1936 - | NSW | Photographer
Russell McPhedran’s portfolio contains some of the most important news photographs of the 20th century. He worked in Hong Kong, London and Sydney, often on overseas assignments. He photographed the good, great and infamous, including The Beatles, Princess Margaret and Ronald Biggs in Brazil. In 1972 during a rest day for competition at the Munich Olympics McPhedran captured one of the most dramatic images of the century, of a hooded Palestinian terrorist on a balcony at the athlete’s village. This image came to represent the age of terrorism. He mentored scores of young photographers who are today some the industry’s leading figures.
Few photographers take a picture powerful enough to enter the permanent consciousness of a nation, let alone become instantly recognisable around the world. Russell McPhedran, or Russ as his mates call him, has a clutch of them.
His most memorable image of a hooded Palestinian terrorist at the athletes’ village has come to represent an era, instantly transporting the viewer to that time and place in Munich in 1972 that changed the world and big sporting events like the Olympic Games forever.
If you had to design the perfect career as a newspaper photographer during the second half of the 20th century, Russell McPhedran’s is the template.
Russ was born in Glasgow in 1936 to Donald and Louise McPhedran. His father was a skilled soccer ball maker. The sport was just starting to take off in the Antipodes and Donald was enticed to emigrate with his family to make balls for Soccer Australia. The McPhedrans arrived in Sydney in 1950.
A 15-year-old McPhedran became a copy boy for the daily The Sun in Sydney. One of the copy boy’s tasks was to be a film runner. McPhedran takes up the story: “When I became a copy boy, the Davis Cup was on at White City in Sydney with Frank Sedgman and Tony Trabert and I got sent out to pick up the films and take them back to the office.” He remembered clearly thinking: “These guys actually get paid for doing this? I couldn’t believe it, I want to be one of them.”
McPhedran spent three years in the darkrooms and was taken under the wing of senior photographers like Johnny Smith and Steve Dunleavy, father of the later famous crime reporter. He would accompany them on jobs and “watch what they did”. McPhedran would borrow cameras after hours to “mess around with” and try to copy what the senior photographers had shown him.
The first camera issued to young B-grade photographer McPhedran was a Graflex, a bulky large format camera with a between-the-lens shutter. It took sheet film, was cumbersome and difficult to wrangle by modern standards.
The big breakthrough for McPhedran came when he accompanied journalist Frank Crook to Hong Kong for a year, gaining experience and expanding his portfolio. This led him to try his luck in Fleet Street, then seen as the photographic Valhalla for a newspaper photographer.
Permanent work was difficult to get. “It was impossible to get a job in Fleet Street in those days, just impossible even though I had all the good references and cuttings,” he recalled. “Anyway, what happened was there was a guy called Morrie Willmot and we used to chase the Royal family… we would go down to the polo in case Philip would fall off a horse.”
At the polo, Russ and Morrie heard a rumour that Princess Margaret was water skiing nearby and McPhedran was dispatched to see if the rumour was true. It was indeed true but McPhedran was then equipped with a Mamiyaflex camera (a twin lens reflex camera) and he didn’t have a telephoto lens, something that would be required for a decent close-up picture of the princess on the water.
McPhedran took some exposures but they were “not very good - they were too far away, the lens couldn’t handle it.” Suddenly the royal photographer from the Daily Express appeared, a dapper chap with a moustache. It was Robert Haswell.
“Who are you?” Haswell inquired of the young McPhedran. “This was supposed to be my exclusive.” “Not any more,” McPhedran responded. He didn’t let on to Haswell that his pictures were not very strong and struck a deal. In return for a three-month trial to cover photographers on leave from the Daily Express, McPhedran would “fog” his film in the newsroom in front of everyone so that the Express could maintain its exclusive.
McPhedran got his three-month holiday relief trial and he never looked back, signing a contract with the Express. His experience covering news on Fleet Street between 1963 and 1967 was “absolutely fantastic, everything was happening – the Profumo affair with Christine Keeler, the Great Train Robbery, the Beatles, the Kray Brothers.” He grabbed every opportunity with relish as his confidence and experience grew.
