Man in Sport

You might not have heard of British photographer Gerry Cranham, and that wouldn’t bother him one bit. As it happens, he might be the most important sports photographer to ever pick up a camera.

Colour photography? He was one of the first to master it.

The remote cameras you see behind the goal line at football matches? He introduced the technique.

A pioneer in the truest sense of the word, Gerry Cranham’s innovative methods and approach have come to define modern sports photography. 

And yet to spend time with the now retired Cranham is to discover a humble, dedicated man, committed to the craft of image making and for whom any personal accolades are simply the by-product of a job well done.

In a rare interview at his home in Surrey, Gerry talked to us about his life and career, a career spanning nearly 60 years and one which saw him travel the world to capture some of the most iconic pictures in sport.

Gerry Cranham didn’t take his first picture until he was 28. Born in 1929, Cranham worked as an apprentice in the aircraft industry during the war, and joined up himself soon after when a recession kicked in and jobs were scarce. He would spend the next five years working as a draughtsman, creating finely worked engineering drawings. “When I was boy I wanted to go to art school, but my parents couldn’t afford it. But I was always interested, and I used to go to the art school at Reading University in the evenings when I was an apprentice, and I picked up things there.”

Cranham was an accomplished amateur sportsman, representing the South of England in Middle Distance running. His career was cut short by injury however, but it was this injury that would see him pick up a camera for the first time. “I was a member of the Herne Hill Harriers running club in South London, and when I couldn’t train with the injury a few of the promising young lads asked me to help them with their training.” Cranham hit upon the idea of using a camera as a coaching aid, to show his young club mates their stride and how they could improve. “The camera would show how bad they ran, well some of them anyway!”

He bought his first camera, a Periflex for £40 (“a lot of money back then”) and started selling the pictures to runners in the local club scene. “Gradually it grew and grew, and soon I was selling a few of them to the local papers. It wasn’t long before I started to meet sports writers at the athletics meetings where I was taking pictures, and I began selling to the National publications.”

It was at one of these meetings that Cranham would meet John Rodder, at the time Sports Editor of the South London Press but who would go on to become the Athletics correspondent at The Guardian. “He was a big influence on me, introducing journalists and showing me the ropes. He would help me sneak pictures in to the papers, and soon I was earning more from pictures than I was as a draughtsman.”

Cranham left the army to pursue photography. “Initially I didn’t do any sports besides athletics, because I knew everybody and all the angles.”

Did being a sportsman himself help with his photography? “Oh yes. You’ve got to be knowledgeable. So many photographers would photograph at the wrong moment. Knowing the sport and knowing when to shoot was a huge advantage.”

A chance meeting with a man who worked at Disney would change the course of Cranham’s career however. “I met this chap who advised me to concentrate on colour, he told me that it was the future, and to forget about black and white.”

Alf Ramsay sits motionless on the bench as all around him celebrate at the final whistle of the 1966 World Cup. Gerry Cranham/Offside Sport 

It was this focus on colour that led Cranham to start taking pictures of horse racing. “There was a German photographer in motor racing at the time, travelling all over the world taking colour pictures, and so I thought to myself that I needed a subject like that, with lots of colour in it. No one was really doing action shots in colour at this point, because it was hard and the film was very slow.”

Cranham’s reputation as an innovator quickly grew, as he found new angles and new methods to bring the multitude of sports he was now covering to life. “At all the events, as a photographer you were very limited in where you could stand, it was either right by the goal at football grounds, or at the race courses it was just one little area. So I would experiment by standing in different places, shooting across the pitch at the football grounds or on the other side of the race courses. I also did a lot of trial-and error, testing the zoom effects to try and create abstract pictures. You see a lot if that type of thing now, but I was really the first to do it.”

In his early days, this creative approach was often by necessity not design. “When I started I could never get any press passes, so I had to buy tickets and shoot from the stands! I remember I took this one picture, which was of two photographers taking a picture of Jimmy Greaves scoring for Spurs at White Hart Lane. I think it was one of the first by-lined pictures ever in The Daily Mail.”

It was in the early 1960s that Cranham would introduce the pioneering long lead cable remote technique, placing a camera under the jumps at Cheltenham race course. “I had to do it discreetly, hide the camera and then collect it later. The Jockey Club was very powerful back then, they would have kicked me off the course if they saw me!”  The technique would go on to become a mainstay of sports photography across the world, and it remains a vital tool in any sports photographer’s arsenal today.

Gerry Cranham/Offside Sport

Cranham recalls an encounter many years later at Ascot racecourse: “I walked past this lad setting up his camera under one of the jumps, and he looked up at me and said “you wouldn’t know anything about this old man.” I thought to myself, oh yes little boy.”

