At the men’s 100m final at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, 800 photographers from around the world jostled for position, each hoping to take the defining shot of the Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey crossing the line to break the world record and take the gold medal ahead of Frankie Fredericks and Ato Boldon. Among the 800 were only three women. Rebecca Naden was one of them.
By that point, however, Naden can hardly have felt out of place. After all, she was used to shattering glass ceilings. Her career to that point had taken her through a few of them: when she left Pembrokeshire in 1977, aged 18, there had never been a female on her Midlands college course; she was the first ever female photographer on the Birmingham Post and Mail; then, when she joined the Press Association, she became the first woman in 140 years of the organisation’s history.
Naden spent 25 years documenting news for the Press Association, capturing some of the most iconic images of our time: Thatcher in the bushes, looking at us through binoculars; John Major checking his watch while Bill Clinton’s speech went on; the Blair family entering Number 10; Princess Diana with a young William and Harry; Cameron and Obama looking skywards. But it is in sport that she has forged a reputation for being one of the very best, making gender an irrelevance in the process.
‘You have to get the pictures, always,’ says Naden, matter-of-factly. Her sports work includes some of the best and most famous shots of the icons of world sport: the slideshow she shows us includes Rafael Nadal, Michael Phelps, Seve Ballesteros, David Beckham, Andrew Flintoff, Tiger Woods, Jamie Roberts, Paula Radcliffe and Dan Carter.
Following the 2012 Olympics, Naden came home to Wales to become Reuters’ only Wales-based photographer. Last winter, she endured 84 days of rain photographing football matches, mainly at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium, where she turns up three hours early to ensure access to a socket and an Ethernet cable for her boxes and bags of equipment. She begins her talk by unpacking her kit, to demonstrate, mostly, the lack of glamour. She sits on her special fold-up plastic stool and pretends to be in Swansea, sitting in the rain. ‘When people talk about how close I am able to get to famous footballers, sitting at the side of the pitch, they think it’s all very glamorous. But is it?’ she asks us wryly, ‘Is it?’
Looking at the consistent quality, innovation and drama in her patient art, we are inclined to think that, despite the rain, it absolutely is.
The same could be said for Jill Furmanovsky, whose subjects over the years have been just as famous in their field as Naden’s are in sport. Furmanovsky’s slideshow is not set up to compete with Naden’s, but again the legends appear thick and fast. The rock photographer’s onstage interlocutor Eamonn McCabe only stops her a couple of times, to identify current bands Catfish and the Bottlemen and Biffy Clyro, and Furmanovsky herself feels the need to point out Captain Beefheart. Mostly, however, the pictures speak for themselves – and anyone with an interest in rock music find themselves recognising not only the subjects but the photographs themselves: Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Bob Marley, a young Michael Jackson. Then there are jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. It’s a who’s who of 1970s music.
Like Naden, Furmanovsky had to break into a male-dominated world. Her first ‘rock photograph’ was a fangirl snap of Paul McCartney being ambushed by two of her schoolfriends outside a hotel, and Furmanovsky admits that it was her teenage love of the Beatles (after she had arrived in London from a crumbling Rhodesia as an 11-year-old) that inspired her. The big break came eight years later, in 1972, when as a college student she was afforded an ‘Access All Areas’ pass at the Rainbow theatre not long after it opened its doors as a music venue and began to host the great and the good ‘three times a week’. The Who played the first concert at the newly named theatre and afforded Furmanovsky her first cover a year later, a Melody Maker in December 1972.
Being young, female and relatively inexperienced meant that Furmanovsky was able to hang out with some of the foremost groups of the era – even those who normally shunned photographers, like Pink Floyd. Her photographs of ‘the Floyd’ on their Dark Side of the Moon tour in 1974 betray a band totally at ease with Furmanovsky’s presence, capturing an intimate backstage experience which was to endear Furmanovsky’s style to generations of bands – and ultimately lead to a particularly fruitful, and perhaps on the face of it unlikely, relationship with Oasis a full twenty years later.
The photographer tells some great rock’n’roll stories, not least a particularly fraught session with Oasis in Paris. Liam Gallagher turned up drunk having not been to bed – and brother Noel was fuming. As much as the constantly warring brothers were annoyed with each other, Furmanovsky used the situation to her advantage, shooting some famously moody photos of a band about to begin a meteoric rise.
It was Oasis who brought Furmanovsky back to rock, and listening to her talk, you get the impression she has to believe in something about the music and the people in order to create worthwhile photographs. She hated the style doctors of the Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran era, and took the opportunity in the 1980s for a career break to have her children, but talks fondly of the punk and rock against racism era. ‘It was a wonderful time,’ she says, as we flick through pictures of John Lydon, Joe Strummer, Paul Weller and Sting.
Over the years, one big name has eluded Furmanovsky somewhat; she tells a typically intriguing story about Bob Dylan’s open invitation to ‘photograph me any time’, followed by a protracted silence from his office. ‘I came to Dylan very late,’ Furmanovsky admits, ‘around 1998 and Time Out of Mind. I became obsessed with tracking him down. My friends and I called it the Bob-quest’.
It is perhaps reassuring that in these days of highly controlled press access and regulation around photography, there are still musicians as enigmatic, mysterious and downright hard-to-get-hold-of as Bob Dylan. Even more heartening is the fact there are photographers as inventive, as doggedly determined and as downright rock’n’roll as Jill Furmanovsky.