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


  1. Well done to all involved. A most worthwhile project.

  2. A wonderful book with marvellous photographs. John Downing has left a great legacy

  3. Well done to Peter,Tom, and of course,John himself, for a book of superb photos from one of the world's finest press photographers. What a legacy indeed.