By Steven Downes
I have had cause to write dozens of obituaries during my career. Few as unexpected, or unwanted, as this. None as difficult.
Mike King, one of the most talented sports photographers of his generation, and a kind and gentle man, has died. He was 52.
The outpouring of grief and sadness on social media that Mike should have died, so suddenly, and so relatively young, has been massive and heart-felt.
Another photographer, Joel Goodman, put it perfectly: “There’s a reason why everyone is saying what a kind, sweet, generous, gentle and supremely talented photographer you were Mike King. I only wish we all could tell you now.”
Mike died after collapsing when visiting his mother’s house on Tuesday.
An SJA member of long-standing, King was the Sports Photographer of the Year in 1999, the year that his Sports Picture Portfolio was acclaimed by our judges. In 2001, his work won the Sports Picture of the Year with an image which was so good that the following year the judges opted not to award the prize, simply because they could find nothing worthy of the previous year’s standard.
In due course, Mike served the Association well by taking on the usually thankless task of chairing the judges of our photography awards for two years, during which time he was constantly seeking ways to upgrade and improve the presentation and recognition of the work of his colleagues.
I’d known Mike for around 30 years, from the time he was working at what was then AllSport, and I was working on magazines, and we found ourselves covering our first Commonwealths and Olympics. Friendly, helpful and kind, you always knew that if you had Mike King assigned to a photo-shoot you were working on, the resulting pictures would be breathtaking.
Mike moved on from what had become Getty Images to join the Observer, and later the Sunday Telegraph, at a time when national newspapers still had staff sports photographers.
This was the period when his work got its greatest projection, on front pages as well as back pages, and recognition, as Mike’s sports editor, Jon Ryan, recalls:
“Mike worked for the Sunday Telegraph during my time there and provided a stream of top-quality photographs for news and features. He always took the trouble to understand what the piece was about and was never satisfied until he had got exactly the shot he wanted.
“That is not to say that we never disagreed – usually when I had failed to select the picture that Mike believed we should have used. Indeed, he never gave up trying to convince you even after the first edition had gone. But it was this approach that made him such a wonderful professional to work with.
“I always enjoyed reading his Facebook posts where he still took joy in sharing pictures with those who followed him and directing us to pictures – mainly from the world of sport – that he admired and thought we would enjoy.
“His sad death will be felt by all those who worked with this kind, hugely professional and likeable man – whether writers, the backbench or sports editors.
“He is a great loss to the world of sports photography as his numerous awards testify.”
When Mike left the Telegraph, times were tough, especially for someone who described himself as a “photoholic”, someone who’s “taken lots of pictures and I can’t stop…. It’s my job”.
Being a freelance photographer in the modern, digital world of Flikr and smart phones is not easy. “Nowadays somebody only has to drop a plate, and 20 people are shooting it on a phone. It’s like the Wild West out there,” Mike wrote a couple of years ago.
He was always delighted to provide advice and insight into the professional photographer’s world: “Don’t be shy out there, but always wear a smile. It can disarm most people. Don’t be too precious about your metal; use it. If you keep it under wrap, you’ll miss everything. Don’t assume you can take the shot later. Chances are you’ll never see that combination again,” he wrote in one article.
Mike diversified to earn a crust, taking on long-range adventure assignments in the Antarctic one week and wedding photography the next. He was, of course, outstanding at both. Mike King was not a great sports photographer. He was a great photographer, and at the heart of that was his fascination in and interest in people.
Recently, I had an excuse to put a (very) modest bit of work Mike’s way, and on the second occasion had the pleasure of spending a day with him, wandering around the South Bank and Waterloo, as he took meticulous care and attention to get just the perfect shot for the purpose, images for Christian Wolmar’s campaign to become Mayor of London, which have been used daily and widely, in print and online publications over the past few weeks.
Christian’s been a working journalist for a very long time, and he was hugely impressed by Mike’s diligence and brilliance – and by their shared interest in cycling. Mike revealed that he had a couple of bikes gathering dust at home: “I must check it out and start using the bike again,” Mike said, a touch of his old confidence coming back.
“My condolences to Mike’s family,” Christian said today. “Mike did fantastic photos for the Wolmar for London campaign – they have brightened up our website and all our output for the past two months. I am so sorry, he’ll be very sorely missed.”
When I said goodbye to Mike that afternoon, I never imagined it would be for the final time.
His long-time friend and colleague, Philip Brown, has put together this montage of images which offers a far better tribute to Mike King than anything I could write.
The officers, committee and members of the Sports Journalists’ Association send their condolences to Mike’s family and friends.
The funeral is expected to be held late next week, and we will circulate details as soon as they are known.