1937- | VIC | Photographer
Phelan epitomised the best qualities of the scores of photographers who served on Australia's first pictorial daily, The Sun News-Pictorial, later to become the Herald Sun. He was considered a great all-round lensman, able to cover any subject, as well as a fine teacher of young photographers, especially as pictorial editor. Terry's most memorable picture was his 1966 Walkley-winning shot of US President Lyndon Johnson's bodyguard, Rufus Youngblood, spattered in paint during an anti-war demonstration in Melbourne. A sequence of shots of a crash at a country trots meeting won him first prize at the World Press Photo Awards.
Terry Phelan was not long out of school and working as a mail boy for Woman’s Day magazine when they offered him three choices for his future career: photographic, advertising or commercial.
“At the time I had never had a camera, never even taken a picture,” he recalled, “but photographic sounded good so I just plucked it out of the air and it worked out well.”
Working out well is an understatement for one the great careers in Australian newspaper photography.
Terry’s first picture was one he remembered well because the subject was a plain old potato. He was taken into the studio, given instruction on the camera and commenced to take some fetching shots of the lone potato. It was simply a training exercise before he got around to taking some real pictures. The first picture he had published in the magazine was a splendid shot of the American wrestler Chief Little Wolf, in full Indian headdress cradling his baby daughter in his arms.
Fast forward around 10 years and Terry Phelan, now working at The Sun News-Pictorial, captures a picture that will travel around the world, appear in a host of leading newspapers and win him the Walkley Award. It came during a visit in 1966 to Melbourne by the American President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a highly controversial figure because of the US war in Vietnam.
Groups of American and Australian photographers were allocated places on two flat-bed trucks following the presidential motorcade through the streets. As the president’s Lincoln Continental passed through South Yarra a couple of demonstrators bounded out and hurled containers of red and green paint across the car.
Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood, who had thrown himself on to then Vice President Johnson to protect him during the Kennedy assassination in Dallas three years earlier, was hit in the shower of paint. Terry Phelan’s shot caught the paint-smeared agent still clinging to the back of the limousine with his arm dramatically outstretched pointing to the protesters. It was an unforgettable image and signalled the arrival of one of Australia’s finest newspaper photographers.
Two years later Terry was to find himself part of the story during a tragic accident on an oil-drilling platform off the Gippsland coast. It was March 22, 1968, and he was with about a dozen newspaper and television reporters and cameramen standing on the helicopter landing pad waiting for another group to arrive.
When the helicopter was just a metre off the pad it went out of control. It is a moment Terry was never able to forget:
“Suddenly the helicopter lurched over, spun and the rotor blades hit the deck and shattered. I don’t know what happened next because we were all thrown to the deck – it was if a giant wind had knocked us over. Next thing pieces of metal were flying past like bullets and I could hear men screaming. I saw the helicopter slew around and I thought it was going to roll on top of us. I thought a bomb had hit us. The scene on that helipad was just terrible.”
Terry had escaped death by centimetres. Covered in blood, in a state of shock and not sure exactly how badly he was hurt, Terry grabbed his camera and began taking pictures as he sat dazed on the floor of the pad. Once he regained his feet his pictures took in the wider scenes of carnage.
The man standing next to Terry was killed, another suffered severe injuries and Terry watched helplessly as the injured man plunged 27 metres from the platform into the sea. A third man died while still being treated by doctors on the platform that night.
Medical staff and oil well workers donated their blood in direct transfusions to some of the seven injured, no doubt saving their lives. Terry was one of the lucky ones, his wounds turned out to be minor, but the painful memories lingered throughout his career.
Many thousands of pictures later Terry found himself dispatched to cover the Kilmore trots, not a choice assignment for a Walkley Award winner. Still, his motto always was, “You never know what might turn up.” What did turn up was a crash in the first race, a lowly maiden, and Terry extracted a world-beating sequence of pictures. His great eye and supreme reflexes recorded the dramatic moments as a driver was flung from his sulky and then had his helmet run over by one of the racing wheels as he lay on the track. The split-second shots won the Best Sequence Award at the World Press Photo Awards in Amsterdam.
Terry covered multiple Olympic and Commonwealth Games, bushfires and floods, Melbourne Cups, VFL and AFL Grand Finals, Australian Tennis Opens, Ashes series and sundry Royal tours. When he took a picture of two dancers he received a telegram from the renowned ballet director Dame Peggy van Praagh which said simply: “CONGRATULATIONS ON GREAT BALLET PHOTOGRAPH STOP IN ALL MY EXPERIENCE HAVE NEVER SEEN ITS EQUAL.”
He shook hands with the Queen on the Royal yacht Britannia and watched with amusement as the attendants served the Royal guests with gin and tonic mixed up in buckets. Another Royal tour saw him shaking hands with the lovely Princess Diana, in the Red Heart of Australia, Alice Springs.
Terry spent the last four of his 40 years at The Herald and Weekly Times as Pictorial Editor. Under his leadership, The Sun News-Pictorial enhanced its reputation for publishing outstanding pictures. He was a fine mentor for young photographers who blossomed under his leadership and credited his advice with burnishing their careers.
One of his proudest achievements was his role in the industrial campaign for photographers to win wage parity with journalists. It was a battle that put Terry and a couple of courageous colleagues at odds with their employers but one which they eventually won. It was a lasting legacy they left to their craft.
Colin Duck was editor of The Sun News-Pictorial from 1986 until its merger with the Herald in 1990.
Secret Service Agent Rufus Youngblood, courtesy of Terry Phelan.
The Fall 1, courtesy of Terry Phelan.
The Fall 2, courtesy of Terry Phelan.
The Fall 3, courtesy of Terry Phelan.
The Fall 4, courtesy of Terry Phelan.
Interview with Terry Phelan, Press Photography in Australia website.
'How a Secret Service agent’s quick thinking in Melbourne became an iconic image', Jamie Duncan, Herald Sun, 21 March 2016.