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Sports Photographer Spotlight – Gerry Cranham
British photographer Gerry Cranham is best known for his horse racing images. But his career in photography has covered a remarkable range of subjects. Do a search for Cranham’s name, add Winston Churchill’s as well, and you’ll soon discover a remarkable image that Cranham captured from the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1965, the year Churchill died.
Based on his reputation for innovative fisheye lens coverage of sporting events in the five years before Churchill’s death, Cranham was given the assignment to photograph the interior of St. Paul’s from above, as three thousand attendees at Winston Churchill’s funeral congregated below. The resulting image, taken with an 8mm Fisheye Nikkor to produce a haunting panorama of blue of the spectacle below, captures the full majesty of the event.
Cranham broke out of his usual routine on this chilly morning and clamped down on his cameras to keep the mourners below him safe. Normally, to photograph an event at the time, he carried four Nikon F cameras, each equipped with a different lens. For horse racing, these can be 24mm, 50mm, 85mm and 180mm lenses. His film of choice was Kodachrome 64, and later Kodachrome 25 (now discontinued).
Interestingly, Cranham was a torchbearer for the 1948 Olympics. Before photography caught up with him and consumed his life, he ran middle-distance events and even won a few half-mile championships. before a foot injury put him out of competition in 1953. After he started coaching, he picked up his first camera to show his riders where they were lacking in technique. In less than two years, photography had taken over his life and there was no turning back.
But it was not until 1960 that he experienced his first big break with the publication of one of his photos in the newspaper L’Observateur. Through his experience, he learned to appreciate that selective focus in sports photography frees the subject from its background and focuses the action in the plane of focus to produce captivating images. Such images, captured with high-powered telephoto lenses, are common today.
But Cranham’s techniques for capturing sports images were innovative in the sixties. He was the first photographer to zoom his lens *when* shooting at slow shutter speeds to produce images that seemed to blast the action towards the viewer. This effect worked particularly well in his head-on shots of horses running directly in front of the camera. As the eye peers out from the center of the image, the horses and riders seem to emerge from the photo itself.
By panning with the action as it moved sideways towards him and using slow shutter speeds, Cranham created impressionistic images that conveyed movement much more effectively than the still-moment images of photography at high shutter speed. He was also the first British photographer to effectively use distance shooting in horse jumping events, burying his cameras fitted with fisheye lenses just below the jumps and using long cables to record images that could not not be captured otherwise.
Cranham said he saw incredible things are possible with sports photography, but he never forgot the human element as he pursued perfection in his photos. He was always on the lookout for the defining moment of the sporting event, whether it was the split second of suspension as a high jumper reached the top of his arc, suspended above the bar before stumbling. crushing on the padding below, or the moment of impact as a long jumper sank into the sandbox. Capturing the athlete’s facial expression at those defining moments is one of the surest ways to get your work published, and Cranham has done it time and time again.
But none of this is easy. Like all other professionals who earn their way around the world, Cranham has spent hours researching before every event and has come prepared for every opportunity. He practiced with his cameras to the point where consciousness starts to fade and instinct takes over, so that when it comes time to capture the unexpected event, it’s as if the camera itself captures the fleeting moment and took over.
And then the rest becomes photographic history.
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