John Robertson: Midlands Photographer
Freelance editorial, commercial, advertising, PR and wedding photographer based in Rothwell, Northants - covering the UK and the World.
A Monkey's Revenge - My Blog
Mar 21, 2014
40 years ago a 16 year old slip of a lad struggled up the Tipton Canal towpath lugging a heavy Gandolfi 5x4 plate camera and an even heavier linhof tripod. Along with his fellow sufferers,also similarly burdened, he was on a mission for 'Harry the psycopath'. Harry wasn't well liked by any of the youngsters he tutored and possibly by anybody,(except perhaps his mother).
He had a habit of giving a sharp clip around the ear to any young fool who gave him a bit of lip or smart-arse reply.
The 11 young men and 1 young woman were on the National Council for the Training of Journalists one year press photography pre-entry course and I was one of the poor unfortunates. Harry,(think 'Mad Eye Moody' from the Harry Potter books), wanted us to meet and photograph 'Kaggy Stevens' who was himself something of a legend. A canal character who still towed his narrowboat by horse and eschewed the 1970's for an earlier, simpler era.
I don't have those pics any more, but I seem to remember a horse with shiny leather and brass harness and a grizzled old bloke with long hair and a strong Black Country accent. Switch to yesterday's job for The Guardian and I'm at the same stretch of canal. Narrowboats huddle together amongst pools of discarded empty cans and pop bottles and the back doors of the nearest one open up to reveal a large man with a ruddy face who looks rather annoyed and bellows something unintelligable at me.
Turns out the boat owner is a bit pissed off because he is fed up with 'gongoozlers' firing flashes off at him and his boat every weekend. It is a lovely example of the craft and I placate him by telling him this and explaining who I am and what I'm doing and that I'm not a 'bloody tourist'. I even persuade the boat owner to hold the wireless-controlled flash for me and his reward is to tell me the history of the place he is obviously so proud of. He isn't going anywhere after all until the part arrives to fix his boat's generator. I catch the word 'Kaggy' amongst his heavy Black Country accent where words like 'pound' become 'powund' and horse is 'oss'.
Black Country narrowboat owner is talking about the same bloke. Kaggy Stevens. He lived to a ripe old age and died only two years ago. We finish chatting, shake hands and go our seperate ways. As I walk over the bridge and back to my car, I pass The Fountain Public House- the base of another Black Country Legend. William Perry aka The Tipton Slasher who became the England bareknuckle boxing champion around 1858.
Sometimes it's possible to have a fun time where you'd least expect it. I get in the car and drive to the next job. Older, wiser, fatter, but with a smile on my face!
I found that photo from 40 years ago-bit tatty and faded-but here it is!
Jan 25, 2014
Whoa! It's been five months since I last posted and I kinda got out of the habit of posting on my own blog. Lots of changes since I started blogging in 2007-it was fairly unusual then, but now everybody and his dog has a blog and we are all in the information overload age. I confess that I enjoy writing-it's cathartic...good for the soul!
Part of the problem for me has been that a lot of the work I do these days isn't published for ages. So I can't blog about it while it's fresh in my memory and by the time it HAS been published or broadcast I've moved onto other things and the photos/video is stashed away somewhere on one of my archival hard drives ;-(
Bit late to look back at the end of January-but what the hell...I'll do it any way! 2013 was a corking year for me despite the general consensus of opinion being that photography as a career is doomed. I may not have made tons of money,(please take note Mr Taxman), but I did get to cover some pretty cool jobs, meet some amazing people and have an inspiring time.
I hope that 2014 will be very similar. I make no bones about it. Photography is possibly an unsustainable career these days, certainly the editorial photography which I so enjoy. I've been forced by necessity to push my boundaries and do stuff I always thought I wouldn't touch with a rubber bargepole.
One thing though is a constant for me. I love what I do- being creative and problem solving. Sure I could earn more money elsewhere-but would I be happy? Now that everybody is a photographer and you can buy a decent digi camera with lens for under £300 is it time to give up? Nope-not in my book it isn't! I think the bread and butter stuff has gone to those people with the £300 digis. They are welcome to it. I've moved on and I'm looking at clients who appreciate good imagery, lighting skills and a creative approach. Bring it on!!
Aug 11, 2013
I've never been a proponent of the 'us' and 'them' school of thought. The 'us' being photographers and the 'them' being writers. I prefer to work as a team and enjoy the crossover of ideas rather than antipathy towards each other.
I had a graphic reminder of how we are or should be on the same side during a trip to Africa last week. Or Spain, depending on your point of view. I was working with the brilliant writer Fiona Govan for The Sunday Telegraph in Ceuta, which is a Spanish-controlled garrison town in Morocco and bears an obvious comparison with UK-controlled Gibraltar.
I'll lay my cards on the table and mention that Fiona is a friend I used to work with regularly at the Telegraph, but haven't seen for a few years since her move to live and work in Spain. We met up in Ceuta then headed off for the arab part of town near the border. The border itself is like something from a Mad Max film- we visited that too and I was amazed at the scenes of mayhem as human 'mules' carry oversized bags and plastic and string wrapped giant parcels from Spain into Morocco. The goods are duty free from Spain, carried across and earning the carriers a few dirhams for each trip. On the Moroccan side of the border large numbers of extremely battered taxis wait in a chaotic jumble with honking of horns and drivers jabbering away to each other in arabic amidst the dust and the heat.
