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
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