This image is perhaps my most famous. Yes, truly. But, I may need to qualify this and perhaps explain the “most famous” part. As far as I can recall, this image has never been published, publicly shown or even printed for that matter – this in a commercial sense.
So, how does this picture qualify and who am I trying to kid?
Simple. This one picture qualifies me as a photographer. Its pivotal – personally speaking. This image is that narrow neck in an hour glass. In the upper part of the hour glass and, in many ways, I was just another happy go lucky, happy snapper. Well, in a manner of speaking. After taking this image, and now referring to the lower part of that hour glass, I kind of got that feeling that I had somehow, sort of made it. That feeling that I now knew what I was going to do with my life and what I wanted to be. For want of better metaphor, this was the defining moment in my intended career. Put simply, I knew I had arrived.
I took this image in 1981 while mooching around Turffontein Racecourse. Good tramping grounds to do some social documentary photography, well – street photography in the modern parlance. But, the story begins some time before this. At this point, I had been making a living out of photography for some 5 years before making this image.
How did we arrive at this point? At around this time, I was working as an in-house photographer for a large public relations company that had several offices around the county. I was one of a team of about 8 photographers. In this team, I was one of the juniors. Most of the senior photographers had learnt their craft and gained their working experience while working for the daily newspapers of the day. This was the way it was done in those days. At the time, there were no colleges offering pure photography courses, no degrees, diplomas and whatever. You started off in the darkroom and worked your way up from there.
During this period, and to me, one of the country’s photographic greats joined the company – a gentleman by the name of Mike McCann. Mike was a gentleman as well as great photographer. And no, Google can’t help you here – you won’t find much on this man McCann (Dave Barrit, where are you?).
Just before joining the company, Mike McCann was a staff photographer on the Rand Daily Mail in that newspaper’s hey day. Mike McCann was also one of the few photographers in the world to score front covers on both Newsweek and Time in the same week. This was for his picture of General António de Spínola who Mike had photographed in Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) some time before the Portuguese “Carnation Revolution” in April 25, 1974. It should be noted here that when the news of the coups d’état broke, images of Spínola were so rare that Time had to make do with an artist’s rendition of Mike’s image – the one used on the cover of Newsweek.
Mike was a Leica man through and through – using M as well as R series cameras. Through conversations both in the office and on the road – we were both avid cyclists – I got switched on to Leica’s. In a sense, Mike taught me just about everything I know about Leica’s and a lot about the “art” of photography – “art” as explored in that great book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig.
While the question may beg, “What is there to learn”? Well, there’s quite a lot. Here we’re talking about cocking, setting up, focusing and shooting a Leica single-handed – specifically an M series camera.
Through Mike, I learned to set the shutter speed blind (without looking at the dial) and this by knowing the feel and sound of the settings, the spot for the flash sync and the sounds of the shutter. Setting the aperture blind without looking at the ring – as in knowing how many clicks left or right for a particular f stop. And the main one, pre-focusing the lens – specifically a 50 millimetre lens. Vertical – 10 feet to have someone fill the frame head to toe. Horizontal – 15 feet for someone to fill the frame and, doing all this without looking at the lens while using and knowing the position of the lens’s focus lock, especially on the older chrome lenses.
Things like loading the camera blind went without saying – often much easier with the M-3’s film spool than say the later Leica’s. With the later Leica’s you had to fold the end of the film tab in just the right place and hoped it would take up after you had inserted the film cartridge into the camera. To check; fire off two shots in quick succession and the turn the rewind knob or handle (depending on which model M camera you were using) to tighten the film and to ensure it was correctly inserted and, you were then good to go.
Mike had some other tricks up his sleeve, such a hanging his Leica M series camera around his neck and using a bulb shutter release that he used to run through the sleeve of his jacket. He always seemed to wear a tweed coat. The other trick was to fiddle with a bunch of keys, this to distract the subject and, to cover up the sound of the shutter. Needless to say, “door stopping” was a stock-in-trade thing of the day on newspapers at the time.
In between, we would have conversations about shooting techniques such as shooting with both eyes open while using a Leica M series camera. The other thing that sold me on Leica’s was the quality of the images and the resolution of the lenses. Compared to Japanese glass at the time, it was that proverbial “chalk and cheese” thing.
Coming back to the image at the top of the page. After acquiring my first Leica, a Leica M-3, and two lenses – a 50 and 35 millimetre lens – the need arose to set out to make good with what I had learned. The local race course seemed like an easy place to go and make good. After several race meetings, I got into the swing of things, this in applying all the lessons I had learned – as in pre-focusing my lenses, gauging distances, judging the light, adjusting the settings blind and shooting from the waist single handed. Hence this image and, my coming of age.
While I cannot recall with any accuracy at the moment, I think this shot was taken using a 35 millimetre lens. The rest of the details are academic.
On a final note, other than working for the same company, Mike and I were avid cyclists as was photographer David Goldblatt, a fellow rider in our early morning training group. It would be safe to say that Mike taught me as much about cycling as he did about Leica’s. Our regular training regime was quite strenuous, as in cycling about 20 to 25 kilometers a day – the usual course being an out and back to Fourways starting in Parktown, hitting the Bryanston hills and then, back to town. When time permitted and this was usually on a Saturday morning, we would attack Protea Ridge (as I think it’s called) at the back of Krugersdorp and this as we came in from the Muldersdrift side and then, once done, hitting Ontdekkers Road before the onset of the early morning rush hour traffic. That was our life at the time.
Some years later Mike succumbed to Haemochromatosis. He now lies buried in the Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe.
There we are, enjoy…
THE LOST YEARS PROJECT
The basic remit of this, The Lost Years Project, is to raise funds to bring the image featured here and other related photography done between 1976 to around 1994 together, to digitise the negatives from which this image and otthers are derived and then, to create various products such as prints, print portfolios and books featuring this photography. There is a wealth of photography here that should find its way into the public realm – one way or the other. The PDF eBooks I have on offer here are but a small token of this effort. There’s a lot more from where all this came.
TECHNICAL NOTES: The camera used in the making of this image was a Leica M3 and a LEICA 35mm f/1.4 SUMMILUX lens. The film used was likely to have been Ilford HP5 and developed in Ilford’s Ilfotec HC, a black and white film developer.
This article was originally written and published on March 1, 2016 on a predecessor to this website and uploaded here on 12 June, 2018.