You can see a very good explanation at this site.
At the arab part of Ceuta we met the locals outside their colourful but ramshackle appartments and winding close packed streets. Trying to take photos was near impossible as the arabs do not like to be photographed and it was frustrating seeing fantastic photo opportunities that came and went. Battered and dying vehicles parked haphazardly everywhere and scooters and cars driven at reckless speed inches away from pedestrians in the narrow streets.
This is where without Fiona I'd have been unable to work and would probably have ended up beaten up and/or robbed,(as it was we were apparently told several times to leave the area or get robbed).
I don't speak Spanish, but Fiona is fluent and was able to talk to the local arabs, (although it's fair to say we were as welcome as a dog in a game of skittles). She spotted some little arab girls playing 'cat's cradle' with a piece of elastic and we asked permission to photograph. As always happens in these situations the kids then formed a group and posed for the camera-NOT what I wanted! Fiona physically showed them what I wanted by being the 'jumper' in the middle and the girls understood and did that. Just as I went to take the photo a little arab girl kept posing right in front of the camera, ruining the shot. Fiona once again came to the rescue and motioned the little girl and her friends to one side where she photographed them on her iphone and thus distracted them long enough for me to get my shot above.
You can read Fiona Govan's excellent story here.
May 25, 2013
This week I met an inspirational chap- Former gang member Samu Manoa. Normally I'd be especially daunted by a meeting with a former member of a San Francisco gang- but despite his large and rather intiimidating presence, Samu Manoa is a real nice guy. Very sensible, very laid back and truly somebody who has put his dodgy past behind him and shows to us all how it doesn't matter where you come from-you CAN make a difference on this planet by being true to yourself and your family and good at what you do.
Samu is now a player for the Northampton 'Saints' rugby team. They play at Twickenham today versus another local team to me-the Leicester Tigers. So I'm kinda torn between the two, especially as I also photographed Matthew Tait for The Telegraph this week and he is a 'Tigers' team member. May the best team on the day win- they both have my maximum respect!
For the photo of Samu, I had to wait until the press photocall was over and then head over to the changing room where I had already set up the photo I hoped to get. Just goes to show how not everything can be pre-planned- as we walked into the changing room we were met by a group of schoolkids. After they had finished their session and met their hero we had a couple of minutes to get a pic....the result is as seen here. Many thanks to Samu for whipping off his top and also for patiently waiting for the schoolkids. I've worked with lots of stars and lots of sporting stars- he was an example of how it should be done. Humble, and happy to help get something different rather than the often full of their own importance and in too much of a hurry to be bothered. I don't have a 'lucky hat' like Samu's. But if I did-I'd take it off in deference to him!
Apr 14, 2013
The end of an era this week with the ceremonial funeral of Baroness Thatcher on Wednesday. Last week The Daily Telegraph sent me to deepest Worcestershire to photograph one of her admirers-John Parton, an ex coal miner turned successful business owner who has now retired. He admired Lady T so much he had one of his purdey shotguns engraved with her portrait. The gun is now up for auction by Holt's,(expected to fetch between £30-50,000). The twist to the tale is that the day Mr Parton took delivery of his gun from the engravers was the day Margaret Thatcher left 10, Downing Street in tears. He put his gun up for auction the week BEFORE the baroness died. Photo of the engraving is courtesy of Holt's Auctioneers © Andrew Orr – Holt’s Auctioneers.
Mr Parton was clearly leaning to the right even as an 18 year old coal miner. He told me that when he was seen reading the Telegraph he was chased by other miners for a mile along the pit. He switched to The Daily Mirror pretty quickly after that experience!
Way back in the late eighties I photographed Margaret Thatcher when Gorbachev came to town for a historic meeting that effectively sealed an end to the 'Cold War'. Being a northern snapper, I arrived too late to find a decent position as the clued up London snappers had already secured their places outside number ten with gaffer tape and chained up stepladders in the press pen. Sometimes even bad luck works to your advantage though- I was able to get Dennis Thatcher in from the angle I shot at, right on the edge of the scrum, as Gorbachev took a sneeky peek at his watch. I remember hearing lots of expletives from one of the photographers near me who had missed that shot- you see we were working on film in those days and he was just changing a roll at the time!
I photographed Lady Thatcher again in 2001 when she supported William Hague's election campaign. My photo made front page of The Guardian and was more a matter of luck than anything. The Guardian's writer, Simon Hoggart, described the situation very accurately as 'a goatfuck'. I was lucky enough to be in position as an ardent and amorous admirer gave the iron lady a quick kiss. The security men were not as pleased by this as I was and promptly shoulder charged me out of the goatfuck where I ended up on the floor near one of the Northampton market stalls. Surrounded by knocked over flowers I was happy nevertheless- you always know when you have something good in the camera!