Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Why has Britain failed to say "Goodbye" to its old, once feted and fearless Sunday Times photo journalist called Bryan Wharton ?

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Bryan's death at the age of 85, has passed without recognition and the work he has left behind from his days as a premier Fleet Street photo journalist working in the 1960s and 70s, has gone unfeted. No obituary for him in either the Guardian, Telegraph Independent or Times. No mention made to the fact that he won countless awards for his work for the Sunday Times and had his photography published in the world’s major magazines, Life, Paris Match and Stern. Only a handful of tweets and a cobbled together photo montage in the 'Times' entitled : 

'Bryan Wharton, photographer who immortalised the Swinging Sixties, dies at 86'.

Bryan's stature as a photo journalist can be measured by the fact that, the father he caught in a grieving embrace on hearing of the death of his son at the scene of the Fiuili Earthquake in Italy, was published on the front page of the Sunday Times on May 9, 1976.

There were, in fact, three Bryan's : The fearless Bryan, recording violence in war zones and in urban riots; The Bryan, who used his lens to highlight human tragedy and Bryan, the photographer who mixed easily with politicians, royalty and celebrities of stage and screen.

Bryan was always circumspect about his working class background, but he was born in Kilburn, Northwest London in the summer of 1934, the son of Millie, a dressmaker by trade and Edward, a builder and his antecedents were a mix of ironworkers, hansom cab drivers, seamstresses and laundresses. He was five years old when the Second World War broke out and, in a sense, had a baptism of fire. In the London Blitz, he remembered his house catching fire when he was six, after it was hit by a German incendiary bomb : "It was fascinating for me as a child, but we had 76 nights of it during the blitz and that got a bit wearing. Then our house got hit again and was on fire and so, I was sent to stay with relations in Wales".

When his mother divorced his father after the War and then remarried, he and his sister Beryl went on to acquire an extended family of one half-brother on his mother’s side and four half-siblings on his father’s side. At the age of 11 he started to attend Claremont School in Kenton in the London Borough of Brent, where his physical prowess saw him picked for both the boxing and rugby teams.

He recalled life as a pre-adolescent in 1946 : "After the War it was a difficult time, everything was impossibly grey and there was still rationing and London seemed to become a less friendly place." It was then, at the age of 12 that he "started to read a lot. Not children’s books, but the American authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Hemingway’s Collected Journalism" and this fostered his determination to become a writer.

By the time he was 16 and about to leave school he said : "I was looking to go somewhere to further my education, perhaps in Europe. I still wanted to write, I did not consider myself becoming a photographer, but I did think that was the way to have adventure by the bucket load, so I started to look at that and became a messenger boy in a newspaper office. That was the only way. I learned from photographers and realized that my visual talents were more than my literary talents and I really studied photography, the dark room, manipulating images and the science and chemistry".

His was a rough and ready apprenticeship : "The only way we got trained in those days was that we studied the job by going to work in dark rooms in Fleet Street. During the day I soaked it all up like a sponge and asked certain photographers if they would allow me to come out on jobs with them ". 

At the age of 18 in 1952, he was conscripted for his two years National Service in the Armed Forces and at 19, as a result of his affair with a 15-year-old schoolgirl, he became the father of a baby girl, who would be adopted by his Aunt Maisie and Uncle Harry, when the mother emigrated to Canada. When Bryan left the Forces, at the age of 20 in 1954, he started work with the 'Press Association /Reuters', before joining the Daily Express in 1960, where he was given the chance by one of the great picture editors, Gerry Cook, a man who had actually met Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War when he was at Barcelona University and later travelled with him.

Bryan's big break came in 1964 when he joined the 'Sunday Times' under the new ownership of Lord Thomson and he recalled : "The Sunday Times was very obviously coming up they were changing and casting off their old and rather sedate, Kemsley image and started the new magazine. It was full of young talent. I joined then in '64,  just about the right time when it began to explode. It was really great good luck to join then because it was the beginning and of course went on to become the best newspaper in existence in the English language at that time and photography became ever more important." Bryan was now working alongside a team of  "Aussie whiz kid reporters" and at the start of 19 golden years, during which he travelled to many parts of the World, mostly in pursuit of conflict and, in addition, most of Britain and Ireland.

