“Putting a life into a visual shape is quite a positive – a celebration much more than anything.”
I have lost count of the amount of obituaries the team has done over the years; thousands most likely, and I don’t mind fielding the comments that it’s a morbid business or a bit depressing.
We covered around 400 deaths in 2014, more than once a day, so you could be mistaken for thinking it’s a bit of a downer. But actually putting a life into a visual shape is quite a positive – a celebration much more than anything. I know if I had spent a life in front of the cameras and knew there was a team of crack photo editors assembling the best pictures of me for the world’s media, I’d like to think I might be smiling from the other side.
So what makes a good obit picture?
Well, the single picture will remain incredibly important but online also gives us all the perfect platform to pull together a narrative. Multiple images are no longer the reserve of rock gods and royalty – so it’s as much about telling the story in 5, 10 or 20 pictures. The selection is made from speeches, gongs, home runs, marriages, divorces, film flops, Oscar glory, success and scandal; simply put – all human life and why we are interested. And given we need to hand that off within minutes of breaking news, it’s no secret most of our obits are prepped in advance.
So here’s a look through some of the selects for those we said farewell to in 2014:
The outpouring for the American comedian and actor was huge. Williams talked openly about his demons, but it’s still a shock when one of the A-list dies far too young. We have a pretty large file on Williams – he got a lot in during his years – but finding an image to match the mood wasn’t straightforward. I was looking for a reverent picture of the irreverent. And un-typically our file wasn’t completely prepped, and we weren’t ready to go. In the end, my favorites were these two images – both hitting a fitting tone.
We also lost one of the last links to the golden age of cinema in Lauren Bacall this year, and this portrait is pure Hollywood. A promotional shot taken as part of the studio system which employed some of the finest portrait photographers of the day – George Hurrell, Virgil Apger, Clarence Sinclair Bull, to name a few. They were masters of light and technique. You could almost take your pick amongst those Hollywood studio files but in the wake of Bacall’s passing this image by Scotty Welbourne was one of our most shared images on social media last year.
Another huge loss for the movie world was Richard Attenborough. Here he is as the menacing Pinkie in a stage adaptation of Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock‘ in 1943. It is also the fresh face of an actor embracing the beginnings of a long and successful career. Fast forward a few decades to Attenborough the film director – the second frame by English portrait photographer Terence Donovan is a lovely informal moment in a formal setting.
Joan Rivers was the first to admit that her changing looks were something of a talking point. We had plenty of headshots of course, but I love this image as an alternative, something a little less obvious, and shot early in her career the setting is suitably offbeat for an off-the-wall talent.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
And we lost a literary heavyweight too, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – taken here by Steve Pyke, one of the few photographers I know still working with film and a Rolleiflex. His distinctive portraits of thinkers, artists writers and philosophers are a remarkable body of work – and here an entirely fitting frame that captures the man behind the writing.
And a thought from the other side of the lens; photographers very rarely become household names yet their influence on how we see our world is immeasurable. They bear witness, and they put their lives on the line, entertain and dazzle and educate with a new perspective. And though the best work will live on for generations, we lose an important link to our past when they pass. The stories behind the pictures make up so much of the fabric, fun and pleasure in piecing together the history puzzle.
So to call out just some of those names who we lost in 2014. Alfred Wertheimer, who made beautiful and candid images of Elvis on the brink of mega-stardom. Thurston Hopkins, a Picture Post magazine veteran who captured the energy and austerity of post-war Britain. David Redfern – a legend of jazz and music photography and whose influence on the industry was immense. Michel du Cille – whose humanitarian work won him an incredible 3 Pulitzers. Reni Burri – famed Magnum member. Camille Lepage killed whilst covering the conflict in the Central African Republic. Ralph Morse – who brought the excitement and technological heat of the American Space Race to the readers of LIFE magazine. Lucien Clergue co-founder of the Arles photo festival and Phil Stern who covered war and Hollywood stars with equal aplomb.
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