 of these actually ran in the magazine and the other 7,000 were filed away. Around half a dozen photographs accompanied each published article, from the hundreds, sometimes thousands of negatives the photographers delivered, creating a colossal archive of unpublished and often unprinted images. Readership in Britain during the second world war reportedly peaked at over 80% of the population.

©Peter Dench

“There are probably 200 negatives to one print in the Hulton Archive” says Melanie. “Less than 1% is online. Around 30,000 images are digitised a year with more coming in all the time.” She adds, pushing her tawny hair behind a pierced ear without an earring. It’s a job for life and the challenges are daily: researching; identifying and documenting; devising strategies for library care, accessibility and conservation; acting as spokesperson; leading tours of the archive; assisting external researchers, scholars and curators find what they didn’t know they were looking for. She even handles the Instagram account @Gettyarchive. Melanie is always busy during the day and often kept awake at night. Terrors include: reticulated negatives (the distortion of the emulsion layer of a film); indecipherable index codes; problems with original and now inappropriate captions and the most horrifying of all, off-gassing, film that is actively decaying, often known as vinegar syndrome as the film begins to release acetic acid, as you’d find in the vinegar doused over chips. The process cannot be recovered, only stabilised. We both rapidly sniff the room. My stomach starts to rumble.

©Peter Dench

During my tour of the archive, one of Meanie’s two curatorial assistants ghosts past, triggering on the strip lights. A herculean librarian who has been working at the archive for 20 years and spends their entire time meticulously patrolling the racks, rewriting faded labels and refiling requested material - requests that often mirror what is happening in the modern world. Demands this month are for women playing football (the FIFA Women’s World Cup is currently under way) and images of D-Day in this 75th anniversary year. Images of royals and British royals in particular are among the most popular genre.

Melanie has a shifting top 10 of her favourite photographs. Among them an image by renowned photojournalist, Terry Fincher (pretty much every photographer in here is renowned): a scene of Carravaggion-quality captured on 35mm film of Marine chaplain Eli Tavesian giving communion to marine Louis A Loya, at Forward Command Post in Hue, Vietnam, 1968. It’s also a favourite of the Archive Vice President and Melanie’s boss, Matthew Butson. It was to Matt that Fincher (one of the many photographers he knew personally), confessed to shooting the image from the hip - it still didn’t need cropping. A John Chillingworth image is another of Melanie’s favourites: a controlled test reveals the frightening speed with which clothes can catch fire, published in Picture Post alongside the article, 10 Seconds Can Mar A Life, 1953. 

Opening the boxes and peeling back the beaten wrappers of parcels, I realise everything I thought contemporary has been done deep in photography’s past. There’s macro photography of insect tongues; erotic photography featuring tongues and food photography to make your mouth water. There are drawers full of political cartoons and maps charting new territories a century before Google. 5% of the Hulton Archive is estimated to be non-photographic: etchings, lithographs, postcards, letters and valentines cards among others.

©Peter Dench

History is democratic: boxes of prints of comedian and actor Benny Hill alphabetically align alongside those of Adolf Hitler. History is also fluid, a tide. No ones place in it is guaranteed. There are gatekeepers, authors, editors and curators who prioritise what’s important and champion some photographers over others. Melanie understands and welcomes that the findings and decisions of the team of ‘Hultonites’ at the London facility (including five editors, four in scanning and an on-site conservator whose job is to stabilise and repair) can be challenged or changed as new, old archives are opened and verified.

