Downing, the kind and genial master of photography

This, perhaps surprisingly, was John Downing’s favourite pic showing patients being evacuated from Molesey Cottage Hospital during the flooding in Surrey, 17 August 1968

Express writer JANE WARREN recalls the sparkling career of legendary Daily Express photographer John Downing who has died aged 79

BEING SHOT at from a helicopter, interrogated by Idi Amin’s special forces and almost blown up by the IRA was all in a day’s work for the most acclaimed Fleet Street photographer of his generation.

For more than four decades, John Downing MBE travelled the world for the Daily Express on challenging assignments in more than 100 countries and war zones, including Vietnam, Beirut, Rwanda, Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

Many of his shots, taken alongside legendary Express reporters including the late Ross Benson and Daniel McGrory, made front pages around the world.

“John and chief foreign correspondent Danny McGrory were the complete team and an editor’s joy,” recalls David Richardson, former Foreign Editor of the Daily Express. “Send them anywhere in the world, leave them to their own devices, and they would come up with the goods.” 

Having joined the paper in 1962, Downing won the prestigious British Press Photographer of the Year so many times that after his record seventh award he was appointed a judge on the competition panel.

He was honoured with an MBE for “services to journalism” in 1992 and made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 2011.

Kind and unassuming, he had the gift of putting people at ease, and that was in part the secret to his skill behind the camera.

As well as covering wars and disasters, he also shot celebrities and dignitaries including Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Diana, Princess of Wales. The Beatles posed for him at the launch of their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“He had a favourite darkroom printer and usually framed his pictures with a black border,” recalls Alan Frame, former Executive Editor of the Express. “Incredibly competitive, both professionally and at leisure (he didn’t like losing at Monopoly), he was the very best of the best.” 

John, who also had a fine voice, hitch-hiked on lorries along Central America’s ‘Road of Death’, and was beaten and imprisoned in Uganda by Idi Amin for being a journalist, an experience that resulted in another world exclusive.

Former Labour leader Michael Foot out walking his dog Dizzy (after Disraeli) during the party’s Blackpool conference, 1986

Recalls David Richardson: “As usual the DX was first in, but last out of the prison and that counted against us. But John had the ace in the hole. He had smuggled a camera into the dungeon and recorded exclusively the deprivation being suffered by English hostages including children.” 

On release, his photos exposed the cruelty of the dictator to the world. 

In Afghanistan in 1983 he and Ross Benson famously disguised themselves as Afghani tribesmen during the war against the Russians.

Award-winning Reuters photographer Peter Nicholls, who worked alongside John in various war zones, says: "His work from Afghanistan and Bosnia is some of the bravest and most visceral you will ever see. There was no better professional, either photographically or journalistically. 

And Downing had a knack for stepping into the eye of history. He was the only photographer in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, when an IRA bomb was detonated during the 1984 Conservative Party Conference.

“I knew it was a bomb, I’d had some experience,” he recalled in 2016. “So I shouted out ‘get down, get down’.”

After helping others to safety, he climbed out of the window. His seminal photograph of Margaret Thatcher being driven away with husband Dennis went around the world.

But his own favourite photograph was somewhat understated, much like John himself. It shows elderly flood victims from a British nursing home sharing a cigarette while being rescued.

“You don’t need any words to know what is going on,” Downing told a friend recently. “As a news photographer, you’re the eyes of the reader, so you’re always trying to catch the defining moment. For me, it is the elderly woman lighting a cigarette for another elderly patient while being rescued.” 

Born in Llanelli, Wales, on 17 April 1940, John first became interested in photography at the age of 13 when he watched a friend’s brother doing some amateur enlarging. “It just seemed like magic to me, watching that white paper and suddenly the picture appearing on it. I was hooked,” he said. 

Margaret Thatcher, her husband Denis, and friend and aide Cynthia Crawford leave the Grand Hotel, Brighton, after the IRA bomb attack, 12 October 1984

At 15, he started as an apprentice in Fleet Street, before moving to the Daily Express — then world renowned for its vast team of staff snappers. He was there for 38 years, eventually becoming Chief Photographer. But Downing was noteworthy not only for his skill behind the lens, but for his compassion in front of it. 

“Above all he was an unfailingly generous and kind man,” recalls former Express feature writer, Kim Willsher, who travelled with him to report on the Chernobyl disaster. “His London home became a sanctuary for various newspaper waifs and strays fleeing broken relationships or, in the case of our Russian Chernobyl translator Vitaly, escaping revolutions or coups.”

John was always kind to rookie journalists, including Express photographer Jonathan Buckmaster whom he first met in the mid-1980s.

“I used to sit nervously in the corner, avoiding eye contact, and watching all these hallowed names go out on jobs,” recalls Jonathan. “John was the first to introduce himself and from then on helped me learn the ropes, sharing his limitless expertise and experience. He became one of my closest friends.” 

Acclaimed photojournalist Tom Stoddart, who first worked with Downing in the Fleet Street of the late 1970s, says: “His kindness to youngsters came from the time as a young freelance he was sent by an editor to Downing Street to photograph the then Prime Minister leaving number 10. Hurt, when not one of the assembled photographers spoke to him, he vowed never ever to treat those less established in such a way.”

And it was the same story for young writers on the paper. 

“Everyone was relieved when told John was the photographer they were going on assignment with,” recalls Willsher.

I also remain grateful for the quiet support he gave me at the start of my career on the Express when I was sent in 1992 to interview the formidable American actress Shirley Maclaine – then nearly three times my age – in her suite at London’s Savoy Hotel. John drove me the short distance across the river and, while waiting to join the grande dame in her suite for our hour-long assignation, told me that it would all be fine.

As the sediment settled slowly in my glass of hotel orange juice as he snapped away, she got cross and barked at him: “Will you get over here and stir that girl’s orange juice?” He immediately parked the camera and rushed over to obediently waggle the plastic stirrer. Afterwards he told me she was tricky and I had done well. Within days I was offered a staff job.

John was not only one of the kindest, he was also the most painstaking photographers in the business. In 1984, to commemorate the 40 th anniversary of D-Day, he and former Express feature writer Geoffrey Levy took four D-Day veterans back to the beaches.

downing qm.jpg

The Queen Mother with the troops, 1982

“On Sword beach, John sat the corporal down on top of an old trench where he had gunned down a German officer. He then spent 30 minutes picking wild flowers and carefully arranging them at the old soldier’s feet, symbolic of new life.”

When they got back to the car after visiting an Allied churchyard the camera equipment had been stolen, and so had the film.

“It was the only time I ever saw him weep,” says Levy. 

Characteristically, Downing wouldn’t be beaten. “He hired the most basic camera on earth from a local shop and rushed around taking all the pictures again (minus the flowers, alas). As ever, they were brilliant and made a series of lavish spreads in the paper.” 

Near the end of his life John revealed that his one regret was never having his work collected all together in a book.

His friends and former colleagues immediately set about supporting him. Their crowdfunding campaign hit its target in just six hours, and Downing’s book, Legacy, was a fait accompli.

Tom Stoddart says it stands as a great testament “to a man who lived life on the edge and to the full, but who never forgot who he was or where he came from”.

John leaves his wife, the pianist Anita D’Atellis, his son Bryn and two granddaughters, Olivia, 16, and Madeleine, 13.

*John Downing: Legacy, published by Bluecoat Press (£25) is available from bluecoatpress.co.uk


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