In 1969 I had been working on Fleet Street for almost three years, mostly for (United Press International). UPI had offices in a narrow building at 8 Bouverie Street, immediately opposite the News of The World. One Saturday afternoon after filing pictures from an assignment, I was leaving the office, when I saw a flash car, double-parked in the narrow street. At the wheel, was Anna Murdoch. I knew Anna from our time working together on The Australian in Canberra in 1966 when she was still Anna Torv, and as the gossip went, Rupert’s mistress.
I stopped to say, hello. When down the steps of the NoW strolled Rupert, tucking the very first edition of his new acquisition (and perhaps here I could be excused for using the cliché, hot off the press) under his arm. Anna said to him, “You remember Rob, don’t you, Rupert?” We shook hands. He said, “Yes, I do..you’ve changed your beard or something, haven’t you?” Actually, I had been clean-shaven when I worked for him in Canberra. Knowing his reputed visceral hatred of facial hair and ever the smart-arse I replied, “Yes…actually, I’ve grown one.”
Though I was carrying a loaded Nikon, I was just not clever enough to think to take a picture of him. I imagine a shot of Rupert with his very first copy of The News of the World might have been a very good seller this week…
The work-worn hands and tattooed arms of ship's engineer, George Currie. © Rob Walls 2010
As a very young photographer working on London’s Fleet Street in the 60s, I was lucky enough to be engaged as a retained freelancer to United Press International. It was at a time when colour supplements were burgeoning and because I had more experience shooting colour than the staffers, I began to pull regular feature assignments targeted to this new market.
Charlie Cowan, UPI’s features editor was a hard task master. No matter what you laid out on the light-box, he always seemed to be able to find some gap in your picture story; something you hadn’t thought to photograph. His eye and his judgment were superb and I made it a personal challenge to produce stories that he could not find fault with. It would be the rare occasion when he was totally satisfied. I was very lucky to have Charlie as my mentor.
After one story briefing, just as I was about to set out on the shoot, he called from his office, “…and don’t forget to photograph their hands!” Sometimes, when I threw a set of pictures up on the light-box, Charlie would say “but, you didn’t photograph their hands!”. He drummed this mantra into me until it became second nature for me to include a picture of someone’s hands.
He was right, of course. You can tell a lot about someone from their hands…and a picture of hands is always a useful image for a layout artist to break the visual rhythm of a story about a person, while still adding information about the subject.
A few weeks ago, it was with Charlie’s mantra still echoing in my ears, that after photographing Scots-born, ship’s engineer, George Currie for my documentation of work (This Working Life), I went back to photograph his work-worn hands against the background of his welding scorched sweater. I told him the story of Charlie Cowan and his advice to me as a young photographer. As I finished my explanation, George pushed up his sleeves, saying in his broad accent, “This’ud be whut ye want, then.”
John Lennon's Rolls Royce, 27th May 1967
I’m continually amazed by what fetches up on the Internet. It’s a little like beachcombing in cyberspace.
About forty years ago I worked freelance on a regular basis for United Press International out of London. I often used to wonder what happened to my pictures in their files.
Recently, a Google search revealed that their picture collection had been bought by the TopFoto picture library. A quick search of their files turned up these two pictures of mine from the late 60s. There are probably more, but these were just two assignments I remembered.
Biafran soldiers manning a jeep mounted heavy machine gun