Cartier-Bres­son’s im­ages don’t need a cap­tion… re­ally good pic­tures don’t need many words, or any words at all

Chris Smith, sports photographer

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As he ap­proaches his 80th birth­day with an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Her­itage Cen­tre for Sport­ing Art in New­mar­ket, UK, Chris Smith has ev­ery rea­son to re­flect on his 50 years as a sport photographer. The ti­tle of the ex­hi­bi­tion, Gods of Sport, pro­vides a hint of the rev­er­ence and re­spect he feels for many of his sub­jects, par­tic­u­larly Muham­mad Ali. It should come as no sur­prise to learn that many of his fel­low pho­tog­ra­phers feel the same way about Chris Smith.

He may have re­tired 17 years ago, but he is one of a hand­ful of Bri­tish sports pho­tog­ra­phers, along with Ea­monn McCabe and Gerry Cran­ham, who still com­mand re­spect and rev­er­ence for their work. Like his con­tem­po­raries, Chris Smith op­er­ated in a dif­fer­ent era, when all roads for an aspir­ing press photographer led to Lon­don, namely Fleet Street. Smith ar­rived in 1959, but his jour­ney be­gan when he was just 16, in the in­dus­trial town of Hartle­pool, where he started his craft on the lo­cal daily pa­per…

When you started work­ing at the

Har­tle pool Daily Mail, what sort of work were you do­ing?

It was a small-cir­cu­la­tion evening pa­per – it used to sell about 30,000 copies. I worked there as a ju­nior, mix­ing chem­i­cals for the dark­room and the other pho­tog­ra­phers, do­ing print­ing, sweep­ing the floor, keep­ing the place clean. The best thing was if you weren’t do­ing any­thing, which wasn’t very of­ten, they would send you out and put an en­try into the diary that said: ‘Look­ing for pic­tures.’ So you could wan­der out and just take what took your fancy. It was an in­dus­trial town with docks, trawlers com­ing in and out, steel­works, so you could wan­der around and just take in­ter­est­ing pic­tures. It was a mar­vel­lous brief with a 1912 or 1914 Zeiss plate cam­era.

Was sport among the sub­jects you looked for?

I got into sport be­cause the other pho­tog­ra­phers didn’t like do­ing it. They didn’t like get­ting wet on a Satur­day. Iwas quite keen as a kid – played foot­ball, rugby and cricket – and seemed to have an ap­ti­tude for it, so they were more than will­ing to let me go to foot­ball as much as I wanted on a Satur­day. So that started off my sports side, but I did ev­ery­thing else that you do on a lo­cal pa­per: dog shows, flower shows, all that stuff.

How long were you at the Har­tle pool Daily Mail?

I was there till I was 19 and got called up for two years’ na­tional ser­vice. When I came out I wanted to go to Fleet Street, which, for news­pa­per peo­ple, was the Mecca of jour­nal­ism. I got a job on The Daily Her­ald, which is now de­funct. There were some truly great pho­tog­ra­phers there – Terry Fincher and Ron Burn. Terry went on to the Daily Ex­press, but I was with him for a while on The Her­ald.

I was in the gym one day when in walked The Bea­tles. I think it was as much of a sur­prise to me as it was to Clay

What year did you join the Her­ald?

I must have been 21 or 22, so 1959, I guess. I was there for six or seven years and, when The Daily Her­ald was taken over by the Mirror Group, I left and free­lanced. I al­ways ad­mired the

Ob­server, I had a con­tract with them, and I started to do most of their sport. I’d been there for about seven years when The Sun­day Times asked me to join them, and I was there for 24 years.

You pho­tographed Muham­mad Ali with The Bea­tles fairly early in your ca­reer – how did that come about?

