A couple of nights ago, I went along to listen to four times British Press Photographer of the Year, Ken Lennox, talk about his experience as a press photographer and picture editor. And what a fascinating evening it was.
Starting out sweeping the floors of a friend’s uncle’s darkroom, Ken sold his first photo to the Daily Express 55 years ago and hasn’t looked back since. He’s taken picture in war zones, of the Royal Family, of celebrities and politicians – in fact, pick a major event of the last few decades and Ken Lennox was probably there!
He convinced Bob Geldof to visit Ethiopia (at a time when he was convinced people would think he was cashing in on the plight of others); he captured the first pictures of Lady Diana Spencer (as she was then) at Balmoral; he was sued by Michael Jackson (he took the famous image showing the state of the star’s face after extensive cosmetic surgery, resulting in years of legal wrangling and extensive abuse from Jackson’s fans); he has pictures of Terry Waite as a newly-freed man; of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; of the first gulf war; the Russian Coup from 1991; and many, many more subjects.
Ken’s pictures show a tenacity to get “the shot” at a time when press photography was about turning up, getting something good and running. Newspapers are tomorrow’s chip paper, he says – and pictures are only interesting on the day. But there’s clearly far more to it than turning up and grabbing the shot. Ken has stories of stake-outs to take pictures of Diana, Princess of Wales (including some of the games of cat-and-mouse that were played) and, despite overstepping the mark at times, he clearly built a rapport with the Princess during his time as a royal photographer (although he also has stunning images of other members of the family, right back to 1959, and including The Queen Mother standing in a river, fishing for salmon, aged 80 – followed by an image that appears to show her describing “the one the got away”!).
As a news photographer at war he tells tales of running up a £1.3m Inmarsat bill to let British troops phone home (later paid by a Saudi King) as well as sleeping in a nest of sandbags on the top of a tank. His gear of choice (for war photography at least) was three bodies (two and a spare) three lenses (70-200mm is perfect, he says) plus a long lens (although you don’t use it much as it might be mistaken for a gun). Add some clothes, a satellite phone, water, chemicals, etc. and that’s quite a lot of gear to carry (even if he calls it travelling light). Ken’s tales include tragic stories of other photographers who didn’t make it through alive and it’s clear that he’s had to abandon his equipment on a number of occasions so I asked what he does to “get the shot” without a camera. He tells me that you make do, you borrow someone else’s spare, and that despite the competition, photographers will help one another out.
Asked which is his favourite shot, he says that he can’t say it’s his famous image of Mrs Thatcher in tears (as she left 10 Downing Street for the last time), because it’s out of focus. It may only by a fraction but he knows it (even though Time Magazine called it one of the 20th Century’s greatest images). Ken says that 90% of his pictures are taken with a manual focus and that blurring or movement is OK but focus is important. As a result, his favourite picture is one of Lenny Henry in an African hospital, with a bed frame made of string and a floor that looks like it’s in a slaughterhouse.
Ken still shoots today (his portfolio includes images from the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton although his LinkedIn profile says he specialises in PR, advertising and magazine reportage) but he admits times have changed. Once, he says, the question was never “how much?” but “how quickly can you get here?”. Today, magazines don’t have the money to pay for shoots and photographers need to earn royalties over an extended period in order to cover their costs. He still gets to travel but whereas once he had a “fizz” inside (will he survive?), today it’s not quite the same, it’s more commercial than the “mad newspaper stuff where you can do what you want”.
Asked how he feels about today’s technology, Ken doesn’t appear to have any desire to return to the days of film – he sees the benefits of the digital age where pictures can be shot, edited and on the picture editor’s desk within minutes. What he doesn’t say (although I suspect he might agree) is that anyone is potentially a press photographer today, and “citizen journalism” is adding to the difficulties felt by professional photographers. He’s pretty critical of his students though – encouraging them to get out there and take more photos – to shoot until people react, to turn around and look behind for a photograph (don’t just look at your subject – think about the reaction of a crowd, reflections, etc.) and topping off with a quote:
“All photographers take photographs – professional photographers make them.”
[Which sounds very much like the advice I was given several years ago by Charlie Waite]
(Incidentally, the photographer Ken most admires is Tom Stoddart)
Sadly, Ken doesn’t have any intention of writing a book – although he undoubtedly has the photos and the stories for a fantastic piece of literature. He claims to be “too lazy” and, even though his wife Sue [Crawford] is a freelance journalist, he says it’s not worth her time. That’s a shame; it seems to me that Ken worked through the glory days of press photography, had a great time, and has a fantastic portfolio to show for it. And if you get the chance to listen to him talk any time, it’s well worth it – there are many more colourful stories that I couldn’t tell here!