31 Aug 2008

A career in photography - 4

It’s some time now since I posted an instalment of this story about how I got started as a professional photographer (click here to read part 3). In that post, I explained that I realised how much I needed contacts in the business if I was to gain a foothold on the first rung of the ladder. I was a 14 year old kid with ambition - but I knew no one in the business. So I set about changing all that…

The letter that dropped on the doormat was from Mr Percy Broome, FRPS (Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society). I was so keen to open it I nearly ripped the envelope in two.

After my talk with Dad some months before about the need to get to know someone involved with photography, I enrolled for night school classes. Not only would I learn more about photography that way, but night school just might bring me into contact with someone who could help me break into local newspapers. The scale of this commitment can be judged by the fact that the night school classes were held in the same school I went to during the day and that meant retracing my steps to school two evenings a week for six months.

At night school, or evening classes as they are sometimes called these days, I learned about the characteristics of different films and developers; Percy Broome, the tutor, demonstrated darkroom techniques and how to make high quality black and white prints from my negatives, he instilled in me an understanding of shutter speeds and lens apertures - and he didn’t laugh when I told him about my ambitions to become a professional photographer. A former police sergeant, gruff and plain-speaking, Percy had an artist’s eye and he encouraged me to photograph local events. He assured me that if I was good enough I would reach the top. His no-nonsense tuition was so successful that, several months before I left school, I had my first publication in a newspaper, The Manchester Evening News – a picture of a little boy and his pet at a dog show - and I received my very first publication fee – three pounds, thirteen shillings and six pence. Believe me, that was a good price in the early sixties.

Percy also knew the chief photographer on the local weekly newspaper. There was no such thing as ‘work experience’ in those days, but Percy persuaded this chap to let me spend a Saturday with one of the newspaper’s staff photographers while as he went about photographing weddings, bring-and-buy sales and coffee mornings. I got on well with the photographers I went out with, and those Saturday outings with them became a major part of my life. Somehow I managed to get through each week at school - just longing for Saturdays to come round.
I learned everything I could from every situation, I took countless photographs, learned how to handle a 5 inch x 4 inch glass plate press camera. Above all else, I learned how to persuade reluctant subjects to have their photographs taken, and how to deal with people at every level... vital requirements for any professional press photographer.
Percy’s letter read:

Dear Philip,
Present yourself at the Advertiser office at 9 o’clock sharp on Saturday 21st April. Mr. George Greenhough, the chief photographer, is expecting you.
You may be allowed to accompany a photographer on assignments and you might travel by bus – so have some money in your pocket for bus fares. Take your camera with you.

Don’t be late! Keep you mouth firmly closed and your ears and eyes wide open!
Look! Listen and Learn!
Percy Broome, FRPS

I knew I was on my way to Fleet Street.

Above is a picture of a cutting of my first publication. The negative is long lost. The cutting is now very discoloured and fragile, but it is from The Manchester Evening News in 1962!


altamiranyc said...

Very inspiring. I'm also finding that in my quest to make it in fashion, it's all about contacts.

Philip Dunn said...

Thanks for the positive comment, Craig.
Of course things have moved on a great deal since I was a kid in the sixties - but it is still vital that you gain as many contacts in the business as possible. There have always been photographers lacking in ability who have been able to survive because they have contacts in all the right places.
It's a fact of life.
By the way, I find your blog http://www.altamiranyc.blogspot.com
really uplifting - your zest for your subject shows right the way through. Keep it up.