The Bea­tles were about to start their first tour to the States and I said to the picture edi­tor [of The Daily Her­ald], what about cov­er­ing it? The Daily

Ex­press with Harry Ben­son seemed to have the in­side track, so we de­cided to take them on, a bit of a spoiler. I pho­tographed them in New York, where they did The Ed Sul­li­van Show, but I’d al­ways wanted to pho­to­graph Cas­sius Clay, as he was known then, be­cause he was mak­ing waves in the world of box­ing, so I took off down to Mi­ami to see him train­ing for his fight with Sonny Lis­ton. I was in the gym one day when the doors opened and in walked The Bea­tles. I think it was as much of a sur­prise to me as it was to Clay. The Bea­tles were in Mi­ami to play a con­cert. It was a right bun fight in the gym with the four Bea­tles and Clay. Terry O’Neill was there and after I’d taken the shot I said to him, ‘It’s a bit of a corny picture re­ally’, but Terry, rather gen­er­ously, said, ‘Well, you may say it’s corny, but it’s got the five most rec­og­niz­able faces on the planet in one picture!’ I sup­pose that’s not quite as ex­ag­ger­ated as it sounds. It’s a picture that’s now fairly sig­nif­i­cant.

Muham­mad Ali al­ways de­scribed him­self as ‘The Great­est’, but in your opin­ion, was he the great­est sports star you’ve pho­tographed?

He must be the great­est sports per­son­al­ity, yes, be­cause in his age of box­ing he was truly a won­der, his hand speed, the co-or­di­na­tion he had. He had this un­break­able will, not just as a sports­man, but when he took on the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment with that state­ment: ‘I ain’t got no quar­rel with them Viet Cong’. He was de­ter­mined not to be con­scripted. He was just an ex­tra­or­di­nary per­son.

You worked dur­ing a golden era of sports pho­tog­ra­phy. Who amongst your con­tem­po­raries did you look up to and ad­mire?

Well, there was the great Gerry Cran­ham in this coun­try. Gerry was ahuge in­flu­ence. He just looked at and treated it slightly dif­fer­ently to ev­ery­one else. I came along at about the same time, a lit­tle bit be­hind him, and he was a great in­flu­ence. And Ed Lacey, too. And of course you had

Sports Il­lus­trated, with peo­ple like Ge­orge Silk. You’d al­ways look at their work to see what they were up to.

How did you set your pic­tures apart from other sports photos?

What I al­ways tried to do was not just do the ob­vi­ous sports picture. Take golf for ex­am­ple: it’s too easy just to do the top of the back­swing and then the fol­low through, close-up. A lot of the time it could have been taken in the back gar­den for all you’d know. I’d rather show the lo­ca­tion and a bit of the back­ground. Not be­ing too fan­ci­ful, but if you look at Cartier-Bres­son’s work, you don’t need a cap­tion for those pic­tures, they tell you ev­ery­thing. Re­ally good pic­tures don’t need many words, or any words at all.

There’s a picture in the ex­hi­bi­tion of Greg Nor­man at The Open in Turn­berry, and there’s Ailsa Craig, this great rock off the Ayr­shire coast in the back­ground. Well, you don’t need to say where it is, you just know where it is, so that kind of thing I liked to do when­ever I could.

Let’s talk about another of your fa­mous pic­tures: the side-on start of the men’s 100m fi­nal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics (left). Why did you shoot from this po­si­tion?

The track in Moscow had a pit around it, which was great for pho­tog­ra­phers be­cause you could get down to ground level. I thought, ‘I don’t want to go to the fin­ish, ev­ery­body’s at the fin­ish’, and of­ten as you frame head-on, the ath­letes dip go­ing into the fin­ish so you of­ten get the top of a head. It’s shot on an 85mm and it’s been pulled up quite a bit. I think AP (Associated Press) pro­cessed it for one of the Rus­sian agen­cies, so I haven’t a clue what it was de­vel­oped in. It’s only a small part of the neg­a­tive – it was ac­tu­ally shot land­scape as Wells came fly­ing out of the blocks. I was fo­cused on Alan and a lot of the right hand side was way off fo­cus; it wouldn’t have be much above f/4, so not a lot of depth. I was work­ing off the gun, so by the time I’d re­acted, they’d re­acted, and the two co­in­cided. it’s one frame, that’s it, but it does cap­ture this ex­plo­sion of Alan Wells. It was a very sat­is­fy­ing picture to take.