Bryan recalled these years : "I loved working there, it was glorious when I look back. Everything was changing and as a newspaper it was growing up with the 1960s. As photographers at the Sunday Times, we were feted like rock stars, particularly when it became international newspaper of the year three or four times running. The sort of stories we took on were the biggest stories of the day, it was decent journalism and as a broadsheet we covered everything that was happening in London and the world’s big stories, which often were wars." 

Harold Evans, who became Editor of the Sunday Times in 1967 recalled  in 'Paper Chase' : 'The staff photographers such as Wharton, struck one as rather like Battle of Britain pilots, lounging around with their cameras round their necks ready to take off on hazardous missions at a moment's notice. Wharton, in fact, looked the part, down to handlebar moustache and fur-lined leather jacket, sauntering into the newsroom with a pretty girl on his arm. The entire news photographic team - Steve Brodie, Frank Herrmann, Don McCullin, Sally Soames, Romano Cagnoni and Wharton - were on the battlefields almost as soon as a shooting war started. Photographers with their equipment were more conspicuous in danger zones and they'd all absorbed Robert Capa's injunction : "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."'

The photographic team hashed picture ideas on thursdays in the back room of the Queens Elm Pub. Often the ideas were drawn out on beer mats, sometimes by the papers satirical cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe and by sunday the resulting photograph was on page one.


"I was not a specialist war photographer unlike Don McCullin who started with me, but I did cover many of the Middle East Wars of the time from Aden when the British were withdrawing and the war in Yemen".

Bryan's first association with war as a photojournalist was a peaceful one, when he accompanied the armada of small ships across the English Channel in 1965 in 'Return of the little ships to Dunkirk' organised by the The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. It was  to mark the 25th anniversary of the 850 private boats that sailed from Ramsgate to Dunkirk in Northern France between 26 May and 4 June 1940 as part of Operation Dynamo, helping to rescue more than 336,000 British, French, and other Allied soldiers who were trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk during the Second World War.

In 1967 he was dispatched to Aden, the British protectorate in Southern Arabia where, in January, the National Liberation Front had provoked a street riot, the police lost control and the British High Commissioner deployed British troops to crush the riots. In the ensuing violence there were shootings and grenade attacks and the destruction of an Aden Airways Douglas DC-3, which was bombed in mid-air, killing all the people on board. On one occasion Bryan photographed the men captured by the 3rd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment conducting a search at 'Grenade Corner' in the Crater District.

In June his second consignment to a battle zone took place when he was based with Egyptian forces in the Arab–Israeli ‘Six Day War’, which led to the ignominious defeat of the Egyptian Army with 15,000 troops killed or wounded and 5000 men and 500 officers captured with 80% of military hardware tanks and guns captured.

In 1968, Bryan was in protective gear in Paris covering the Student Uprising which was part of the period of civil unrest which occurred throughout France, lasting seven weeks and punctuated by demonstrations, general strikes and the occupation of universities and factories. He took the shot of photographer Frank Hermann just before they were both overcome by CS gas.

 On Friday, 10 May, another huge crowd congregated on the Rive Gauche. When the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité again blocked them from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 2:15 in the morning after negotiations once again floundered. His photographs were captioned : 'Paris grenades fired 1968 ' and 'Paris 1968'.

Bryan was injured when military strength CS gas was fired at the the crowd and also the photographers and said : "I suffered damage with my lungs, it ruined my health and I was warned that it would come back to haunt me by Professor Steven Rose who made a study of the effects on me, and it did in 2004 when I first went to the Royal Brompton to see a chest physician, Dr Said Abdallah".