©Peter Dench

The doyens of photography at Hulton Archive are resident in Melanie’s favourite room, the Vintage Room. One of only five people with access, she fobs us into the windowless space, the walls lined with Brassaï, Bill Brandt and Lewis Carroll. She delivers to the viewing table the book: Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Other Poems by Julia Margaret Cameron, one of only eight known copies in the world. Other lifted lids reveal hermetically sealed stereo Daguerrotypes (a photograph taken by an early photographic process employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapour), Ambrotypes (a positive photograph on glass made by a variant of the wet plate collodion process) and Calotypes (an early photographic process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot, using paper coated with silver iodide). There’s an order of service from Ronald Kray’s funeral; a 1738 letter from Louis XV of France (the most beloved Louis); a 3-D stereoscopic of the moon and marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria, one of the latest discoveries from the archive files. Believed to be the earliest image of any British monarch by a woman photographer, the portrait was captured by Frances Sally Day (c1816-92), possibly on 26th July 1859, according to Victoria’s own journals. We respectfully whisper our conversation across her royal highness.

©Peter Dench

Melanie ends by showing an image by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-19040, the English-American photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion. He’s arguably best known for shooting and killing his wife's lover, a crime for which he was acquitted in a jury trial on the grounds of justifiable homicide. It’s been an overwhelming and dramatic three hours. I feel guilty for only glimpsing a fraction on offer at this analogue centre of excellence. Melanie half-jokingly suggests checking my bag on the way out. I suppress my inner Indian Jones (Raiders of the Lost Archive?). In truth, I don’t want to steal anything, I want to leave something and consider slipping a folio of my images onto the shelf.

The Wiltshire-born, Devon raised lass, who hates being photographed and is driven by what she is yet to see, has to go. She softly guides me back into the open and I stride deeper into the drizzle. “We didn’t even make it to the Man Ray’s!” She shouts.

A version of this feature first appeared in Amateur Photographer magazine 24th August 2019

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Viewpoint : Imposter Syndrome

When do you become a photographer? When you receive your first camera? When you graduate from college or university? When you receive your first professional commission, sell your first print, publish your first photo-book, reach a 1000 YouTube subscribers or decide to watermark your Instagram posts?

©Peter Denc'

On a recent visit to the hairdressers, to have what hair I have left cut, I was asked by Kostas, my assigned barber, what I did for a living? I hesitated. Assignments had been a bit sparse, my photo-mojo a bit dulled. The words, 'I’m a photographer' lodged in my throat. I felt a fraud. The weight of photographic history pounded in my mind. Images by James Nachtwey, Tom Stoddart, Don McCullin, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Walker Evans, Paul Strand and Edward Weston trampled across my retina. “This and that.” I finally squeaked. “Bits and bobs.” I added. Kostas finished the cut in silence.

I was a Judas to my my craft! The denial of photography felt biblical. Was I still a photographer if I hadn’t taken a photograph for a few weeks? Would I become one again if I went home and grabbed one of my three Olympus cameras and went out to photograph for the day - was it that simple?

I’d always believed I’d been a photographer since the age of 14, when I took myself away from the distractions of the amusement arcades and flirty girls to patrol the local nature reserve snapping herons, coots and butterflies with my second hand Pentax ME Super.

It’s not the first wobble I’ve had and won’t be the last. I’ve had my photography career interrupted by necessary stints working in a canteen, as a builders mate and jet-washing patios (a word of advice, don’t wear flip-flops when jet washing patios or try to clean your feet with the high pressure jet wash).

In a time when everyone’s supposed to be a photographer, I don’t see a deluge of outstanding new photographers. Great photographs have to be grafted for and photography has it’s own unique attributes that have to be mastered: composition, content, colour (or lack of), lighting and perspective. It’s a ridiculous way to live, trying to make sense of the world and how you feel about it, through a rectangle or square. 

Photography can be a deeply unsatisfying pursuit and profession but a compulsive and all-consuming one. Renowned photographers, often without question, spend days away from their loved ones, spending money they may not have, in situations they may not like, hunting that moment when everything, for a fraction of a second, makes sense - when all problems and doubts are blown away and the only thing that matters, is they got the shot.

If you don’t understand that, then you’re probably not a photographer, no matter how many social networking followers you have or how many expensive cameras and gadgets are hanging around your neck. It’s a state of mind, you just know.

This article was first published in Amatuer Photographe magazine March 2019.