Two Olympics later, at Seoul in 1988, you are look­ing down the track from a very high po­si­tion (fol­low­ing page). Why was that?

Be­cause the fi­nal was late morn­ing on a Satur­day, it was ab­so­lutely per­fect for a Sun­day news­pa­per. No­body could beat you to it – it was too late for the dailies of Satur­day morn­ing, so it fell bril­liantly for the Sun­day pa­pers. There was [Ben] John­son, then there was Calvin Smith, then there was Lin­ford Christie, and then on the out­side of those is Carl Lewis, so to me they all had great po­ten­tial, you couldn’t pick one from the other, although Lewis was ex­pected to win. So these four lanes con­tained the four run­ners who you were ex­pect­ing to get the win­ner from. So I had a 180mm on a foot switch look­ing all the way down the track to the start, but I was us­ing a 400mm on a mono­pod on the fin­ish and it just squeezed these four lanes in, so it was just a mat­ter of wait­ing for them to reach the fin­ish line.

John­son won, but not for long…

The thing about it, look­ing at the picture with Ben on the left-hand side, he’s got his fin­ger up, num­ber one. He’s look­ing across the track at his great ri­val on the far side, Carl Lewis, who’s got this ex­pres­sion: he just can’t be­lieve it, he’s flab­ber­gasted. Then you’ve got Lin­ford in the mid­dle who, after all the stuff came out about Ben’s dop­ing, fin­ished up sec­ond with a sil­ver medal. That ex­pres­sion on Carl Lewis’s face just said ev­ery­thing. Poor old Ben was a god for one or two days – a fallen god.

Speak­ing of ex­pres­sion, there is the haunt­ing, va­cant ex­pres­sion of Barry McGuigan slumped on the stool in the ring in Las Ve­gas.

That’s one of my favourites. I’d been in Mex­ico cov­er­ing the 1986 World

Cup. The fi­nal was on a Sun­day, so it was too late for a Sun­day news­pa­per. I was al­ways go­ing to do the McGuigan fight, but the day of the fight it was 112 de­grees in the ring. The air tem­per­a­ture was like a fur­nace. You couldn’t move with­out ooz­ing sweat, and Barry, of course, comes from Clones in Ire­land, and he’s cer­tainly not used to those tem­per­a­tures. Barry’s style was al­ways ag­gres­sive, go­ing for­ward, wear­ing an op­po­nent down. He was just out of his el­e­ment, poor man, he just was (right). When dur­ing the fight did you man­age to get this picture? Half­way through the fight it was ob­vi­ous he was strug­gling and, as he came back from the 13th round, Iwas in the op­po­site cor­ner and spot­ted this face, this ex­pres­sion. Ihad a 35mm and an 85mm lens on two cam­eras – both to­tally in­ad­e­quate to pho­to­graph his face – but I thought, ‘there’s the picture’, so I put on a 180mm for when he fin­ished the 14th round and went back to his cor­ner. One of these cor­ner men is twist­ing his ear, the lobe of his ear, just to sharpen him up. I man­aged to get about two frames. The ex­pres­sion – or lack of ex­pres­sion – in his eyes is just heart­break­ing. He fin­ished up go­ing to hospi­tal. Later on I met him, and he called it ‘the picture of me with the dead eyes’, which it was. What is your all-time favourite sports pho­to­graph taken by you? That’s a tough one. There’s one I al­ways look at and come back to: it’s a foot­ball match, a Euro­pean Cup fi­nal in Rome, but it’s not of the foot­ball, it’s the crowd, and it was Liver­pool ver­sus Roma (above). Be­fore the game, the Roma fans, all these Ul­tras – I’d never seen them be­fore – were set­ting off fire­works, flares, smoke grenades, and Ithought, ‘how ex­tra­or­di­nary’. If you used a long lens, say a 400mm, you couldn’t see much be­cause all the smoke was go­ing, so I put on a 35mm, jumped over the bar­rier and went into the crowd. It looks more like a crazy po­lit­i­cal rally than a foot­ball match. It’s one that I’ve al­ways liked, it’s just some­thing you didn’t ex­pect from a foot­ball match. You were very much wed­ded to your 400mm in your work­ing days. Yes, 400mm was the standard lens, that was the first thing you packed. What else did you take? I used to carry as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, partly be­cause, if you were do­ing a ski­ing event or golf where you had to hike around a course, there might be two rounds in a day. So there would be a mono­pod with the 400mm, and in the later days, when they were bet­ter, a zoom or two: 24-70mm, 70-200mm, a cou­ple of cam­era bod­ies and lots of stuff packed into your pock­ets. But in the States, if you went to some­thing like the Mas­ters, the Sport­sIl­lus­trated guys would get their stu­dents to carry their cam­eras. Cam­era cad­dies they used to call them. The photographer would take the picture, go off to the next hole and give his stu­dent the cam­era, which would have a 400mm or 600mm on amono­pod, and the stu­dent would get to the next tee, and the photographer would take over. Bizarre! You were a Nikon user all through your press ca­reer? Nikon all the time. Fun­nily enough, since I’ve stopped work­ing, Ihave tried the lit­tle Sony RX10, which is tiny, but I found it too tiny. Amaz­ing re­sults, but I want some­thing a lit­tle bit big­ger. The Sony 6300 would have been bril­liant,

