Monte Fresco’s photographic memories

TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: MONTE FRESCO was awarded the MBE in 1995 in recognition of his long and distinguished career as one of Fleet Street’s pre-eminent sports photographers. Here, as part of our series on 60 years of sports journalism, he recalls the life of a “smudger” trying to grab an action shot in the first five minutes of a match from behind the goal in the semi-dark at Loftus Road

I “matured” as a sports photographer in the days when the American-made Speed Graphic camera was king, the graphic was big and very weighty, using double dark slides each slide holding a 5in by 4in film or glass plate, having taken out the sheath from the slide you could expose the film or plate, slide the sheath back, pull out the double dark slide from the camera turn it over pull the sheath, hey presto you were once again ready for action.

It was a slow and cumbersome way to work but, back then it was the norm the good thing was that if you had a good sharp image taking up just a fraction of the 5×4 glass plate or cut film, you could pull it up and still retain good quality.

Just coming on stream were 35mm cameras. By the time I got to the Mirror 35mm had become the norm, small, light and with a variety of interchangeable lenses they were at the cutting edge of new technology opening up a whole new era for us “Smudgers”.

Let me explain: “Blunt” is the term I invented back in the good old days when my news reporter mates at the Mirror, the late great gourmet Tom Merrin and the brilliantly connected armed services expert Alistair McQueen decided to call us photographers “Monkeys”.

I took great exception to this name for us “Camera Artists” (only joking) and plotted revenge coming, up with “blunts” as a term for reporters, the collective being a “scribble”. “Smudger” was a preferable nickname for us photographers, while the collective should be a “blur”.

I became specialist sports smudger for the Mirror back in the 1950s, having learned my trade at the Fleet Street-based Topical Press picture agency, then INP (International News Photos), part of the US-owned Hearst corporation.

Once at the Mirror, I used a Canon with a F2 55mm lens for floodlit football, this had a lever wind on the base which meant that with one quick movement you could move on to the next exposure. Very, very quickly indeed, sadly though, the average football floodlights were bad to say the least, so we had to work at least 1/250th of a second shutter speed to get the action without movement, with the lens at it’s widest aperture. Then, back in the darkroom, the film had to be “stewed” in the developer to get an image.

So, at night football matches, I would sit on my little box around 10 yards from the centre of the goal hoping for good goalmouth action, or at least action that was near enough to quickly focus on.

Hopefully, get a picture, scribble a caption, remove the film, bundle the film, along with a caption sheet having already written on the sheet developing instructions, which team was attacking the goal nearest to me, add a programme, put all of this in a Mirror envelope and hand it to a DR (despatch rider).

The motorcyclist would get the package back to the darkroom as soon as possible, where it would be developed, dried, a contact sheet made of the pictures and sent out to the picture desk where the night picture editor would choose (hopefully) a few reasonable pictures, take them back to the darkroom and wait for the prints of the pictures to be made.

Once the pictures were ready, the picture desk would, with the aid of the programme and my notes (something as basic as “Spurs 5 with Arsenal’s 9”) type a caption, attach it to the back of the print and take it to the sports desk who would size it up and the picture would make the paper.

Confused? Let me attempt to explain how it was way back then.

The Mirror always placed a very high priority on sport, particularly football and boxing. Speed was paramount, a huge priority was placed on getting a “live” picture for the first edition from night matches. My instructions from the sports desk would inevitably be: “We need a picture in the first minutes of the match to make the 9pm first edition”.

In those days, night football always kicked off at 7.30pm so, for a match at any of the London clubs, there was not a lot of time from taking the picture to a print reaching the sports desk for the first edition.

FROM THE DAYS WHEN ‘ACCESS’ WAS NOT A PROBLEM: Norman Giller gets to grips with Frank Bruno as he promotes a world title fight when in Edinburgh in 1986, with Monte Fresco to Bruno’s right and The Sun‘s Peter Jay to his left. Other snappers snapped include the late John Dawes (aka Captain Pugwash), far left, and Jack Kay, far right. The picture was taken by Monte’s uncle, Monty Fresco, who worked for the Daily Mail and also was awarded an MBE for his services to the business


Everybody had their part to play, from the players in the picture to the despatch rider getting the film back to the office, the darkroom developing the film, making the contact sheet, the night picture editor choosing and captioning the pictures to the sports subs writing the definitive caption that went with the picture in the paper.

The pressure was off me after sending the first edition pictures back. Normal procedure would be to try to get a decent picture, then get out of the ground just before the end of the match to miss the traffic, get back to the office, develop the films, get the wonderful darkroom printers to make the prints, write a caption on the back and present the pictures to the sports desk, who would make their choice for the later editions.

Oh, before I forget, there was always the Manchester editions to think of, too, if there was a northern interest in the match. The darkroom would make two prints of the pictures, one of which went to the London sports desk, the other was “wired” to Manchester.

Wired? In our wireroom, a picture would be sent to Manchester (or anywhere in the world, for that matter), by placing it on a drum which would revolve in front of a moving photo electric “eye” which recorded black, white and grey dots.

The picture would take seven minutes to send, as the drum slowly revolved in front of the “eye”, while at the receiving end a plain sheet of photographic paper revolved simultaneously in a light-tight machine to record over seven minutes the black, white and grey dots which eventually produced the picture.

In those far off days, when I would regularly go to Watford, Ipswich or Wolverhampton for a floodlit midweek match, it entailed going with a wire team consisting of a wire man to send the pictures and a darkroom printer complete with a portable dark room, too.

The wire team would set up in a GPO telephone repeater station, where all the switches that routed and recorded the calls coming in or out of that particular town were channelled into and out of, enabling the team to access a direct uninterrupted line to the London office.

Either myself or the picture desk arranged a messenger to collect my early (from the first five minutes) film of the match and get it to the wire team, once again at the end of the game I would take the rest of the match pictures back to the repeater station for the team to wire them back to the office.

Before I leave the portable wire lads, I must pay tribute to the darkroom printer, cooped up in a small, dark, hot black tent where, even in winter the heat generated would make it an oven.

From the late 1960s, into the 1970s and ’80s, cameras were by now getting more sophisticated, with much better quality lenses, films and other technology. We “Smudgers” made a massive leap forward with the introduction of the wonderful Novoflex long lenses.

Novoflex, 300 and 400mm lenses, at f4.5 and f3.5, were barrel-shaped, with squeeze focus. It was difficult but not impossible to preset the focusing easily: to focus, you simply pulled the grip situated under the barrel of the lens. With practice and experience, it was possible to judge reasonably well how far to squeeze at the longer distances, in an attempt to focus the lens quickly.

Introduction of the Novoflex made it possible for me to photograph daylight matches in particular from the side of the pitch, the longer lenses enabling much, much better pictures of the midfield action areas. In the days before those sort of lenses, seated behind the goal at one end or another, a picture like mine of Vinnie Jones “getting to grips” in midfield with a young Paul Gascoigne would have been impossible.

It must be borne in mind that in those days tackling from behind was the norm, with some very hard men almost making it an art form, resulting in some nasty injuries but good pictures.

It is true to say that back then no team won anything without a hard, tough tackler: Bobby Collins of Leeds, Nobby Stiles of Manchester United, Peter Storey of Arsenal, and my all-time hero, the great Dave Mackay, of Tottenham Hotspur, spring to mind.

I was lucky and managed to get consistently good pictures from the Novoflex by sitting along the side of the pitch, so much so that the FA complained to the then Mirror editor Mike Christiensen, son of the famous old Daily Express editor Arthur, that our photography was bringing the game into disrepute.

Ah, how “Smudging” has changed. In the old days, I would ring the club manager to ask permission to cover the next day’s training session. Only rarely would they say, “Sorry not possible tomorrow”. I would spend my week going to Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Watford, getting day-lit pictures of key players in action for stock use.

After the training, I would make a point of thanking the manager and invariably be asked to come in for a cuppa. I would sit having a cup of tea as the players and manager showered before they would come in to share a laugh and a joke. Now and then, things were said that were obviously not for publication. Whatever I heard, I kept to myself and can proudly say I never let them down: I saw all, heard all and said F-all.

It was through this close personal contact that I became very friendly with many of them, photographing their weddings, families, even their pets.

Trips with the England team were a great experience, the press as a group travelled on the same plane as the players and even stayed in the same hotel. It was certainly not uncommon to have breakfast with them at the hotel.

On one memorable trip with England, to celebrate the US Bicentennial in 1976, not only did the press travel with the team but I played cribbage all the way from Heathrow to Los Angeles with Trevor Brooking, even being allowed by manager Don Revie on the team bus from Los Angeles airport to the team and press hotel, still playing crib the whole time. Importantly, I won 15 games to 13.

There were no security guards travelling with us, just one FA press officer.

Years ago, covering England or a top team training was just that, covering the training for the duration of it, not “10 minutes only lads”, with no security stopping you doing your job, there was no talking to or picturing only those who the FA decide. These days I understand that the players are only seen if they have a book to sell, or are wearing a new FA kit (to sell) or talking on behalf of their latest sponsor (who has something to sell).

Digital photography? No thank you. Alright, it is easier, no chemicals, no wire team, no despatch riders, no mad panic to make an edition. Now, the cameras focus themselves, set the f-stop and speed.

Pictures are sent from laptops at pitchside during the match, gizmos sharpen the pictures (now, that I like!) you can change faces, lighten or darken. No longer do you worry whether you have got the picture and the long wait to find out. Now, you can see the picture instantly, or as in my case, no longer have to wait to get back to the darkroom to be greeted by one of the printers with, “Here he comes again, been playing Russian roulette again with the front of his camera” (that’s the f-stop on the lens for my “blunt” friends).

For some 30-odd years I was paid to be at World Cups, Olympics, European Cup finals, Ali’s world title fights, indeed very many of the world’s major sporting events here and abroad. All events that, if I had been born wealthy, I would happily have paid to attend.

Throughout those momentous years the one constant which to this day the “Smudgers“ tell me has not changed are, the jobsworths: the stewards, blazered officials, security staff, press officers, too often small-minded, stop-at-all-costs programmed people who still believe it is their duty to make the greatest job in the world as difficult as humanly possible.

That said, one thing worth remembering was what happened after the FA’s “disrepute” complaint. My Editor at the Mirror was delighted, and gave me a rise and a pat on the back. And soon afterwards, Ken Friar, the then Arsenal secretary, keen photographer and all-round nice man put in a permanent seat for me by the halfway line, under the TV rostrum at the old Highbury stadium.

This is the latest in an on-going series of articles about covering sport over the past six decades.

To read David Hunn on how the Association was formed, click here

To read John Rodda on what it was like to cover the 1948 London Olympics, click here

To read Hugh McIlvanney writing about the Best footballer he has ever seen, click here

And click here for the full list of articles in our 1948-2008 series

Read Monte Fresco’s Questionnaire

Enter the 2008 SJA British Sports Journalism and Photography Awards – for further details, click here