Monte Fresco: A master of all he portrayed

NORMAN GILLER gives a blunt’s assessement of his old friend and colleague, celebrated sports photographer Monte Fresco, who died yesterday

Focus of attention: Monte Fresco in his pomp, at one of the World Cups he photographed
Focus of attention: Monte Fresco in his pomp, at one of the seven World Cups he photographed during his 50-year career

The departure of master sports photographer Monte Fresco yesterday at the age of 77 was a sad, sad day for smudgers everywhere.

Smudgers? That was Monte’s invention to describe Fleet Street’s cameramen. He also created the name “blunts” for reporters, as in blunt nibs.

There are tears dropping on to my keyboard as I write this. He was one of my dearest friends in the summertime of our lives, when we travelled he world capturing the huge moments in sport.

I used to type my observations, but I was continually outshone by Monte’s photos that captured the moments with extraordinary pictures that painted many more than my thousand well-worn words.

We were on rival newspapers, but always with a close friendship that transcended our working relationship.

He always had an eye for the unusual, the dramatic and the humorous that brought him scores of compelling pictures.

It was Monte who came up with the award-winning shots of Vinny Jones squeezing Gazza in the unmentionables, and his picture of Dave Mackay getting hold of Billy Bremner by the scruff of his shirt decorates the walls and webpages of many Tottenham supporters.

The last time I saw dear Monte was at my wife’s funeral, when we wept in each other’s arms. Now I weep alone. I thought then that he was not his usual buoyant, bouncy self and when his regular weekly telephone calls fell away I knew he was in trouble.

Later, he wished me well as I battled bowel cancer, keeping to himself the fact that he was fighting another form of that merciless disease to which he finally succumbed yesterday after a brave, never-complaining fight.

We were born a few hundred yards apart in London’s East End. He was a fiercely proud Jew, and ready to fight for his faith. Monte grew up, like me, detesting the yobs who scrawled “Kill the Yids” on our nearby Wapping walls, and Spurs fans wonder why many of my generation abhor the use of that word in a trivial form.

There are none so deaf as those who will not listen.

Monte followed his Uncle Monty into Fleet Street as a smudger. Both were masters of their craft, and both were rewarded with an MBE for their services to newspaper photography.

“Old” Monty was a fixture on the Daily Mail, while “Young” Monte hitched himself to the Daily Mirror wagon, and over more than 30 years gave them a non-stop series of stunning sports photographs.

Norman Giller, centre, with Monte Fresco (left) and Frank Bruno in a publicity picture from the 1980s
Norman Giller, centre, with Monte Fresco (left) and Frank Bruno pictured in the 1980s

He prided himself on knowing all the major sports stars, who willingly posed for him to take pictures because they knew nobody did it better. Muhammad Ali, Bobby Moore, George Best, Henry Cooper, Pele … you name them and Monte was on first-name terms with them and invited into their company.

Monte and his Uncle Monty were famous for their card playing, and were considered for the Guinness Book of Records for a marathon game with two other Fleet Street smudgers that lasted 18 hours non-stop on the way to the 1970 World Cup finals, where Young Monte got another iconic snap of Bobby Moore and Pelé exchanging shirts at the end of the Brazil-England game.

I can think of few to match his sharp sense of humour. It was Cockney, loud, in your face and always hilarious.

People who saw us together were convinced we were mad, because we always talked “cuckoo” to each other.

This dated back to the early 1970s when we went to Switzerland for an Arsenal Fairs Cup tie. Both of us wanted to take home a Swiss cuckoo clock, and could not find one anywhere, and finished up making cuckoo sounds as we walked up and down shopping strassen in a vain attempt to buy one. Ever after we greeted each other in what we called cuckoo lingo. It sounds (and was) very juvenile, but it gave us a laugh.

I know his old Mirror colleagues like Ken Jones and Nigel Clarke will be as devastated as me by his passing.

After his long service with the Mirror – and disgusted by Robber Maxwell’s impact at MGN – he went “legit” and became a director with the Bob Thomas agency, later Popperfoto.

We used to refer to the Fresco mafia. His nephew, Michael, carried on the family tradition, and his four grown sons grew up with a lens continually in their faces. Monte was hugely fond of his boys and their children, and he and his second wife, Sheila, doted on Harry, the son from their union.

A dedicated member of the SJA, Monte was presented with the coveted Doug Gardner award as a mark of his respect in our business.

His passing comes in the same week as a mutual friend, the dynamic Brian Hitchen – former Editor of the Sunday Express and Daily Star – was tragically killed along with his wife when hit by a car while on holiday in Spain.

Two fantastic journalistic talents lost within days of each other.

There will never be another smudger like Monte. Cuckoo, old friend. Cuckoo.