53 Days to Go : How I started

It’s just over 22 years since I first shot a game of football.

As some of you know, I suffer from hayfever quite badly. Whilst at Art School doing Art History, Communication Studies and Photography I anticipated that my destiny would be behind a camera, but not a still one. Ever since I was 8, I only wanted to work in Television. I don’t know how or why, I just did! My paper round money was spent on cine cameras and career lessons were totally boring as I knew what I wanted to do.

MALAYSIA

© Matthew Ashton / AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

I have since achieved my dream, for when I was in Malaysia covering an international football match, a TV cameraman let me take controls of his Sony Camera and to say I was bricking it when the red light came on to signify that what I was filming was going out live was an understatement. Shooting documentaries is far less stressful and during my travels I spent a lot of time with Production Crews from Futbol Mundial. Quite often their cameramen would take my stills camera and I would have control of the ENG.

It’s great to see a picture in print, but to be honest its more exciting watching TV knowing you have filmed that. Well it is for me anyway!

Back to the sneezing.

Picture : Ilford

The A level photography class were studying the art of macro photography (that’s close up) and my assignment for the weekend was to shoot close-ups of flowers. This was an instant NO NO!

I instead was instructed to simply document something I did over the weekend using two rolls of Ilford HP5 film.

I had just turned 17. I owned a Nikon F-301 and a few lenses including a 135mm F2.5. I enjoyed photography but it got tedious shooting subjects that I had no interest in. Since the turn of 1988, I had spent most of my days making Morph like plastercine characters with a guy and a girl in my Art History class. I had neglected the studio flash lectures in photography and and documentary camerawork or animation still seemed more important in those days.

SHREWSBURY

Since the age of six, I watched Shrewsbury Town home and away. Every weekend involved going to football. It was my life and  90% of the people I knew were connected with STFC in some way. Whilst at school many an offer to go roller staking with the school in crowd or record shopping with the Goth girls and representing the County in men’s hockey were all turned down due to my need to see Salop away at Charlton or Plymouth.

Whilst at college, every Friday I went to Shrewsbury Town FC where my father worked part-time for a lift home. I would sit with the Commercial Manager and talk small talk whilst the Police discussed with my dad hooligans and stadium crowd disorder (he was the stadium safety officer).

Mr Ivor Hookway was the Commercial Managers name. He quizzed me on what I had been doing at college and I mentioned my weekend task. His question on what was I doing over the weekend was instantly replied to as, “Oldham v Shrewsbury on Saturday, Sunday – I dunno!”

Before I knew it, Mr Hookway telephoned his counterpart at Oldham Athletic. I was going as a photographer working for Shrewsbury Town.

OLDHAM

Saturday came. I was not particularly excited, nervous or indeed anything. I was just going to Boundary Park and instead of watching, I was going to photograph a football match. Excited as normal yes, but nothing more. I wanted to tell my friends playing in the youth team more than anything as I had got nearer the first team pitch than they had in their early careers.

Artificial Pitch © AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

Oldham had a plastic pitch at that time. I went pitchside and spent most of the time being ball boy throwing and kicking the ball back to the Town players who I knew before the kick off and didn’t even switch my camera on or put in a film.

The ref blew the whistle and the game started. I knew enough about photography to know I should shoot at 1/500th sec to freeze the action and some how knew I did not want a depth of field of f11 so shot wide open at f2.5. This would be the foundation of being self-taught.

I put in a roll of HP5 and sat down with no real anticipation – after all, this was just Shrewsbury Town.

I remember my debut as though it was yesterday. As the wingers crossed the ball, I focussed on the attackers and anticipated them getting the ball and snapped away. At the end of the game it was 2-2 and I had shot 53 frames.

And that was it.

Not that was it in terms of I was hooked, addicted or whatever, that was it. I was un-phased.

I returned home on the supporters bus, went out in the evening with my STFC friends, as normal being 17 it was only natural to get in to a nightclub for over 25’s and drink lots of vodka before walking home alone through housing estates and over fields hoping to sneak in un-noticed at 3am.

Sunday came. It was a glorious day. In later life when I had a car, it was a no brainer to kidnap my friends and head for the Welsh coast. Borth was the centre of the universe for us. But today I was inspired by the Sunday Express. As normal, I studied the football league tables. A year or so earlier, Shrewsbury Town were nearly promoted to Division One and joined the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. A picture of West Bromwich Albion caught my eye. I instantly got the buzz of anticipation that photographers had when using film. I had the need to process 2 rolls of HP5 and headed for the loft.

