In our latest interview, former professional sports photographer Tony Edenden shares his thoughts on his current personal work taken on the streets, at seaside resorts and sporting events.
Capturing ‘decisive moments’ from rapidly changing and chaotic scenes requires skills in anticipation, composition and technical mastery. On the evidence presented below, Tony Edenden’s background in sports photography has given him a unique training.
However, while it’s immediately obvious Tony Edenden’s work is characterised by tremendous skill, it is the emotional warmth of his pictures that makes them so satisfying. The people we see in these images are not mere ‘subjects’ acting as compositional elements. They are you and me: real people with individual identities experiencing the absurd, comic and often surreal moments that make up our everyday lives.
It is their generosity and humanity that makes Tony Edenden’s photographs special.
f50: I understand you got into photography at age 14. What attracted you and why sports photography in particular?
TE: Yes first camera at around 14, my friend – who later became my brother-in-law – got me interested. I didn’t turn professional until I was 28. Like many young people I participated in sport; enjoyed variety. I had good eyesight combined with good hand to eye co-ordination.
As a pro, I had been freelancing part-time shooting sport. Shooting football at QPR, Southampton and Bournemouth. I started to get some images from QPR used in the national papers (stock pictures, not news).
Remember this was before digital and auto-focus, so I seemed to have a knack of getting a fair percentage of sharp pictures. Things get critical shooting with, say, a 600mm F4 wide open in less than perfect light!
I knew of a photographer called George Herringshaw, who shot sports stock for a living. He was looking to expand and offered me a job. We sold our house in Dorset and bought another in Leicestershire. I stayed with him until 1982 then went on my own (darkroom and office at home).
I ended up specialising in horse racing. My marriage was in trouble by1995 meaning I couldn’t work from home. I joined a small agency in Scarbourough run by a guy I knew. Stayed there until 1998, until I walked out one day.
The industry was changing big time. Large agencies appeared and tied up a lot of deals with papers. It was obvious that life would never be the same again so I walked away. That’s when I started to shoot personal stuff for fun.
f50: Your personal work is very different from that of a professional sports photographer. In what ways has your professional experience influenced the way you photograph now?
TE: With sport I was primarily shooting sports stock for syndication to newspapers and specialist magazines. But photography has many faces.
Before I chose sports photography as a possible job I came across some of Tony Ray-Jones pictures around 1967 or 1968. I already knew of Don McCullin and Cartier-Bresson and later became aware of Burk Uzzle, Elliott Erwitt, Ian Berry, Homer Sykes, Chris Killip, Gary Winograd and many, many, more. But the handful I have named are the main influences on my personal work.
I guess sports photography has helped to make me a smoother operator and to appreciate the luxury of using one small camera with the odd lens in my pocket. It also probably cured me of being a gear-head. I previously used three or four motor driven SLRs – plus a rangefinder – with lenses from 20mm to 600mm plus converters and all manner of accessories which helped no end!
f50: In the introduction to your book Passer-by, you state that your personal pictures have always given you more satisfaction than the sports images you produced professionally. What is it about the personal work that excites you?
TE: I didn’t shoot much personal stuff while shooting sport, occasionally a sports related picture would become a personal picture later.
My personal pictures offer a different type of satisfaction. No photographers taking the same pictures as me is great! It’s not my living anymore, so I please myself – a purely selfish indulgence – with no deadline. If you miss a picture, no worries.
We are surrounded by picture opportunities at every step, most we probably don’t even see, but when you do and you nail it: Wow!
Another bonus for me is that it can be a solitary existence and I like that.
f50: Many of your pictures are candid but taken at very close quarters. How do you pull that off so regularly (i.e. what is your typical working practice)?
TE: Familiarity with my equipment. I’ve been using Leica rangefinders since 1982 (film then digital). Confidence too, remember you’re doing nothing wrong photographing people in a public place. I always use the viewfinder. Sometimes this means using a bit of deception, like pointing to one side of your chosen area, but moving back as you take a picture. Waiting in one area for a considerable time becoming part of the scene. Pre-focusing using depth of field. Camera strap around the wrist, fast up and down. Re-tying a shoe lace to change the angle can work.
Talking to your wife or partner pretending not to notice whats going on around you. My partner knows exactly whats going on when I start to talk rubbish!
f50: Could you tell us what elements you consider make for a successful Tony Edenden photograph?
TE: There is no Tony Edenden photograph! I take pictures of people’s reaction to one another and the situations they find themselves in. If you can see some emotion, humour, quirkiness it may just work!
f50: The abiding fascination with social class, running through the work of many English photographers, is apparent in your work too. What is it about social class that attracts you?
TE: Well, when I started horse racing it hit me. National hunt crowds are not the same as flat racing. I shoot a fair amount at the seaside. Different areas of our coastline draw different types of people. Then there’s Henley Royal Regatta. Totally different people than, say, the South Coast Rowing Championships. I guess I’m drawn to the inequality and eccentricities of the class system. Gently poking fun, visually, maintains my attention!
f50: How important is story telling to your photography?
TE: Very important, but I find it difficult. I’m putting together some black and white pictures for a possible seaside book. I’m not there yet, occasionally I wonder if it’ll ever cross the finishing line!
f50: What advice would you give to a young photographer seeking to improve the quality of their work?
TE: Man that’s tough. The digital age has so changed photography. There are so many images available to us all. There are however some excellent bodies of work. Also, it must be said some excellent collections of bullshit.
Good photographs are a visual feast, keep returning to them time after time you won’t tire of them. They don’t require long complicated descriptions.
Try not to be obsessed with equipment. Find something that you feel confident with. Many of the pictures Cartier-Bresson took were taken with a Leica. But his composition and anticipation of a picture was so good that if he had taken them with the equivalent of the 20 quid Zorki 4 I owned 50 years ago he’d still be as famous as he is today.
The eye is king, the camera a mere foot soldier. (That’s sure to upset somebody).
Many thanks to Tony for his cooperation in putting this piece together.
You can see more of Tony’s colour and bw work here:
And follow him on twitter at: