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