McPhedran came back to Australia to play a little golf and see his family. While he was there he was “presented with an offer I couldn’t refuse” to go back to The Sun. “I was given a super A (grading),” he recalled.
In 1968, McPhedran got the picture that turbo-charged his career. “On Anzac Day The Sun only had two editions, one for the dawn service and one for the march, I always did the dawn service,” McPhedran said. After the service, he went to a pub and was having a drink with some other photographers before the Anzac Day march began. The phone at the pub rang; it was the pictorial editor: a fire had broken out in Oxford Street and one of them had to go and cover it. The photographers drew straws and McPhedran drew the short straw.
When he arrived in Oxford Street, the Buckingham’s department store was ablaze. McPhedran positioned himself with Barry Ward, a photographer from a rival publication. They asked a fireman if the front facade of the store was in danger of falling. He replied: “I’ve got no idea; it might fall today, it might fall next week …who knows? McPhedran was using a Nikon 35 mm camera and had just put in a new roll. Ward was using a medium format Mamiyaflex and had already used seven of 12 frames. He took the opportunity to change films and while he was doing so the wall fell down.
This picture gave McPhedran license to pick and choose his assignments. “I got all the Olympics, all the Commonwealth Games. I could choose what I wanted to do.” And that’s how McPhedran came to be in Munich in 1972.
During a rest day in the athletics, McPhedran rose early to work on some feature photographs. He was tipped off that something was happening at the athletes’ village and raced there. His exclusive pictures of a Palestinian terrorist on the balcony of the Israeli athletes’ apartment ran worldwide and has come to represent a painful turning point in world history.
All sporting and large organised public events changed that summer of 1972. McPhedran went on to cover another seven summer Olympic Games. His last was Sydney 2000: “The adrenalin rush you get when you have taken what you know is a great picture is fantastic, you know you have done it.”
One of the most memorable jobs for McPhedran was attending a party thrown by Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in Rio to celebrate 20 years on the run. He covered that event while officially being on holiday. “I read a small article in a paper… my wife worked for South African Airways at the time so I asked her how would you like to go to a party in Rio?” He asked mates on the Daily Express in London “to print up a bunch of poster prints of the fugitive showing his life on the run, Ronnie going to jail, the Scotland yard mug shot before escaping from England, what he looked like after surgery that sort of thing.”
McPhedran went to see Biggs on his arrival in Rio: “As soon as he saw the poster prints he said, ‘these will look great on the wall at the party’ and I said, ‘yes they will, but only if I come with it,’ and he said, ‘you are in, son’.” Later, as McPhedran was collecting his photographic equipment and leaving, Biggs called out: "Hey photographer, you be careful with all that camera gear, there are a lot of thieves in Brazil."
McPhedran set a standard of professionalism and self-starting, a way of working that has been the key to success of so many of the people he trained. He retired to live in Sydney with his wife, Shirley, and still loves a good round of golf with his mates.
Michael Bowers is photographer-at-large for The Guardian Australia and presenter of the Talking Pictures segment on ABC television’s Insiders program.
Buckingham Store fire, Oxford Street Sydney, 1968. Courtesy of Russell McPhedran.
Terrorist in Olympic village, Munich, 1972. Courtesy of Russell McPhedran.
The Beatles 1964 Australian tour. Courtesy of Russell McPhedran.
Paul Hogan, actor and former Sydney Harbour Bridge rigger, 1976. Courtesy of Russell McPhedran.
Great train robber Ronnie Biggs in hiding in Brazil. Courtesy of Russell McPhedran.
Courtesy of Russell McPhedran.
Russell McPhedran in 1972. Courtesy of Fairfax.
'Framing Terror: Munich Olympics, 1972', video interview with Mike Bowers, Digital Global Mail Limited, 2012.
'Meet the photographer who framed Ronnie the rogue', smh.com.au, 26 August 2009.