Ian Wright completed the very first residential NCTJ course for press photographers at Wednesbury in 1964 while working at The Northern Echo. Since then he has travelled the world, working for the The Sunday Times and Radio Times, photographing film stars, politicians and royalty. He also works at Baylor University in Texas. He has recently published a book, featuring some of his early work.
Below are some of his reminisces about his training and career.
Photo: National Council for the Training of Journalists’ first ever course for junior press photographers. Pendrell Hall, Wednesbury, March 22 – 28 1964. From left to right. Back row: Michael Woodard, Sevenoaks Chronicle; Terence Bromley, The Carlisle Journal; Ian Wright, The Northern Echo; Mick Cox, Western Evening Herald; John Redman, Harrow Observer; TBC; Trevor Upton, Evening News.
Front row: TBC; Brian Aris, Kilburn Times; Anthony Colling, Sunderland Echo; Brian Bould, Express and Star; TBC; TBC.
The choice of location was rather fortuitous as it was the home of the Victorian publisher, writer and author of ‘Black Bess’, Edward Viles, who was also a pioneer in the field of micro-photography that is still in use today. All micro integrated circuitry is a direct descendant of that principal. The Grade II listed building was built in 1870, where Viles designed a laboratory, photographic studio and darkrooms which were accommodated at the rear of the house.
In March 1964 fourteen teenage press photographers arrived at Pendrell Hall from provincial newspapers from all parts of the country, some like myself carrying huge 5×4 plate cameras, others 2 ¼ Rollies, Yashica and Autocords. One flash ‘Mod’ arrived from the ‘Times’ – that is to say, ‘The Kilburn Times’, with a 35mm Pentax and a 135mm lens. This Kink’s loving, “Dedicated follower of fashion,” wearing the first fur trimmed hoodie any of us provincial lads had ever seen, was Brian Aris. Brian has undoubtedly become one of Britain’s top photographers in national newspaper magazines, covering the world of fashion, celebrity and entertainment photography and is still working flat out today.
We all got on surprisingly well, supporting each other through fourteen hour days, even though we were in competition on our daily assignments. Everyone worked their socks off especially on the ordinary everyday jobs set by our tutors, but the talent and imagination shone through. We processed our films, made our prints in the very well equipped darkrooms, wrote captions, sized pictures and learned the law. There were some strict rules to be obeyed, viz: tea at 4:30, sherry at 6:30 and wine with dinner, followed by tutorials then escaping to the local pub for a pint. Even today many are still in touch with one another. The first person on my list to call in Newcastle is the former Journal and Sun photographer Keith Perry who was one of the first on the scene at the Lockerbie disaster. Incidentally every junior photographer on that first ever course passed and received the first ever NCTJ certificate. My only regret was all our work was collected from the course for evaluation, and never returned to us.
This course was ground breaking as all previous ones were called week-end schools designed exclusively for reporters and subs – never the foot soldiers. My editor at The Northern Echo, the now renowned Sir Harold Evans, arrived at the paper in the summer of 1961 where I was a darkroom boy aged 15. Harry immediately abandoned the decades-old method of laying out pages, where pictures were the least important ingredient. Photographs had always been an afterthought relegated to fit any size or space remaining so Harry’s approach was revolutionary. He would lay out the photographs on the stone first and then build everything around the pictures, including the headline, copy and adverts. Harry outlawed what he called ‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ group photographs. He promoted a ‘Picture of the Month’ competition, first prize of which was a guinea and this encouraged the staff photographers to become more imaginative, creative and dynamic. Harry’s changes worked instantly and helped the paper to win numerous awards. Consequently circulation increased from under 50,000 to 125,000 per day. Harry took on the establishment with his campaigns for cervical cancer screening to clean air for Teesside, highlighted the plight of thalidomide children and gaining a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans. In 1966 he accepted an invitation from Sir Dennis Hamilton to join The Sunday Times as editor and I joined his staff at the paper shortly afterward.
My number one piece of advice – always research your subject as thoroughly as possible. Tony Snowdon once told me at The Sunday Times “You can never over research anything”. My second piece of advice is never be in awe of anyone. The easiest way to lose the respect of your subject either as photographer or a writer is to fawn all over them, i.e. “I have always wanted to meet you”, “I’m your greatest fan” or “Can I have your autograph?” Remember they are on a par with you as a professional and they will always respect you if you are well briefed. Also, always be on time – they can be late, but you can’t. My editor’s words still ring in my ears “It is better to be five minutes early than one minute late”.
I was overawed just once in my career with my first ever star portrait, although actually it was more fear than awe. I was just 16-years-old and had ridden my bicycle to the City Hall in Newcastle to photograph Miss Ella Fitzgerald. After hanging around for over an hour, I was summoned into her dressing room by her manager who yelled in a New Jersey drawl: “You got one shot kid, then get OUT.” I walked into the star’s dressing room where Miss Fitzgerald seemed a giant of a woman and a not a very happy giant at that. She never spoke – just stood with hands on hips looking me straight in the eyes. I aimed my plate camera at her. The sheer power of the flash made her look away instantly. The next thing I recall was being back outside in the theatre corridor and her dressing room door was shut.
