Aperture, Life Through a Fleet Street Lens by John Downing MBE

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It seems so odd to be reading Aperture, Life Through A Fleet Street Lens, by one of The BPPA’s founders and its chair, John Downing, without a drink being shoved into my hand, albeit cranberry juice, without a crumbled blunt in an scruffy suit chipping in unwelcome corrections, without the occasional well-wisher, old friend, colleague resting a hand lazily on John’s shoulder as he passes smiling cheerfully in my direction with a large theatrical wink as if to say, “it’s all made up this, son, don’t believe a word”.

Except of course it isn’t made up. Nor my vivid memories streaming back of hearing these stories from John, known universally as JD when I first started shifting in Fleet Street. I see him now sporting a thin leather tie over a poorly ironed shirt, perched on a stool by the bar at the City Golf Club off Fleet Street, that was neither part of ‘The City’, nor anything to do with golf. But unusually amongst the legendary staff news photographers I came across early in my career, JD would take the time to talk to someone like me, yet another ambitious news photographer dreaming of following in his footsteps. 

The City Golf Club of course, now long gone, was named to get around the laws on ‘closing time’. Fleet Street had many pubs, but badly needed a watering hole that could stay open well into the small hours. Instead of being subject to licensing laws, it was exempt as a ‘sporting club’. An idea I found JD had borrowed as a description for our Association when he asked me to become Treasurer. New to the role I had been called to meet with the Inland Revenue keen to understand whether we had taxable income. We didn’t. And cheerfully our Chair quipped to his nervous Treasurer when I asked what exact sport did we represent?  “Sport: How better could our wonderful job be described?”

Indeed for JD I’d say press photography was often a sport, a competition to get to the nastiest places on the planet and not only survive, not only manage to take pictures, but return to the office with rolls of film for the darkroom. This was at a time before Nikon neg transmitters, satellite phones, and long before digital cameras that file images from the camera to the desk ‘in real time’. It was an incredible audacious skill that JD escaped from many of his assignments not only with his life, but with delicate exposed film from places as murderous as a jail in the seventies Uganda ruled by insane dictator Idi Amin.

If you never had the privilege to meet John Downing MBE, winner of British Press Photographer of the Year seven times, hear his stories, you’ll be amazed at this wonderfully evocative read of a world now gone, the ‘Black Lubyanka’ the gleaming ‘Art Deco’ Daily Express offices in Fleet Street. There, slung above the smartest entrance which suggested you were entering a grand hotel, lay slung low ceilinged filthy noisy offices of at one time, the finest picture led newspaper in the world. Newsrooms where hard metal upright typewriters crashed out copy on near transparent thin sheets of paper, the office where you always ‘had to get back to’, that darkroom who ‘could dig you out the shit’, and budgets that were, well, irrelevant. 

John died two years ago after a battle with terminal cancer, sorely missed by so many. In his last years he would often refer to ‘when I’m gone’ and casually bat away any of us that saying we were sure he’d beat the odds. Those odds he knew he could not beat but he carried that astonishingly stoic attitude to fate and chance that had served him so well in his long career.

Reading Aperture, Life Through A Fleet Street Lens makes me fondly recall that JD had a story for every occasion. Years later when he’d left the Express and although semi-retired was still keeping his hand in doing shifts on The Sunday Telegraph, I called asking if he would be a judge for our Press Photographers’ Year (PPY) competition. He’d been keeping a very much hands off approach to the newly reborn British Press Photographers Association. He had said to me that he knew only one or two of the people now running the show, wished us all well, and felt the new generation should be left to it.  Then he asked: “But how did you get not only a competition, an exhibition, but also a book off the ground?”  I told him that we’ve had some but not enough money from Canon, and that I’d managed to get the rest in sponsorship from Diageo, who owned amongst other brands, Johnnie Walker.  “Have I told you about the fake Pernod I brewed and the bottle of Black Label I got with it when I was in Afghanistan?”, he asked.  

And if you haven’t heard that story, I suggest you read the book.

Aperture, Life Through a Fleet Street Lens by John Downing MBE published by Seren Books £19.99


Tim Bishop

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thebppaAperture, Life Through a Fleet Street Lens by John Downing MBE

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