In the early 90s I was working for the Daily Mail in London and was fortunate enough to live in Wimbledon. The SW19 post code covers a vast area and contains both massive multi-million pound houses, situated in Wimbledon village, and modest red brick terraced houses close to the dog track. I lived in within earshot of the dogs, on the very edge of SW19. However, it was close enough to the tennis club, for me to be seconded to wimbledon for the entire fortnight. In those days everything was still shot on film and it was useful to have someone who could collect the films from the photographers, get it processed and wire the pictures to the office, rather than the photographers process the flms and wire after each match. Kodak supplied a processing machine and the staff to run it, the tennis club supplied a wire room and a restaurant and the paper provided me with expenses. It was almost a holiday.
At the time I was working on the electronic picture desk, which received all the pictures that were sent electronically to the paper. Everything was sent down standard telephone lines and the desk I worked on was similar to a receptionists switchboard with plugs and sockets. Naturally I knew all the photographers because I spoke to them when they wired their pictures in, but this was a great opportunity to work closely with them and get some insight into how they operated. Most of the guys had been going to Wimbledon for years and their was a great camaraderie between them with plenty of leg pulling and jokes. It was a ten day job for most of them and they spiced it up by bringing in cakes and beer (kept in the fridge which had been installed for the film) and applying strict dress codes – Hawaiian shirts one day, bermuda shorts another. Whilst we all worked hard, there was a very jovial atmosphere.
If you scan the media these days, you don’t often see a poor photo from a particular event. That is because the majority of photographers attending work for agencies who turn the stuff out on multiple feeds to as many media buyers as they can. When I was at the Mail, we broke the record once by taking in 74 color pictures in a single day. Now a picture desk can expect to receive thousands of photos. If there is a big sporting event, like Wimbledon or the Superbowl they might get three thousand or so pictures from that alone. However, in the 90s, it was still usual to get your pictures from your own photographers who shot exclusively for your title. This placed a huge responsibility onto the photographer. How do you choose the right end? Position yourself so that you can shoot a landscape and an upright? Where do you sit to get the best celebration picture? Being an award winning photographer was as much about luck as about photographic skill.
Of course you couldn’t be in the right place every time, yet the paper demanded the winning shot, celebration or defining moment and wouldn’t tolerate failure. And so, naturally, the photographers had an insurance system: They borrowed photos from each other. At first it only happened in times of emergency – when a film was fouled or a photographer actually missed an event ( I was once told that a photographer missed the first three weeks of a six week assignment because he was recovering from a broken arm and his office was none the wiser because his friends covered for him at all the jobs he was supposed to be doing). But after the photographers realised that the picture desks were more concerned about not missing a picture rather than getting an original image, the GANS ( Give us a Neg) system kicked in. It was particularly useful at Wimbledon, with the sixteen courts, celeb watch briefs and often having to shoot pictures for the features sections. Each title would only get a couple of photo passes and the photographers couldn’t keep up with the desks’ disjointed demands. Often the desk would call chasing a story that had originated in the wire room half an hour earlier, but had grown out of all proportion in those few minutes. Many times, even after a story was known to be completely untrue, a photographer would be dispatched to chase it up and then berated for missing something that never actually happened. So if a message came through that a Brit was about to win on one of the outer courts, the photographer ( who could only enter or leave his position at the breaks between games ) often couldn’t get there before the match was over. Then GANS would come to the rescue.
There were no laptops back then. Each paper had transported a couple of desktop Macs into the wireroom and squeezed them onto the narrow work tops. Although cutting edge technology, they were painfully slow by today’s standards. My first Mac at the Daily Mail had a 40 MB hard drive and could only run one software at a time. Once the negatives were processed, we had to scan them in on bulky kodak scanners one frame at a time, caption and crop them and save them onto a disk. We then swapped the disk into another mac, which we used exclusively for wiring into the office. The whole process took about 3 minutes per negative.
We were in full flow one afternoon when all the phones in the wireroom started to ring at once. It was the picture desks. British player Jeremy Bates had just beaten Micheal Chang, was our guy there? Why didn’t we know? When would we find out? When would we get the pictures? A couple of the wire guys set off to find out who was at Court No2 and if there was any film to bring back. We busily kept their scanners and wire machines going and the kodak guys held off developing any more film, anticipating a rush job.
A few minutes later they arrived, flustered, with two rolls of film. Two photographers were with Bates, one at each end. They arrived a few minutes later, to speak to their desks and monitor their film as it went through the machine. Other photographers started to come in, having seen the screens around the courts and knowing that they had some begging to do. They huddled around their two new best friends not quite asking for a negative, but making sure that there was something available to satisfy their picture editors. The two photographers pinned themselves protectively against the Kodak machine and the Kodak guys kept their eyes on their processor with fixed concentration. We wiremen just kept our heads down, having each told our desks that we were ‘ working on it’.
Finally the processing machines spewed out the films and the Kodak guys hung them up to dry. The photographers quickly took the squeegees that hung next to the machines, swept off the excess in a single movement and stepped to the closest lightbox, their colleagues hovering nervously at their shoulders. Between them they had it all – the winning shots, the celebrations and a desolate Chang.
Then it was a question of carving up the spoils. There were a dozen pictures, we had eight scanners. The two photographers ensured that their wiremen had the best pics and we had a share of the rest. Deadlines were approaching and we had to get the pictures in. The scanners all completed their frames within seconds of each other and we took out the negatives to hand them on in true GANs style. We had just loaded our new negatives into the holders and were swapping over our floppy disks between our scanning Macs and wiring Macs, when one of the Kodak guys cleared his throat and said ” why are you scanning them in again? Why don’t you just swap the disks?”
We just looked at each other for a moment and handed the disks over to each other, getting all the pictures away in half the time. The picture desks were happy, we shared the beers and GANs was now GADs and had entered the digital age.