By now Cranham was working for the fabled American magazine Sports Illustrated in their London office, and in 1963 he went to White City to photograph the sparring session of a young American boxer by the name of Cassius Clay, in London for a fight with English heavyweight Henry Cooper. “I did the picture of him with the hands up, which is quite famous, and I immediately realised how special he was. All the things he was saying were unbelievable – it was exciting just to be there to watch him, never mind photographing it! He oozed personality, always.”

A year later, Cranham was dispatched to Ghana by Sports Illustrated on a hastily arranged trip to get pictures of Ali (who had by now changed his name and converted to Islam) as he embarked on a tour of the continent to discover and explore his African roots.

“The London office was closer to Africa, so they rang up and said pack your bags, you are off to Ghana. No visas, nothing, just all these dollar cheques to pay our way. It was unbelievable out there. We got there before he arrived and I think we only saw one other white person. We had about a week with him. He was marvellous. People were constantly trying to get close to him, and the Priests would try to keep everyone back. I remember on one day, we were under some palm trees and he joined in as people were climbing the trees and trying to get the coconuts down. Whatever he did he was flamboyant. Anything you asked him to do he would, which you wouldn’t get now. On the last night he was lying on the bed with his brother, and he sent for us, and he said “now you boys, have you got enough pictures that you need?” That was what he was like. In all my career of 50, 60 years of photographing top sports personalities, there was nobody ever quite like him.”

Cassius Clay. Gerry Cranham/Offside Sport

Cranham’s first taste of cycling would come on an assignment for The Observer, photographing the legendary Ghent Sixes track event in Belgium. “The pictures appeared on the front and back of the paper. It was fascinating, six days and nights and I think I stayed up for most of it! The riders slept by the track, there were religious services; I had never seen anything like it. It was like a circus in the evening. A band would play, people were knocking back the beer and chips; the noise, the music and the smell of chips was unbelievable. When they went round the bends with the Derny bikes, the noise was like nothing you can imagine. So I became more interested, because it made a great visual, and not many were photographing it. I liked cyclo-cross especially, that was marvellous with all the mud, it made great pictures.”

An assignment to photograph the Good Friday track meeting at Herne Hill Velodrome in South London led Cranham to shoot a rare and not widely seen series of pictures of legendary British cyclist Tommy Simpson. “They used to get all the top riders at Herne Hill in those days, and Tommy Simpson was a nice man. I remember doing a picture with the zoom effect on the bend, and it was like butterflies going round the track. I don’t know what happened to those pictures.”

Simpson was a superstar of cycling at the time, winning The Tour of Flanders, Milan San Remo and wearing the yellow jersey at the Tour de France in the early 1960s, and going on to win the UCI World Race Championship in 1965. His life would be tragically cut short however during the 1967 Tour de France, where he collapsed and died of exhaustion during Stage 13 on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, aged 29.

Tom Simpson. Gerry Cranham/Offside Sport

In 1970 Gerry Cranham was invited to exhibit his work at the V&A in London, only the second photographer to be asked to submit a full solo exhibition after the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson. “The chap kept ringing me up and I put it off as I thought they were joking! People always said to me “you should have exhibitions”, but I was never interested in the ego of it. All the exhibitions I had were when I was invited. Some people have exhibitions every five minutes, it’s all about ego. It was only a living, and I enjoyed doing it.”

Even when at the height of his career, Cranham never stopped pushing himself to learn more and fine tune his craft. “I used to take the dogs out walking near home to practice different techniques. People find it hard to believe I used to work so hard on honing my skills. All these sports were at different speed, and it was important to practice. I was blessed with quick reactions though, that was an advantage.”

Did he have a favourite picture that he had taken? “The picture of the goalkeeper jumping, because I was about to give up! I had been out at JFK’s funeral, and had shot lots of great stuff, but my paper used none of it. I was very down, and doubted myself. But soon after I got back, it was November time, I did this photograph of the Tottenham goalkeeper at White Hart Lane, and it was well published, and it made me persevere. In many ways it saved my career!”

Gerry Cranham/Offside Sport

We finished our chat by asking Gerry what advice he would have for his younger self, starting out with his first camera.

“Really understand what photography is. I don’t think many understand what a camera does, it’s more than pushing buttons. It took years to really start to know what I was doing. Really learn about light, understand it. When I became more successful people would ask how I did things, but you have to learn the craft. It takes time.”

Gerry Cranham portrait, 2016. Rupert Hartley.

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