Photojournalism's art gallery
A new website at last gives Fleet Street’s photographers a showcase for their work as art. Simon Tait spoke to its founders, Fleet Street veterans Alan Sparrow and Bret Painter-Spanyol
Paul Delaroche’s quote from 1839 is probably the most famous in the history of photography. “From today” declared the French history artist after seeing his first Daguerrotype “painting is dead”.
It was to be more than 150 years, however, before photography was officially recognised and an art, with the Royal Academy admitting photographers to its number, Wolfgang Tillmans winning the Turner Prize in 2000 and Tate appointing its first photography curator in 2009.
But photo-journalism has never been given the art gallery treatment, with the finest examples of the work of the masters’ rapportage could be offered to the public – until now. A new website sets out to do exactly that – “We thought, if we could make a shopfront, news photographers could put whatever they like din it” says Alan Sparrow, former picture editor if the Guardian, now chairman of the UK Picture Editors Guild and director of the UK Picture Editors Guild Awards. “The only proviso would be that they had to have had a newspaper background, their work has to be the art of that culture that is called Fleet Street”.
…their work has to be the art of that culture that is called Fleet Street…
He has teamed up with a former colleague from the Metro, London’s free morning paper, Bret Painter-Spanyol, the former interactive graphics editor of the Daily Mail, to create the unique site, called Fleet Street’s Finest (FSF) - fleetstreetsfinest.com.
Their pictures have recorded the nation’s moments of sporting triumph, of political catastrophe, of personal tragedy, of popular hilarity, of showbiz incident, or the pages of our national newspapers.
More than representing the work of the photographers on an individual basis, though, FSF has agreed access to hundreds of thousands of images in the archives of The Guardian and the Independent, and shortly hopes to finalise an even bigger deal with Getty for the legendary Hulton Picture Library, a repository of more than 15m images.
FSF offers framed prints of the great news images of our time – it is not a photographic archive from which users can download images.
On offer some of the legendary images of our news pages: Don McPhee’s The Miner and the Copper of 1984 (main image); Denis Thorpe’s Ribblehead Viaduct of 1986; Brian Harris’s image of a passenger setting out in first class for Ascot Ladies’ day in 1987; Graham Turner’s portrait of Sir Anthony Hopkins, caught just he arrived for the shoot, soaked from a downpour and caught off-guard; Roger Bamber’s portrayal of the wreckage of Brighton’s West Pier in 2003.
Roger Bamber also inherited the archive of the photographer George Douglas, who died in his late 80s in 2011, whose subjects ranged from the serene Audrey Hepburn (1952) to the zany Spike Milligan (1956) – he was known to Fleet Street picture editors as “Speedy George” for his endless flow of picture ideas.
A picture often tells the story, says Sparrow, but more interesting from FSF’s point of view are the stories behind the pictures, and with each image comes a legend. One of the most famous sporting pictures ever is Norman Potter’s of Roger Bannister running the first sub-four minute mile in 1954. It is hard to credit that for such a momentous event there was a single photographer to capture it, an agency staffer. The wind was high that May day and Potter’s colleagues assumed there would be no run. So on his own, at the line with his plate camera, Potter had the historic picture that went around the world – anonymously at a time when there were no bylines for photographers. Later Potter took another photograph of Bannister running with other dads at his son’s school sports day – and had to get the headmaster’s permission to publish it.
“There’s a conflict between editorial purposes and framed prints” says Painter-Spanyol. “If Joe Public rings up the picture desk and says he’d like a print of the picture in yesterday’s paper, the picture editor hasn’t got time to deal with it, and the chances are the request will be ignored. Now, there’s an automatic referral to FSF who can deal with that request, and as well as famous images from the past we are selling images from this weeks’ publications.”
And FSF is also offering photographers a gallery space for their own pictures, not necessarily taken for a publication but with the ere of one of Fleet Street’s finest.
“The equipment has changed over the years, but it doesn’t matter how sophisticated your kit is” Sparrow says. “It's years of experience, and the instinct to know that a second before it arrives you’ve got your picture”.