It wasn't all conflict. David Leitch, a Sunday Times journalist, recalled that in 1972 : "A trip we made to the Jordanian desert in the steps of Lawrence (and O' Toole) was particularly memorable, largely because our Girl Friday, though we didn't know it, was secretly affianced to the King, and shortly became Queen Alya."

The following year he covered the Arab Israeli, Yom Kippur War of 1973, which was fought from 6 to 25 October, by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel. The war took place mostly in Sinai and the Golan which had been occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Egypt's initial war objective was to use its military to seize a foothold on the east bank of the Suez Canal and use this to negotiate the return of the rest of Sinai.
In Bryan's judgement : "That was a very tough war for the Israelis, they lost 2500 soldiers which meant that some 98% of all families in the country were affected by the losses". His two photos were titled 'An Israeli Tank Commander winds down after four days of continuous battle' and 'Wary Israeli Soldier on Patrol Gaza.'

Two years later, he found the ‘Litani Campaign’ when Israel invaded the Lebanon in 1978, "a gruelling experience". The invasion of Lebanon up to the Litani River, carried out by the Israel Defense Forces in response to the Coastal Road massacre resulted in the deaths of 1,100–2,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, 20 Israelis, the internal displacement of 100,000 to 250,000 people. One memorable image was a wounded child crying for help after a bomb attack.

In 1978 in his play 'Night and Day', first performed at the Phoenix Theatre, London, Tom Stoppard explored the experiences of Australian roving correspondent Dick Wagner and George Guthrie, a photographer and both working for the 'Sunday Globe' and based the characters on Jon Swain and Bryan. As the curtain rose, George/Bryan is having a bad dream: he is killed by machine-gun fire as he yells to his imagined attackers that he is a member of the press. He wakes to find himself in the garden of Ruth and Geoffrey Carson, a British industrialist who runs the local mining operations in Kambawe.

In addition to covering conflict in the Middle East Bryan had also been despatched in these years to Cambodia and Uganda. He himself said : "War is tragic, but it is many other things too, the very best, and worst, of behaviour can be witnessed during conflict. I was interested in people, soldiers and victims, but I didn’t go there with preconceived notions of the political positions of the combatants, a view I am sure most of my colleagues shared. It was important to retain objectivity as long as possible, to attempt to show the truth of what was happening where you were. The overall picture was left to the analysts back home.”

Journalist Cal McCrystal writing in 1992 observed : 'He had the sense of the story, the instinct for the moment, and the balls to get close enough to capture it.'  The late David Leitch, Sunday Times journalist and chronicler of the worldwide Cold War, commented in 2001 : 'He thrived on extremes, danger and death and violence but his work often reflected the subtlest, softest touches. Bryan's extreme sensibility was all the more unexpected via the lens of someone who prided himself as being harder than nails, especially where the competition was involved, God help them and was in his element with soldiers, bibulous veterans of the Somme or blood curdling Bedouin bodyguards, they got on instantly.'


In 1963 the Conservative Government was convulsed by the 'Profumo Affair', a political scandal which brought about the resignation of John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War and contributed to the defeat of the Conservative government a year later. Stephen Ward, the osteopath and artist was one of the central figures in the Affair and late in the night of Stephen's suicide, the picture desk at the Express instructed Bryan to to meet him after Stephen had telephoned following his earlier meeting with Express reporter Tom Mangold. He arrived at Stephen's flat and recalled : "It was clear that Ward was under a tremendous that he felt he had been let down. I photographed him at the table. He was writing a letter to Henry Brooke, the Home Secretary." Bryan left after midnight and delivered his pictures to the Express. They subsequently disappeared.

In 1966, now working for the Sunday Times, Bryan was dispatched to Wales
where he shot his series covering Aberfan Disaster which took place when a massive heap of coalmine waste slipped down the mountain in October 1966 and engulfed a school killing 116 children and 28 adults. His fireman digging desperately for a body was particularly moving.

