British photographer Gerry Cranham is best known for his horse racing images. But his career in photography has covered a remarkable range of subject material. Perform a search on Cranham’s name, throw Winston Churchill’s into the mix as well, and you will soon discover a remarkable image that Cranham captured from the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1965, the year of Churchill’s death.
Based on his reputation for innovative fisheye lens coverage of sporting events in the five years before Churchill’s death, Cranham received the assignment of photographing the interior of St. Paul from above, as three thousand attendees to Winston Churchill’s funeral gathered below. The resulting image, shot with an 8mm Fisheye Nikkor to produce a haunting blue-cast panorama of the spectacle below, captures all the stateliness of the event.
Cranham departed from his regular routine that cold morning and clamped his cameras to ensure the safety of the mourners below him. Normally, to photograph an event back then, he would carry four Nikon F cameras on himself, each one fitted with a different lens. For horse racing these might be 24mm, 50mm, 85mm and 180mm lenses. His film of choice was Kodachrome 64, and later Kodachrome 25 (now discontinued).
Interestingly, Cranham was a torch-bearer for the 1948 Olympics. Before photography caught up with him and consumed his life, he ran middle-distance events and even secured a couple of half-mile championships before a foot injury put him out of competitive running in 1953. After taking up coaching, he picked up his first camera to show his runners where they were lacking in technique. Within two years photography had taken over his life and there was no looking back.
But it was not until 1960 that he had his first major break with the publication of one of his photos in the Observer newspaper. As he gained experience he learned to appreciate that selective focusing in sports photography releases the subject from its background and concentrates the action into the plane of focus to produce captivating images. Such images, caught with high-powered telephoto lenses are common today.
But Cranham’s techniques for capturing sporting images were innovative in the sixties. He was the first photographer to zoom his lens *during* slow shutter speed shots to produce images that seemed to explode the action toward the viewer. This effect worked especially well in his head-on shots of horses racing directly at the camera. As the eye scans out from the center of the image, the horses and riders seem to jump out from the photo itself.
By panning with the action as it passed sideways to him, and using slow shutter speeds, Cranham created impressionistic images that conveyed movement far more effectively than the frozen-moment images of high shutter speed photography. He was also the first British photographer to make effective use of remote-firing in horse jumping events, burying his fisheye lens-fitted cameras right beneath the jumps, and using long cables to record images that could be captured no other way.
Cranham said that he saw that amazing things were possible with sports photography, but he never forgot the human element as he strove for perfection in his pictures. He was always on the lookout for the defining moment in the sporting event, whether it be the split second of suspension as a high jumper reached the pinnacle of his arc, hanging over the bar before crashing back to the padding below, or the moment of impact as a long jumper plowed into the sand pit. Capturing the facial expression of the athlete at those defining moments is one of the surest ways to get your work published, and Cranham managed it time and again.
But none of it comes easy. Like every other professional that earns his way in the world, Cranham put in the hours of research before every event, and showed up prepared on every occasion. He practiced with his cameras to the point where conscious though begins to drop off and instinct takes over, so that when the times comes to capture the unexpected event, it happens as though the camera itself senses the fleeting moment and takes over.
And then the rest just becomes photographic history.