HTML Hit Counter

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The golden boys

By Paddy Byrne

“This is my photographer,” said the new girl on the Express to an interviewee, introducing the artist in light and shade who stood beside her.
“Yes,” said the snapper. “And these are her cameras, and this is her flash and I’ll see you back in the office, love, when you’ve done your photos.”

Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, in the 60s. Photo: Getty Images

Newspaper photographers are not as other men (most of them in the business still are men). They are not even much like reporters, although that’s probably the nearest trade profession or calling to ours that there is. Generally the two types were always great mates, despite the joshing; they called us Monkeys and we called them Blunt Nibs (or just Nibs) but we spent a lot of time in each other’s company, a lot of it just sitting around waiting for things to happen or for people to turn up. We were forced to talk to each other.
Where the Monkey name came from seems lost, now. Some say it’s because all we had to do was point a box and press a button – “and even a monkey can be trained to do that.” Others say it’s because we spent so much time perched in trees. The Nibs resented that, because we could justify claims for “grats for elevation” (for renting a step-ladder or borrowing a bedroom window) on our exes, and they couldn’t.
On the other hand, they travelled in our cars – because we had all the equipment in them – and they charged expenses as if they'd driven themselves, so it worked out about equal, I guess.
It matters not. Our day has finally come. About a quarter of a century late, but it’s come.
From now until the third week in October it’s our work that is on display at the National Portrait Gallery. They are actually celebrating “the golden age of Fleet Street” – a bit like this Blog site, in fact – and about time for that, too.
We panchromatic artists don’t claim all the credit for the gold that was mined in those days of mass circulation and of glory. There were other people writing the copy that illustrated our work, and presumably subs and layout men somewhere, fetching up well after the streets were aired, to draw the pages and make the gold fit the usually miserable amount of space that was allocated to display our craftsmanship.
The exhibition, Daily Encounters: Photographs from Fleet Street, covers the period up to the mid-80s, in other words ending around the time that people like Murdoch and Maxwell were exercising their muscle; sorting out the inkies and introducing colour, true, but screwing up everything else and firing good people, and worse, spoiling all our fun.
That was the end of The Street, geographically and spiritually.
The writing (and the snapping) was probably on the wall by then, anyway. The game had been invaded by the Paps, looking for an easy buck. Their nickname, at least, we can trace: it’s Italian dialect for a noisy irritating mosquito, the paparazzo, coined as a name for a photographer in Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita, in 1960.
Your milkman could, and would, buy a Brownie and stand outside Tramp waiting for George Best to fall out of the door. With no employer and therefore no rules and no code, they would go where the pros wouldn’t venture – hiding in the bushes with a long Tom to watch Fergie having her toes sucked clean, or photographing Princess Di in what she thought was the privacy of her gym.
Di was without doubt the end of an era, and the end of an error. Most days she, or somebody on her behalf, would ring the office and say that if a snapper was in a certain place at a certain time, he’d be able to get a picture of her, apparently snatched, even if she was officially on a “private” visit.
And the readers who rushed to buy the papers with her photo on the front would tut-tut and say, “Poor child, she’s not allowed any privacy… Oh, look! Here’s an even better picture of her.”
The straight Fleet Street economics of the situation were that a picture of Di, on the Front, would typically put the day’s circulation up by more than five per cent. And remember, we were talking in real millions of copies in those days. Diana had displaced Joan Collins as the picture editors’ favourite. She was replaced by Posh Spice. What does that tell you about our readers – fickle, or what?
Then almost inevitably the Paps – the closest of whom might have been the best part of half a mile away when her fatal crash happened – got the blame for it.
Right or wrong, the game was up. The show was over.
But thankfully we still have our memories. Without any doubt we had the best years out of the game. The exhibition recognises that, even if we didn’t, at the time. At least we have something to celebrate.