Ironically, Bryan found that his most affecting photo was not one associated with war but with with Thalidomide, a drug that was developed in the 1950s by the West German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grünenthal GmbH. It was originally intended as a sedative or tranquiliser, but was soon used for treating a wide range of other conditions, including colds, flu, nausea and morning sickness in pregnant women with tragic results and children born with malformed limbs. Bryan was involved in the effort of the Sunday Times to get compensation for the children.

He recalled : "It started in 1968 and took nine years to accomplish. Harry Evans and the Sunday Times are rightly applauded for taking on the suppliers—and the Law to finally win. I was involved from the very beginning and a photograph I took was almost too painful to look at for me, until I met her grown up at the film premiere. After the campaign was won, the children and their parents chose a photograph to represent them, and I am inordinately pleased to know it was mine. It was a heart-breaking assignment to experience. The children without exception were intelligent and aware—and courageous. I witnessed a great deal of horror in various parts of the world, but when a seven-year-old legless girl asked, “Shall I put my legs on” (for the photograph) I asked her to excuse me and went outside and wept. The only ever time’. She said, “Don’t be upset, I am alright.” I can feel them now".

In 1976 he was dispatched to cover an earthquake in Italy which took place on May 6 with a magnitude of 6.5 and the shock occurring in the Friuli region in Northeast Italy near the town of Gemona del Friuli where 990 people were killed, 3,000 were injured, and more than 157,000 left homeless. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t77XCIrU_-I&t=1m39s

Harold Evans recalled : "More than 24 hours to saturday's deadline we
despatched Wharton to an earthquake in Osoppo, Italy. The local airport was fogbound. He drove 350 miles through the night to arrive at dawn, took his pictures, drove 350 miles back, flew to Milan and raced into the London dark room just in time for the first edition. His narrative sequence was moving : a father waiting for the removal of rubble above an imploring, outstretched hand, cleared only to find the boy was dead. Today nobody would have missed a heartbeat in a rush to press. A digital Wharton would have had time to improve his tan before making a leisurely return, picking up a paper with his pictures on the front page." 


The late David Leitch recalled his first meeting with the 30 year old Bryan : "When I first met Bryan, assigned to work with me one frantic Saturday morning in 1964 on a hectic last-minute Sunday Times news story, he made a lousy impression. Surely to God this dandified bugger can't be the new photographer I thought, disappointed that my regular partner, Kelvin Brodie, was unavailable. For Bryan looked more Jermyn Street than Fleet Street. The man's hair was too exquisitely cut, his white trench coat improbably immaculate, as if delivered seconds before from central casting wrapped in cellophane And such aesthetic matters apart, where the hell were his bloody cameras."

Their first assignment together involved Sir Jamshid bin Abdullah Al Said, the last reigning Sultan of Zanzibar who was deposed in the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. David recalled : "I was writing an investigative story, the speciality of the house at the Times in those days, involving the Sultan of Zanzibar, recently deposed after a coup. This ex potentate had just touched down in London seeking asylum, escorted or more exactly surrounded by a colourful retinue worthy of Heile Selassie. We needed a picture of one of these courtiers in particular, the ex-prime minister, ideally without him or any of the other newsmen around knowing. All this I explained to Bryan as best I could, before fighting my way through to extract a few words from the royal casualty of history.

Later in the bar ( there always was a later, thank God, and also a bar) I made the error of assuming that Bryan had failed to get my drift, since I'd seen no sign of him shooting the guy in question, or anyone for that matter. 'You'll have to try and knock him up in his hotel room', I indicated. 'Don't worry,' Bryan said, in the tone of Ahazuerus tipping the beggar maid a tenner, 'It's all taken care of.' And so it was, as always. By the end of the day, when I'd seen his pictures on page one of the first edition and, more, worked out how he'd shot them from beneath that beautiful coat, I'd added to my journalistic experience and acquired another photojournalist partner."

