GERRY CRANHAM IS PROBABLY THE GREATEST SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHER OF ALL TIME
Words: Josh Millar
Interview: Seb White
Images: Offside Sports Photography
Gerry Cranham turns 90 today. He’s seen as one of the greatest sports photographers in living memory. So we rang up Mark Leech, who worked alongside Gerry on and off from the 1970s onwards, to find out what makes Gerry so special and also spoke to the man himself in Issue 1 of MUNDIAL Magazine.
MARK LEECH ON CRANHAM
“I first came across Gerry when he had been to Longchamp to photograph a horse that was fancied for the Derby. He wondered where all the crowds were going and virtually followed them to the Parc des Princes where he blagged his way into the European Cup Final. He sat behind the net near me as the violence flared and the police ordered us all to move. I couldn’t leave that spot because if Cranham got the goal picture, my excuses to my boss would be invalid!
“He would never use the cliché of him being a "fly on the wall" because he wasn't like that. But in all of his years as a photographer, he never had a picture of himself with his subjects. He never had any signed memorabilia, and never asked for anything from the people he was photographing. That's what enabled him to get into the dressing room with people like Jimmy Greaves and Muhammad Ali. He never got in their way; he always understood what was needed from him.
“Gerry’s work was on another planet from mine as a youngster, and although my work was being used in national newspapers and football magazines, mainly in black and white, he was producing amazing colour images, and I didn’t really know how. You’d have thought he was a specialist in whichever sport he covered, be it ice skating or boxing.”
CRANHAM ON CRANHAM
“I had to give up athletics because I injured my foot, so I became a coach and bought a camera to take pictures of the guys I was training, and it all started from there. It was trial and error as I wasn’t trained as a photographer. I just made a dark room in the coal cellar, it was so primitive, but I just picked it up…
“They were very restrictive on allowing people in, so I’d just buy a ticket and start shooting from some obscure spots, and luckily my stuff started to stand out. I’d always try and do something that was different, that was daring. There wasn’t the opposition or competition then if somebody was very different, it stood out. I was also very persistent because I had a wife and five children and there was a lot of income to be earned—I couldn’t afford failure!
“I went over to the Sports Illustrated office in America, and while I was there, Kennedy was shot, and being the only English photographer out there I eventually ended up in the White House when LBJ was declared President!
“A few days later I was at the Boston Celtics basketball match, and a colleague said do you want to have one of these new remotes which only the Americans were using. I picked it up on the hoof, and when I got back, I used it at the Tottenham v Chelsea match, and that image has been immortalised.
“At a football match, I’d always make sure I’d do the crowds inside and outside; I was always trying to be different.
“We didn’t have the speed of the digital cameras like these days; you really had to make it work. I would always plan what I was going to do; I had to, remember this was before auto-focus.
“I was inspired by the time life way of doing things, creating picture essays in colour. I was one of the first to shoot a lot in colour over here, and it helped me get ahead.”
“I once did a feature on Tottenham, and I got to go anywhere, Bill Nicholson was a great man, good with his men and was very well liked. They were a family as much as a football team. I’d even be in the dressing room when they were getting told off. I never abused it and pushed my luck; I just kept in the background. I was so naive I never realised the significance of it all.
“Stein was like Nicholson, I got quite friendly with him, and he seemed to like me and gave me access to the dressing room and everything.
“I managed to get into one FA Cup final by tying a white handkerchief around my arm and saying I was press, and one of the other photographers even tried to get me chucked out.
“It was the World Cup final; I ended up shooting about 28 rolls! When the game was getting to the critical stage, again looking for something different, I went and photographed the benches, and at that moment the last goal was scored. I got a bollocking from the editor for missing the last goal, but the one I shot ended up being a very famous picture, it certainly helped me in the long run career-wise.
“I was with the Sunday Times to do a piece on horse racing, and after we’d done it, Scott, the journalist I was with just said ‘let’s go and watch the European Cup Final’, and we bluffed our way in, behind the goal.
“When the Leeds goal was disallowed, there was a riot going on behind me, and a German photographer had been hit by something, and his eye was hanging out, but I didn’t move far from my spot!
“In my day everything was done a lot more thoroughly, there was a lot more time. I used to have to lug all this gear around; I worked with four cameras and a big bag of lenses. Now my back is really bad—I've had two lots of major surgery, and I can hardly walk! But I was very lucky, I met the right people, and I made a point of listening to them and took note of what they said.
“It’s very pleasing to see my pictures still around and that they haven’t gone forever.”Did you like that? You should probably subscribe to our quarterly magazine, then. You won't regret it.