but the pan­cake lens Ibought with it is a bit duff. It’s just to stick in my pocket and look for things as I go. I feel ab­so­lutely naked if I go out with­out a cam­era. The idea of go­ing out with­out a cam­era gives me the shakes! What if I find some­one, what if I see some­thing re­ally im­por­tant? Do you not use your mo­bile phone to take pic­tures? The ter­ri­ble thing is I’m not very good with new tech­nol­ogy. I’ve got an iPhone 6, which I got purely be­cause go­ing on hol­i­day you can use it as a mo­dem, down­load BBC and stuff like that, lis­ten­ing to Ra­dio 4, but I’ve never cracked the cam­era. I shot a picture of my wife on the tow­path the other day and it looked beau­ti­ful, un­til I tried to en­large it and I ob­vi­ously haven’t got a han­dle on it be­cause it looks abit grainy, but I know you can get re­mark­able re­sults on an iPhone. I’m just help­ing with judg­ing a cricket pho­tog­ra­phy com­pe­ti­tion and one of the en­tries is re­ally nice – black and white, a lovely sky, with sil­hou­ettes of kids play­ing cricket. I looked at the in­for­ma­tion and it said it was taken with an iPhone 6, and the qual­ity looks stun­ning. So it is ob­vi­ously doable if I could only get my head around how to do it. I’ll have to ask one of my kids! That could be your per­fect so­lu­tion so you never feel naked go­ing out… But you can’t put long lenses on them! God­sofS­port:FiftyYear­sof Sport­ingPho­tog­ra­phy, is show­ing at the Ex­hi­bi­tion Gallery, Palace House, Na­tional Her­itage Cen­tre, New­mar­ket, Suf­folk, un­til 18 June

The ex­pres­sion – or lack of ex­pres­sion – in his eyes is just heart­break­ing. He called it ‘the picture of me with the dead eyes’, which it was

Muhamm ad ALI AND The Beatl es Mi­ami, 1964

Ski Jumper Cal­gary Win­ter Olympics, 1990

Hen­nessey Gol d Cup New­bury 1976 Men’s 100m fin al Moscow Olympic Games, 1980 Fol­low­ing page Men’s 100m fin al Seoul Olympic Games, 1988

Barry McGuig an Las Ve­gas, 1986

Roma Fans Roma vs Liver­pool, 1984 Euro­pean CupF inal

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