In 1967 Bryan recalled : "I went to Scotland with Kosygin, the Russian Prime Minister which was a bit of an experience with the KGB and also, accompanied Nixon and a number of British Prime Ministers. I always got on well with Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Unlike most politicians he was a gentleman, and Jim Callaghan was fine once he trusted you".

In addition to his black and white chronicle of war, Bryan also became, in his opinion, somewhat unintentionally, renowned for his 1960s celebrity portraits. He said : "I certainly photographed a lot of people in that time, many famous faces of the period such as Peter O’Toole and Cecil Beaton. When I photographed somebody, it was always wonderful if they gave back, sometimes they were very difficult, but it was always a one-to-one situation and you had to try to pick up on how they felt."  In fact, Bryan could have added Mick Jagger, Tennessee Williams, Moshe Dyan, Nureyev, David Hockney, Lauren Bacall, Helen Mirren, Aretha Franklin and Ann Margaret.

Cal McCrystal commented on his portraiture : 'Wharton's genius is in drawing out his subject's hidden humours or repressed moods and recording them before the carapace snaps shut again. So far as I am aware, none of his subjects berated him for such intimate exposure. Many joined his formidable string of friends'. This was clearly demonstrated in his portrait of the comedian Max Wall.

Philip Oakes Sunday Times columnist said : "He helped to create situations which crystalised time and character and he photographed them briskly, wittily and entirely without the bullshit that too often attends image making. Working with him was serious fun. His pictures show it." During that time together they "met hustlers and millionaires and tragedy queens and actors and authors and zoologists and beauties and a fair number of beasts. Wharton had the Three Degrees dancing on a table top; the poet Ogden Nash (not the most jovial of men) actually grinning and John Aspinall, gambler and naturalist, wrestling with a Siberian tiger."

By the early seventies the golden age of Sunday Times pioneering photo journalism was over. It changed course, looking for stories on crime, middle class living and fashion. Harold Evans left the paper in 1981 and Bryan abandoned it, after 19 years in 1983 and tried his hand as a video cameraman, travelling to Rome, Monaco, California and remoter places in the hope of establishing a fresh career. However, this and a spell illustrating books, including 'Jane Asher's Fancy Dress' in 1983, brought him neither fulfilment nor much financial reward and filming in Monte Carlo, he severed an Achilles tendon while disembarking from a luxury yacht and was again incapacitated for more than a year. It was a far cry from his adrenaline-packed days in the thick of war and alcohol-fueled days in the thick of celebrities.

In 1992, at the age of 58, he enjoyed a revival of interest when he put on an exhibition in London. When Cal McCrystal met him he noted : 'His hair has gone from black to silver, and the extravagant sideburns and Zapata moustache have disappeared. Yet from his cravat to his Chelsea boots, Wharton remains the quintessential Swinging Sixties man.''His exhibits overwhelm one with nostalgia for the days when newspaper and magazine photography was an exuberant, high expense- account adventure.' 

When David Leitch saw the Exhibition he said : "I found myself moved, amused, surprised. It was as if air expelled from the lungs long ago had been frozen forever in some Arctic clime and preserved eternally, not breath but crystal. Thus, so many of those hectic moments are caught, as in aspic, for future generations to share and enjoy. They can now be seen for what they always were. Not simply a chapter of journalistic coups, but a series of works of art."

In 1992 Cal McCrystal paid him a visit and was dismayed to see him lift a handgun from his coffee 'able and put it to his temple. He laughed: "Don't worry, it's only a starting pistol." But Cal 'knew he yearned for the assignments of old : tramping through a South American jungle in search of Nazi war criminals, exposing the horrors of an Italian earthquake, donning a designer flak jacket for a Middle East war, chatting up princesses, being seduced by actresses.'


Bryan donated 24 of his portraits to the National Portrait Gallery in 2001


Bryan interviewed at the age of 68 at the National Portrait Gallery in 2002.

