Look­ing back

Great New Zealand sports pho­tog­ra­pher Peter Bush rem­i­nisces with Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher Colin Whe­lan about tech­nol­ogy, travel, and world cups gone by

The Shed - - Column -

News and sports pho­tog­ra­phers are very much part of the pass­ing pa­rade of pho­tog­ra­phers world­wide. Some are qui­etly com­pe­tent trades­peo­ple, while oth­ers re­main truly un­for­get­table char­ac­ters — as much for their per­son­al­i­ties as for their skilled ex­per­tise. One truly mem­o­rable Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher who fits that bill is Colin Whe­lan. This larg­erthan-life Aussie jet­ted into Welling­ton re­cently and stayed with us for a cou­ple of days. Over some leisurely meals, we caught up, rem­i­nisc­ing about where our lives had taken us, and what had hap­pened since we had last met.

He re­minded me that just three days af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a bach­e­lor of arts from The Univer­sity of Syd­ney, he left for his first, and very long, over­seas trip. Af­ter fly­ing via Den­mark to Lon­don, he took off for a close look at the Middle East. This be­came a colour­ful and ad­ven­tur­ous jour­ney, one that took him through Turkey — a favourite — then to Syria, which he re­mem­bered for the great hos­pi­tal­ity he en­coun­tered, and on to Le­banon, Jor­dan, and, fi­nally, to Is­rael.

The small, compact coun­try ap­pealed so much that he stayed for the next 18 months, work­ing on a kib­butz, where he be­came flu­ent in He­brew and met Naomi, the Is­raeli woman he later mar­ried back in Syd­ney.

I first met Whe­lan in Syd­ney in the 1970s, at a rugby test be­tween Aus­tralia and New Zealand. He was at that time work­ing as a free­lance sport pho­tog­ra­pher by day, and then, by night, the big, raw-boned Syd­neysider was driv­ing a taxi. It was a tough life­style by any mea­sure, driv­ing a taxi six days a week and fit­ting in pho­tog­ra­phy when he could.

“Most of what I shot was crap, and I had to go back to square one, get a bet­ter cam­era, and start to shoot — mainly rugby pics,” Whe­lan said.

He did get bet­ter, and, in 1978, on his first rugby tour of New Zealand with the Aus­tralian tour­ing team, he re­called with some amuse­ment, that, be­fore the first test at Ath­letic Park, Stan Pilecki — the big Aussie front-row prop — asked him if he could do him a spe­cial favour by bring­ing his cig­a­rettes and matches out onto the ground at half-time so he could en­joy a re­lax­ing smoke (back in those days, test teams at half­time re­mained on the field of play). Whe­lan did — it made us both laugh at how times have changed.

Back in 1981, the strug­gling pho­tog­ra­pher re­ceived a phone call from Gary Pearce, a for­mer Wallaby rugby player, who was at the time the mar­ket­ing man­ager for Winfield cig­a­rettes. Pearce asked if Whe­lan could shoot some league ac­tion pic­tures for the com­pany’s mag­a­zine, as well as some pub­lic­ity stills. Winfield was happy with the re­sults, as was Whe­lan with the pay­ment, and the rest — as the say­ing goes — is his­tory.

From that date in the ’80s, pro­fes­sional league be­came his main client, and this con­tin­ued un­til he fi­nally called it quits, with his last league game cov­er­age only a few months back.

I found his sharp ob­ser­va­tions on pho­tograph­ing both of th­ese ri­val codes in­ter­est­ing. When cop­ing with dead­line pres­sure, he found it much eas­ier to shoot pic­tures of league rather than rugby. In league, he said, the ball is nearly al­ways vis­i­ble, be­ing passed by run­ning play­ers. In con­trast, with rugby, there are 15 play­ers, com­pared with league’s 13; the ball can be buried for some time in scrums, rucks, and other break­downs; and few of the play­ers’ faces are vis­i­ble. He gives league the best marks for ver­ti­cal pic­tures, while rugby, he feels, is bet­ter suited to a hor­i­zon­tal for­mat, where the play­ers are more spread out.

He knows plenty about dead­lines, and gives top marks to his new Canon 5DX — which he re­minded me can eas­ily shoot a burst of eight frames per se­cond — and, with 45 megapix­els, it makes the mem­ory of his first Canon dig­i­tal cam­era, with its five megapix­els and a cost of AU$20K or so, now seem like a dis­tant and not-so-great rec­ol­lec­tion.

One of his favourite league pho­tos, as well as mine, is the leg­endary pic­ture of the two ex­hausted, mud­died league play­ers, Norm Provan and Arthur Sum­mons, arm in arm as they left the field back in 1963.

This en­dur­ing pic­ture of the club fi­nal was shot by Syd­ney pho­tog­ra­pher John O’Gready with a Speed Graphic, us­ing fiveby-four-inch dou­ble dark slides. It was one of the eight dou­ble dark slides he was car­ry­ing. There were only 16 pic­tures in to­tal to cover a ma­jor sport fix­ture — we won­dered how many of to­day’s pho­tog­ra­phers could have cap­tured that photo with such ba­sic gear.

From league, we switched back to rugby and, once again, agreed that the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa was the great­est of all the world cups we had at­tended. The rooftop flight of the 747 over a packed El­lis Park Sta­dium still rates as one of the most amaz­ing things we had wit­nessed. And, as I have men­tioned in this col­umn be­fore, this amaz­ing sight was cap­tured by only a very few pho­tog­ra­phers. I could sense that Whe­lan was still a bit hot that no prior warn­ing of the flight had been given to most of the pho­tog­ra­phers at the ground. But he still votes it the best pub­lic­ity stunt ever … and I would have to agree.

We also had a chuckle over an in­ci­dent on the same South African 1995 Rugby World Cup tour af­ter the All Blacks ver­sus France game in Dur­ban, which we had cov­ered in pour­ing rain. Later, when we were with all the me­dia at the air­port, English pho­tog­ra­pher Colin ‘Big C’ Elsey re­al­ized he had left both his Canon 400mm and 300mm lenses on the crowded foot­path out­side King Sta­dium. To be fair, he had thought one of his younger part­ners had col­lected the lenses …

A fran­tic phone call to the all-but-de­serted press cen­tre was fielded by Daily Mail pho­tog­ra­pher Rus­sell ‘Rusty’ Cheyne, who went out­side and found the for­got­ten lenses still sit­ting qui­etly where the champ had left them.

One of my last­ing mem­o­ries of Aus­tralia ver­sus All Blacks tests was the 1984 Syd­ney test, with the Aussies tak­ing the 16-to-nine win in their stride. But even more mem­o­rable than the game was the ef­fort Whe­lan made by trans­port­ing and in­stalling his bulky C41 film pro­ces­sor into the pho­tog­ra­pher’s room at the ground, sav­ing the many pho­tog­ra­phers on dead­lines the time-con­sum­ing trip back into the city to process their film. The C41 pro­ces­sor had cost him the best part of AU$20K, and, when it was over­taken by dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, he could not give it away. The world of film was fin­ished.

Now, in­stead of cov­er­ing night games at sta­di­ums across Aus­tralia, he trav­els its wide empty spa­ces by mo­tor­cy­cle, set­ting up camp in any spot that takes his fancy to in­dulge in his new pas­sion for shoot­ing long-ex­po­sure stud­ies of the great Aussie night sky.

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