Fifty years ago everything was so innocent. I was photographing all the up and coming pop stars back stage where every dressing room door was open. The word “Diva” was unknown as were backstage passes. Everyone on the bill wanted to be photographed and they stood in line saying: “Eh Wrighty do you want us in civvies or stage costumes and guitars?” Gerry Marsden of Gerry and The Pacemakers said: “Hurry up lads the Press is here. Get together for a photo.” Adam Faith of the Roulettes once said: “Thank God you’re here Wrighty. We were in Leeds last night and there wasn’t a photographer in sight.” While Billy J Kramer of the Dakotas commented: “We can always rely on you being here Wrighty.” Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and Eric Burdon of The Animals would have done cartwheels in the buff for me in Newcastle’s city centre if it would get them in the next day’s Northern Echo. Today things are very different.
The world pre-digital was very different too. Imagine if you only have twelve 5×4 glass plates in your bag (my personal favourite) or a roll of film with twelve exposures on a 2 ¼ square camera, you have to be selective in your picture taking, in the exposures, the focus, the composition, you have to be creative and imaginative. You absolutely have to make every shot count.
The photographers at The Sunday Times; Tony Snowdon, Patrick Litchfield, Steve Brody, Sally Soames, Bryan Wharton and Michael Ward hashed picture ideas on Thursdays in the back room of the Blue Lion Pub located in Greys Inn Road, opposite the Times building. Many times our ideas where drawn out on the back of beer mats, occasionally by the paper’s satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. By Sunday the resulting photograph was on page one.
So what does the future hold? It’s not easy to become a photojournalist, however if you have the commitment and dedication to succeed you can be one of the privileged few – being paid to have a front row seat at events around the world.
Here are just a few of the wonderful things that can and do happen in a career of photojournalism.
Sunderland, 1963 – Paul McCartney told me: “It’s a lifetime habit, I do everything left-handed, I have tried to alter it, it’s no good.” I responded: “Ever heard of a left-handed camera?” he just smiled and shook his head.
New Delhi, 1980 – Whilst photographing Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi during an interview with The Sunday Times’ political editor Hugo Young, she said: “Mr. Wright please make sure you get my badger stripe in, I’m very proud of it.” Speaking of the prominent stripe of grey in her hair.
Darlington, 1965 – I was photographing Gerry Dorsey at The La Bamba night club on the day his manager Gordon Mills changed his name to Engelbert Humperdinck. Gerry showed me a piece of paper with his new name on it saying, “Wrighty, who the hell am I? I can’t even pronounce it.” In fact he could not spell it either as he missed out the “C” in his new surname.
Stockton-on-Tees, 1964 – After photographing Mick Jagger back stage at The Globe Theatre, he borrowed fifteen quid from me with “I promise I’ll pay you back next week”. That was 48 years ago and of course I’ve seen Mick many times since but never seen the 15 pounds.
Palm Springs, 1982 – With BBC Radio Times, photographing Frank Sinatra, an invitee to the Royal Command Performance, I said: “Mr. Sinatra, I know you are going to say NO, but can I ask, why do you have a fully dressed Christmas tree?” (It was August, the outside temperature was 112f and the tree was on a table in the entrance hall). Sinatra responded, “Mr. Wright if you came from Hoboken, New Jersey, every day to you would be Christmas Day”.
Last my favourite.
In the mid 70s I was on assignment for The Sunday Times covering the elections in Jamaica and as always we picked up other jobs to justify the expenditure. One assignment I had was a feature on ‘Goldeneye’ the home of the paper’s former foreign editor, Commander Ian Fleming, which was situated on the north shore at Oracabessa. The property had just been put up for sale and was subsequently sold to Bob Marley. I was greeted by one of the local estate agent’s staff who showed me into the house. It was the perfect sunny day; everything in the house was open so you could look straight through to the veranda with the backdrop of the cliffs falling into the Caribbean sea. Standing perfectly framed in the scene was a man painting at an easel. Without hesitation, I began taking photographs hoping not to disturb the artist with the sound of my shutter. Eventually he paused and I introduced myself. He smiled, held out his hand and said: “My name is BOND, JAMES BOND”
He explained: “This is a sentimental journey. I’ve spent many happy times at this house from 1953 onwards, with Ian and his wife. Fleming was an avid bird watcher and had a copy of my book ‘Birds In The West Indies’. He asked if he could use my name for a character in a book he was writing called ‘Casino Royal’. Of course I agreed.” (James Bond was an eminent ornithologist, born in Philadelphia in 1900 educated in England at Harrow School and Cambridge University, he became a member of the world famous Drexel University, Academy of Natural Sciences based in his home town, and he had the one thing Fleming needed an Anglo-Saxon name that was as ordinary as possible.)
Today the house is owned by Chris Blackwell founder of Island Records and the new Oracabessa International Airport opened in 2011 was named the Ian Fleming International Airport.
Photo: Ian Wright aged 18 at The Northern Echo in Darlington, aged 64 in Las Vegas.
Professor Ian Wright
Baylor University, Texas