To fill in the background to his images of Germaine Greer he said : "Germaine lived in the studio next door at that time that she was writing The Female Eunuch and she was a singer strangely in some university program, almost a kind of student footlights thing, and she used to come in here every day because of this dome in the ceiling and hit top C, and I knew she was working on this book, and it was the Oz crowd who put the magazine together, and I can't remember why we did the photographs but it was one of those things that happened, and she is essentially sending up men's attitude towards women, quite rightly, at the time. So she was making a huge joke about herself and was calling out for dry ice for her nipples and lying on her back with her legs in the air and that was quite hilarious all the way through."

Bryan said that he particularly liked his 1964 photograph of Nubar Gulbenkian, who was the 68 year old philanthropist and bon vivant who took him hunting and touring in his celebrated personal transport, a London taxi that had been built by Rolls-Royce and of which he boasted: “It turns on a sixpence, whatever that may be”. He told Bryan "You've caught my touch of evil' dear boy,."

With Cliff Richard and Mary Whitehouse he said : "I can't look at that without smiling. It reveals so much about both of them, their essential godbothering, as we would once have called it. But that came about because I was actually photographing Mary Whitehouse, not for the first time and I was always fascinated by her, because she was so preposterous in some ways and so absolutely certain that everything she was doing was a calling. It was right. Suddenly there was Cliff Richard standing there and those two seemed to fit so well.  She assumed that hand, that attitude of prayer and it was only on one frame and I remember it happened. Bang. Got it. It was only for a brief moment but I do think it tells you a great deal about both of them."

About his photograph of the actor Peter O'Toole in Dublin he said he liked the one in Dublin : "not only because he made me drink a bottle of whisky first, because I had to drink for him that day, because he couldn't drink any more. He did order red lemonade. 'At least the colour is sinful' he cried. I like that because that's good memories, even if the aftermath of that isn't so good, with half my liver loss."

With the writer Laurie Lee he said : "The setting for Laurie Lee happened because we were drinking together in the Chelsea Arts Club and that's where it is, and Laurie always had a grand passion for women, as indeed so have I, so it seemed perfectly natural to include Venus de Milo, who sits in the garden, a statue of her anyway. He had his violin and started to serenade her. It just happened like that because we happened to be in the Chelsea Arts Club."
Of his portrait of millionaire John Paul Getty The Sunday Business, then a national Sunday financial'Wharton’s picture is hard to describe. But try imagining the facial expression of a rich man on the hump of a camel as it squeezes itself through the eye of a needle and you’ll get the point. The one of John Paul Getty was deemed by the Sunday Times to be too cruel to publish while the oil king lived.' When Joanna Pitman saw it she said : 'Wharton had a way of capturing power and it didn’t always look pretty. His face is caught in an attitude of apparent fury, his eyes satanically pale, his skin so craggily pockmarked and ragged with the furrows of age that he looks like a decaying dinosaur. Lighting has never been so cruel.'

Cal McCrystal said :

'Anyone with eyes can see the human sympathy in these pictures, the shrewdness, the kindness, the ruthlessness, the versatility, the impudence and invention, sometimes the parody, the endless gusto in humanity, especially the female of the species. It is all the more extraordinary given the ridiculous and sometimes downright impossible journalistic pressures which lie behind the pictures.'

'1967. US tourists on an outing in London'


  1. Fantastic article! A joy to read and to be reminded of Bryan’s fantastic career! I only found out the sad news today when I called his home! God bless Bryan on your next adventure

  2. A wonderful tribute. I worked at the Chelsea Arts Club a couple of years ago and Bryan visited often. He always had tales to tell, and never lost his quirky sense of style, or his eye for the ladies! He will be missed.

  3. A dear, dear friend now gone. Just found out when an email was returned. A marvelous man and a great photographer. I miss you Bry.

  4. I met Bryan in Rome after one of his assigments in war torn country. I was captivated by his charm & the excitement of his life. I was a fashion model based in New York & we begin a friendship that lasted til his death. His pictures of me were the best anyone ever did. He was a great artist & dear friend.