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Review: Aperture – Life Through a Fleet Street Lens by John Downing

16 Jul 2022 6 minute read
Aperture – Life through a Fleet Street Lens is published by Seren Books

Jon Gower

John Downing’s commitment to the people he photographed shines through in this rollicking memoir full of cracking stories from Fleet Street in the glory days.

The seven times winner of the British Press Photographer award braved war zones in Sudan, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Nicaragua, gathering images despite his being in personal danger but he also used some of them to raise awareness of plight and problem on his return.

One of them, an image of Rwandan orphans lying in the sun, raised  £170,000 in a single day, while a series of photographs of the Children of Chernobyl was used by a Daily Express campaign which raised almost half a million pounds.

Not that fund-raising was the point: he was first and foremost a photographer: the image was always the grail.

Some of those images are nothing short of iconic, such as Margaret Thatcher and husband Denis being driven away from the Grand Hotel in Brighton minutes after an IRA bomb went off in the lobby.

For this one he knew he only had one chance to capture the inside of speeding car, so he ‘stepped out, thrust the camera forward arm’s length and released the shutter,’ capturing both the moment and the detail, such as Dennis being in his pyjamas while Thatcher is wearing pearls, her eyes staring fixedly forward despite the flash.

It was also a life of some glamour, taking photographs of the Beatles at the launch of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band at Brian Epstein’s house in Belgravia or, in Paris, snapping Sophia Loren who ‘was gorgeous and asked me why I was breathing so heavily.’

And to go with that there were the legendary expenses of the period, such as the cost of a camel claimed by a foreign correspondent during an assignment in the Middle East.

When challenged about the whereabouts of the animal, he replied without a moment’s hesitation ‘Thanks for reminding me. The poor thing died and I forgot to put in a claim for its disposal.’

A real tearaway

There are plenty more such stories as Downing’s early career with the Daily Express was a period when the newspaper sold three million copies a day and employed no fewer than sixty-four staff photographers and fourteen freelancers, all working with chemicals in darkrooms to develop the negatives.

All this was a very long way from Downing’s childhood in Llanelli which was extremely happy even though he was a real tearaway, cadging ‘lifts’ on passing lorries, locking his grandfather in the shed, or pretending to cheer on Scotland when everyone was listening to them take on Wales in the rugby.

He showed no real aptitude for school but acquiring his first camera was a real epiphany and a signpost for the direction of his later life.

Some of the writing in this memoir has the heart-pumping qualities of a thriller, not least a breathless, racing account of being strafed by Russian helicopters in the barren landscape of Afghanistan as he races back to retrieve the cameras he has left behind.

“I was running on empty, exhausted, breathless and only faintly aware of the sound of distant shooting because the noise that filled my head and vibrated angrily in my chest was that of the rotor blades as the throbbing machines closed in fast.

“Sensing that I was about to die, I half-dived, half-collapsed into a small hollow in the lee of a pathetically small tree, and lay there terrified and disorientated.

“Even fear could no longer drive me on. I briefly closed my eyes, too afraid to look or lift my camera in case a reflection on the lens gave me away.”

John Downing was an eye-witness to many significant moment in world history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the genesis of modern Bangladesh.

He also went to places where significant events were largely ignored or unnoticed, such as travelling with militiamen in southern Sudan when the attention of the world’s media was largely trained elsewhere.

And he tells us about all of this in a breezy series of stories, usually with stiff drinks or fine clarets punctuating the tale at some juncture.

He joins the peregrinating band of the modern press corps, sometimes hanging on to the coat-tails of the better provisioned and resourced TV crews, sometimes working together although also competing for the scoop.

He also witnessed the advent of the paparazzi with their flagrant disregard for ethics and personal privacy, seeing the danger of himself being taken for one of their cavalier number.

A life well spent

Aperture was written with the help of Downing’s fellow journalist Wendy Holden when he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, which he suggests ‘gave him a unique chance to reflect on your life and look at it almost from afar.’

He recalls his father’s advice to always focus on the quality as that would always stand out and considers that with a few of his pictures, at least, he has achieved just that.

He thinks ‘Not bad for a boy who was branded as: “thoroughly idle; the only thing in which he is thorough” as a schoolboy, or for someone described as having the face of a truck driver, soul of a poet’ which Downing thinks might make a decent epitaph.

That’s as maybe, but this spirited account of a life well spent might well be another, even if the work of a photographer made personal relationships difficult and some of the things he saw in war zones and disaster proved impossible to forget.

But as someone one said ‘When you take a photo in colour you see the colour of people’s clothes but when you take a photo in black and white, you can see the colour of their souls.’

Which last phrase might have been an alternative title for this honest, probing account of a cram-packed life which spanned anything from leisurely Sundays in Surrey pubs to a spell behind bars in Idi Amin’s Uganda, from running the snipers’ gauntlet in Sarajevo to finding happiness late in life with his musician wife Anita.

In this vivid memoir it’s all there in black and white, as is true for his abiding, powerful and illuminating images, the work of a photographer blessed with curiosity and courage who worked in what is now very much a bygone but nonetheless enthralling newspaper age.

Aperture: Life Through a Fleet Street Lens by John Downing is published by Seren. It is available through all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.

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