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Even though it’s been nearly three decades since I joined the Observer, if I close my eyes I can still see my colleagues from yesteryear …
Jane Bown looking at a contact sheet by the lightbox, using her monocle eyeglass. Motorcycle couriers flirting with picture researchers. Reporters massaging the egos of alpha-male photographers, vying to become the next Don McCullin, the great photojournalist whose career began here. Men in shabby suits from now-defunct picture agencies, cigarette in hand as they hawked photo-essays from battered suitcases. The picture librarian ferrying files of black and white prints to the man who was at the centre of everything, the revered picture editor, Tony McGrath.
That was the picture desk in 1992, the pulse of the Observer. The image printed on my retina, like a photograph captured in the blink of an eye.
It was the final throes of old Fleet Street and I loved it from day one. I started as the secretary: I took film to the dark room, transparencies to the scanning room, and stick from the old-school compositors at the stone. I learned from the boss and the photographers and immersed myself in the world of newspaper photography.
Wind on to 18 June 1994. I’m standing staring at a blank computer screen: the whirr, grind and whistle of the dial-up modem seems to signify the start of something. A picture emerges from the gloom like the flare of a lit match waved in the face of a caveman. The line bringing me a picture of Ray Houghton scoring against Italy at the World Cup in the US did not stop in a dingy office block on Farringdon Road: it stretched out into the future, bringing with it mobile phones, digital cameras, the information superhighway, electronic mail and smartphones.
Two months later. I am in charge of an issue for the first time and I’m petrified, weighed down by the responsibility to the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper and to my predecessors. Since the appointment in 1948 of former lion tamer Mechthild Nawiasky as the paper’s first picture editor, only a few have held the post. But the paper hits the newsstands on time: 60 broadsheet pages, a review section and a magazine, yours for 90p.
By the end of 1995, I am the picture editor. The first year is slow, then 1997 hits. A mission to Mars, Dolly the cloned sheep, Tony Blair’s landslide election victory and, the mother of all Saturday events, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. For that, we had all the angles covered. TV news crews were in the building covering us covering it. Pressure.
Seasoned war photographer John Reardon confessed that taking pictures of the funeral was one of his most nervy assignments – he was terrified of dropping his lens from his eyrie above the great west door of Westminster Abbey on to the nave floor, 40 feet below. In the maelstrom of the afternoon and the flurry of contact sheets, I miss that our photographer Andy Hall has got the shot. Diana’s brother, sons and husband waiting for her coffin outside the Abbey. We use a similar, inferior shot as a poster page one picture. Sorry, Andy.
In the new century the volume of incoming images exploded. Hidden among them were some remarkable moments: the Falling Man on 9/11, Saddam’s statue toppling in Baghdad, President Obama watching the attack on Osama Bin Laden from the White House, the body of three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore in Turkey, a sea horse attached to a cotton bud, an exasperated Angela Merkel trying to get some sense out of President Trump in a pastiche of a baroque painting.
Many of the most memorable images I’ve seen during my tenure echo classical western religious imagery: the bastardisation of Christ Crucified that is the hooded man at Abu Ghraib, the all too frequent modern-day scenes of the Lamentation, the grief of mothers and daughters deconstructed into pixels that travel beneath the oceans to arrive on my screen.
Over the years, it has become tougher for our photographers. We no longer send them abroad, preferring to use local photographers to tell their own country’s stories. New data protection laws mean street photography is becoming increasingly difficult. Access to politicians and celebrities is tightly controlled. Rolling television news means that often tomorrow’s still images can seem like yesterday’s news.
And then there is the rise of celebrity culture, social media and the selfie. All these elements were encapsulated in the group selfie taken at the 2014 Oscars by the actor Bradley Cooper on the host Ellen DeGeneres’s phone and immediately uploaded to her Twitter account, from where it was retweeted more than 3 million times.
In Ridley Scott’s dystopian classic Blade Runner, set in 2019, the dying replicant Roy Batty recalls the wonders he has seen: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Great monologue Roy, but you got that wrong. Everything today is seen, shot and uploaded. On a slow day we receive upwards of 35,000 images from professional sources alone.
Many of the photographers I have been lucky to work with have always had the qualities to cut through the visual noise. The bravery of Neil Libbert, enjoying a beer in the French House in Soho when he heard an explosion, to run towards the destruction caused by a nail bomb aimed at the gay community (one of his photographs of the Admiral Duncan atrocity would go on to win a World Press award).
The ingenuity of Murdo MacLeod’s portrait of footballer Roy Keane holding a raven’s skull that MacLeod had picked up from a beach. John Reardon’s The Chefs’ Last Supper, an exercise in successfully herding cats to produce something extraordinary. The ability to uncover the essence of a person: the prophetic, hunted look in Amy Winehouse’s eyes captured by Karen Robinson.
The steeliness of Michaela Coel revealed by Suki Dhanda before Coel became a household name. Antonio Olmos’s sensitivity documenting the plight of refugees in war-torn Angola in 2001 – and Gary Calton’s compassion for the residents of St Cecilia’s Nursing Home in Scarborough during the coronavirus pandemic.
The chaotic bustle of the picture desk may have long gone – now the picture editor sits alone at a computer – but the quality of the photography I see has never dimmed. It has been a privilege to work for the paper, to bear witness to events and to help bring images to the reader that we will all carry with us. I’ll always be an observer.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Calling all the shots: three decades on the frontline of photography