Archive: Jul 2012
Last year I was commissioned by ESPN Magazine in New York to go to Iffley Road sports ground at the University of Oxford, where, in a glass case, is the stopwatch that was used to record the time of Roger Bannister’s record breaking mile on the 6th May 1954. This was the first time the mile had been run under four minutes.
ESPN were preparing a photographic feature on great pieces of sporting memorabilia and my shoot with the watch was one of many others they had arranged.
There were actually three watches used that day, in the event of a breakdown or doubt. You could call it belt, braces and glue. The other two are now in private hands and this one is still the property of the club. The other interesting thing about the watches is that they are 30 seconds to a revolution, so the hand had to travel just short of eight complete circuits to do it’s job that day.
In the excitement, joy and pandemonium immediately after the race the watch was knocked from the timekeeper’s hands and the glass on the front cracked on impact. Part of it is forever missing and you can see that in the picture above. Bannister’s record breaking time is preserved though – 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.
The club secretary took the key to the glass cabinet that the stopwatch lives in out of his desk drawer, unlocked the door and handed the watch over to me. History in my hands, reassuringly heavy too, a wonderful thing. I set up my lighting and table top backdrop in an empty squash court and spent a lovely afternoon messing about with light, shadows and time.
After the story ran I was asked by the magazine’s then photo editor, Catriona Ni Aolain, if I could make a large print of it for the editor in chief. Of all the items they had photographed for the story, this was the one he wanted to hang framed in his office.
Now seems like a good time to post these pictures. Tonight is the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games and this story is a long way in the past indeed. In 2008 I was commissioned by The Observer to spend a week with Sebastian Coe while he carried out his business as the man in charge of London’s bid.
For 7 days, journalist Tim Adams and I went everywhere he went. We didn’t speak too much but he never tried to stop me photographing anything. I sat in on sensitive meetings and he was always welcoming whenever I arrived anywhere to shadow him. The part that had the biggest impact on me, however, was the realisation that every place he went he had to deal with doubt, cynicism and scrutiny. I know that as we approach the start of the games there has been some anger at some of the cock-ups that have happened but I honestly believe from watching Coe, over the course of one week in 2008, his entire drive and motivation came from a desire to pull off something fantastic. I hope he does and I wish him and everyone involved the best of luck.
My favourite pictures from this story are those above, taken at a meeting with the members of the Greater London Authority in a portakabin at the site of the stadium, at that time a pile of rubble and earth. Coe had been summoned by the GLA to justify certain budgetary matters. The item at which the members were most indignant was a line allowing for provision of several thousand car parking spaces for ‘media’. Coe explained patiently that ‘media’ carry a lot of heavy stuff – cameras, sound equipment, tripods, lights and if they were made to carry it in then they just would not turn up. I stood behind him nodding fervently, whilst indicating my lighting set up. He had told me before we went in what this was about, so in the short time I had to prepare I decided to try and light the room as a scene from the Henry Fonda movie, ‘Twelve Angry Men’ – which is set almost entirely in a jury room as the verdict of a case is debated and Fonda passionately argues his view to the other eleven members. The pictures here do seem like the countdown to an execution and Coe came out of the meeting quite depleted.
What I want the viewer to see in these photographs is a glimpse of the sheer relentless mountain climb of a task the man has before him. Remember that this is an extract from one week in his life, four years ago. It was like this every day for the the four years before that and it has been like this, probably more so, every day for the four years since. What was obvious from observing him was the way he paced himself through the day. Really, truly fascinating to watch.
Read Tim Adams’ original 2008 piece from The Observer here