Photographers, on the whole, are solitary self absorbed individuals hunting alone, keeping our own counsel and at the end of a busy and often fraught day we retire to our hotel room, order room service and collapse, or at least that was my experience when travelling the world on behalf of The Independent and The Times newspapers.
I set myself some real hard guidelines that would make my life even more difficult as a working news photographer : never to beg, borrow or steal an image. If I failed to get the picture it was me that failed. I would rather not have the picture than trade with another photographer for a ‘loan’ of a negative to cover my failure. In the trade the practice even has it’s own acronym, ‘GANS’, which stands for ‘Gis’A Neg Society’ – I presume there is a digital equivalent. Thankfully I didn’t fail too often, but when I did I learnt really fast.
Way back in 1988 I worked with the great Don McPhee of The Guardian newspaper. Don, who sadly died far too young earlier this year, was a quiet sensitive man who never made a fuss and always came back with a fine image, often from an oblique point of view. He was very influential in formulating my style. I owe Don a great deal.
Imagine, there I was, standing on a photographers riser waiting for Michael Dukakis the US presidential candidate to board ‘The Dukakis/Bentsen Victory Express’ from somewhere to nowhere out in the Californian desert. Dripping with kit, a 300mm on a monopod and more toys than your average high street camera store has around my neck and on my shoulders. I had been standing, holding my position for about 3 hours, I was hot and sweaty but had a nice central position for a good clean shot when at the last moment the Dukakis pool of photographers arrived. The largest of them at over 6ft plus a cowboy hat stood right in front of me. I remonstrated with him in my most polite middle class English, more upstairs than downstairs, presuming that TV program had reached these parts of the rural US of A. He ignored me and started to expand, stretching in every way until my view was totally obscured … and then in the strongest ‘Mancunian’ accent possible I heard a voice say, “Oi, move out of the way, that’s my friend your standing in front of and if you upset him you upset me, go on move or …” by this time the guy had packed up sticks and had gone home to mummy… I turned around to find who my saviour was and it turned out to be Don, big smile beaming ear to ear. “I don’t think we will have any more bother from him now Brian,” he said, and indeed we didn’t.
I didn’t know that Don was out in the States covering the election and certainly was not aware of him behind me on the riser, but I was certainly pleased to see him.
We spent the day travelling on the ‘Presidential Campaign Train’ through California, stopping on route for a bit of glad handing. Dukakis was good, waving and making contact with the electorate. At Fresno I followed the candidate hovering on the rim of his security detail with a wide angle lens, probably an 18mm, shooting blind from the hip. I believe Don stayed on board the train shooting out through the windows, same subject matter but very different interpretations.
The journey ended in the early evening and Dukakis came through the train thanking all the assembled press. As it was Halloween I decided to wear a white hood fashioned from the anti macassar on the back of the seat. I cut two holes for my eyes and as the potential leader of the free world passed by I appeared making Ooooooooo ! ghostley noises (can you imagine getting away with that nowadays ?)
Dukakis stopped and put his arm around me and Don made a frame, he then asked, “Hey, who is this guy?” When told I was a Brit photographer (and therefore of no use to him) he disappeared as fast as Road Runner. Oh what fun we had, Don and I were like a couple of naughty schoolboys .
That night we found a hotel and made a call into the local newspaper to ask to use their processing and wire transmission facilities the next morning. No problem.
When Don and I turned up at 6am we found the facilities unmanned, so we rolled up our sleeves and got down to discovering what bath was developer and what was fixer, and how the heck the drum transmitter worked.
Now, back in the UK all the Indy photographers did their own film processing and most of us did our own bromide printing, so I was elected ‘Dev and Print boy’ for the two of us, and as Don had experience of transmitting images from his Manchester office down to London, he was duly elected ‘Wireman’. I deved a test film to check dev strength and temperature which was assertained by putting my index finger into the juice and pronouncing confidently, “feels like about 72 degrees to me.”
The deved films were fine and we sorted out breakfast which consisted of lots of bacon, toast and coffee. We were rocking and rolling. But Don was worried about the reaction of the union controlled darkroom and wire room back in the UK where permissions were needed to do anything as radical as dev, print and wire your own pictures. I told him to keep quiet and blame me as a bad influence !
I printed four of Don’s edit and a few of mine to transmit. Don was going through my negatives on the light box when he said “Brian, you’ve got a stunner here … far too good to print and transmit, it will look terrible by the time it’s received in London.”
Don had found one of my from the hip shots of Dukakis glad handing the crowd – very powerful – of the politician in full flight pushing his hand forward almost into my lens. Don told me to wait untill I got back to the UK and to do a real nice print and use it as a generic ‘scene setter’ type image for when the paper was to do a major profile on the candidate.
So, the best picture of the day was never sent, on Don’s guidance, and he was so right, his experience in what would ‘wire’ and what wouldn’t was invaluable. Pictures with deep shadows and lots of detail were of no use. Simple clean shots were the only images which would work.
We both had decent shows in our respective papers the following day, Don’s from the train and mine an overview type shot, but the best frame had to wait a week. When the The Independent published the Dukakis image they ran it across six columns, a half page. It was subsequently picked up by World Press Photo as one of the images of the year.
Don and I worked as a team, both of us highly competitive but both recognising that in the face of adversity, team work does pay off.
Without Don’s sensitive eye assessing my shoot maybe one of my best frames ever, would never have seen the light of day.
Thank you Don.
• Don McPhee : Photojournalist whose Guardian images have entered our collective memory, and the slideshow Don McPhee 1945-2007 are on The Guardian website.
• Michael Dukakis was the Democratic Presidential candidate in the 1988 US Presidential Elections. Although at one stage he held a 17 point lead in the opinion polls over his Republican opponent George Bush senior, Dukakis lost the election with 45.6% of the popular vote against Bush’s 53.4%. Now aged 73, Dukakis teaches political science at the University of California and at the Northeastern University in Massachusetts.
• Brian Harris covered three US Presidential elections whilst chief photographer on The Independent, a job he held from 1986 to 1999. Remembered (Merrell, 2007) with text by Julie Summers and photographs by Brian Harris celebrates the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.