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Don’t forget: photograph their hands!

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.”


Filed under Australian, Autobiography, Biography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls

In the eye of the beholder (part 2)

In an earlier blog article (In the eye of the beholder), I wrote about how the viewer of a photograph is often unaware of nuances within a picture which are privy only to the photographer and those with him at the time the picture was made. This photo is such a picture:

A French cowboy dozing in the saddle with a herd of white Camargue horses

I must have been just 12 years old when I first saw the Albert Lamorisse’s hauntingly beautiful film Crin Blanc (White Mane). Set in the salt marshes of the Camargue on the Bouche du Rhône, it is about a young boy who captures and tames a wild white stallion. Fifteen years later, on my way back from a pilgrimage to Barcelona to photograph the architecture of Antonio Gaudi, I convinced my travelling companions, Tony Hewett and Bruce Best, to make a detour through this intriguing region of southern Provence. I have to admit, they did not do this willingly. It took hours of argument, but eventually my incessant nagging, over a long lunch in Arles with much wine, wore them down.

Stopping only briefly to offer a lift to an Australian hitch-hiker we met by the fountain in Arles’ Place de Republique, we set off into the wild and beautiful wetlands of the Rhône delta. My winning card in the argument to divert our homeward journey through the Camargue, had been the promise that there would be picturesque French cowboys and wild white horses to photograph. I have to admit I was gambling that things had not changed much in the decade and a half since Crin Blanc captured my adolescent imagination.

I was in the front passenger seat navigating and had chosen a tiny back road through the marshes that I thought might provide some good picture opportunities. The road was rough, even by Australian standards. Although Bruce complained constantly about what this was doing to his suspension of his little Austin A40 estate wagon, he let Tony do the driving. It is probable that this may have been because Tony was the most sober of the three of us, but he too was no less strident in his complaints at the state of the road. Between the bickering, the hitch-hiker tried to earn his ride by making conversation. Despite his best efforts to be sociable he generally failed in his efforts to penetrate the acrimony being shovelled in my direction as the initiator of this expedition.

An avid photographer, Tony drove with his Nikon F in his lap. In the middle of his stream of complaint, some white horses came out from behind a sand dune. Following them was the full-on, genuine article: a gardien, a French cowboy asleep in the saddle. Très pittoresque!

“Fuck!” said Tony, grabbing his Nikon. To this day, I still don’t understand what went through his mind at the time. I know he was pretty excited by the picture possibilities. So excited that he didn’t bother to stop the car!

We weren’t travelling fast, when the car crashed into the ditch and rolled onto the driver’s side. While the passenger side wheels were still spinning, I stood up, opened my door (now the roof).  Like a tank commander, I poked my head out of the door/now hatch and began shooting. Tony quickly untangled himself from under my feet and joined me.

Without exchanging a word, we both stood in the upturned vehicle and photographed the cowboy and his horses until they were out of range. Only then did I turn to him and roar, “What the fuck were you thinking? You’re supposed to stop the fucking car before you take your fucking hands off the wheel to take fucking pictures. You fucking idiot!”

Neither the car careering into the ditch or my following tirade woke the cowboy. He rode on oblivious to the mayhem his appearance had caused. Perhaps he thought it was all a dream.

The Aussie hitch-hiker tangled up with all our baggage in the back seat was still pale with fear as we helped him and Bruce climb up out of the car and onto the road. You could see him wondering what sort of maniacs he had fetched up with and whether he was going to get out of this alive. Quickly improvising some trauma therapy we soon had him at work helping lever the car upright with the limb of a dead tree we found nearby. Bruce’s car was only superficially damaged and we went on our way. We were already laughing about it even as we approached Arles again. (This was only the first of three roadside ditches Bruce’s car was to visit on this trip…but that’s another story).

I often wonder whether that hitch-hiker, now an old man, ever relates the tale of his crazy ride through the Camargue and how he tells the story…


Filed under Australian, Autobiography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photojournalism, Rob Walls, travel

Magnum sells print collection

As Editorial Photographers UK group rather cleverly described it “Perennially broke photojournalism agency flogs family silver”; the renowned photo agency Magnum has sold off its collection of 185,000 vintage prints to an investment company. Estimates of how much was paid vary wildly, but one thing you can bet on, they were not sold at microstock prices. Story here.

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Filed under documentary photography, News, Photojournalism