ILFORD

Again I enjoyed photography but I preferred more the hands on approach of creating the pictures. I have always been the one who was interested in the story behind the story. When attending gigs I would watch the lighting guys. When my friends had a soul band, I was the sound engineer. Although I liked taking pictures, at that time the real joy was printing and processing. In the loft I had built a darkroom and developing kit but the hobby mostly consisted of printing pictures of me and my friend Sarah on holiday in Menorca.

I went into the loft and put on the radio. Dave Lee Travis entertained me as I processed the films using my trusted Ilford ID-11 developer and whilst drying them suddenly became aware I had negatives of Shrewsbury Town players in action! The Stranglers were playing at the time.

Contact Sheet from the first game

As Michael Jackson was knocking off Stock Aitken and Waterman of the Number One spot, I was still printing in the darkroom until well into the evening. Rick Astley was turned off and out came the Once Upon a Time Simple Minds LP.

Although later on in life I would boast to the hills on my colour printing ability (at times my photography was shocking but I was a great colour printer), my black and white printing techniques were still developing. A lot of my life was spent staring at images appearing in liquid developer under red lights. It was always a quiet calm, it always took time and I cared about what I was producing.

I ended up with 7 prints. Sarah’s dog Wispa or some wall of a Spanish castle that our parents had dragged us around on holiday never really captured the imagination when I was developing before. But now I was developing images of football. I became interested. All my composition lessons in Art History enlightened me whilst I watched the images appear in the dev tray. I was already cropping like a picture editor and making uprights out of landscape originals.

Oldham v Shrewsbury Town

On Monday morning I took the pictures to show Mr Hookway. Even though I was a teenager, I was still humble and sincere and before I even went to college, I was showing my weekend work to him as a thank you . There was certainly no anticipation on what would happen next.

He flicked through them and asked if he could keep them, I thought nothing of it, he seemed content and I walked to college. Late as normal for A level art (I had just completed O level art in 3 months and had achieved an A+), my excuse of delivering prints to Shrewsbury Town intrigued my Art teacher Mr Bishop. Later in the day whilst my Photography teacher was harping on about medium format film, I printed up a few more pictures using the college De Vere enlargers with the Art teacher alongside me.

LONDON

My Art teacher was more of  a friend than the nasty teachers I had experienced at school. Although I had got 13 O Levels at school, College was obviously more relaxed. We were treated like human beings with the philosophy of be who you want to be, do what you want to do, but here is an opportunity should you wish to take it suited me more. When I was lazy I was lazy, but when I worked, work I did.

On Valentines Day (I was very single!) I went with the Art Foundation group to London to look at paintings in some famous galleries. I was never interested in the brushwork or indeed the historic style but my Art teacher had magnetically got me into understanding composition. We spent most of the day looking at some of the apparent great works with imaginary noughts and crosses grids in front of them. We discussed for hours how the pictures were constructed. It was like listening to the Tartan Remix of Cut Up by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and suddenly being interested in violins and strings and not just synths and guitars. Old paintings were not longer un cool.

I understood it alright and pointed out the merits of the composition of some pictures in national newspapers whilst in WH Smiths near Oxford Street later on. Roman Thirds was my thing and I could spot them a mile off.

That evening most of the group went to the pub. I went to Highbury. Arsenal were playing France in a friendly match. I got on the tube and got off at Arsenal. I paid a tout and got a great seat.

My Art teacher always questioned me on what I did that evening. Was I in Soho? Didn’t I like his company ? Did I have a secret date? But he understood my passion for football especially when I enthused about seeing Michel Platini play that evening.

PLATINI IN TOKYO © MATTHEW ASHTON/AMA

Whilst watching the images of  Shrewsbury Town appear in the dev tray of the college darkroom, my Art teacher gave me a 30 second pep talk which went something along the lines of, “If I enjoy taking pictures then why not take pictures of football”. He remembered my trip to Arsenal and said, “You never know you could take pictures of Platini and sell them to the world”.

He planted a seed, but as ever I was in my own little world like most teenagers are.

We left the darkroom with some 10 x 8s of Oldham v Shrewsbury Town. As normal, I was more interested in meeting Julie and talking Simple Minds. Belfast Child has been at number one and some of us wanted tickets to see the Street Fighting Years tour.

The week went by. Julie dropped out, but fellow photography student Wendy and her friend expressed an interest and we got 4 tickets for Simple Minds at Wembley Stadium. (I still have the spare at home today!)

Soon it was the weekend and I was at Gay Meadow for the next Shrewsbury Town fixture. Over the tannoy my name was read out early at about 1pm asking me to report to reception. I went to the offices where Mr Hookway presented me with the matchday programme. He had only gone and published all of the pictures I had given him. He asked if I had my camera which lead me to run to the bus stop and get home as fast as my legs would take me. I grabbed my camera and some college film and shot pictures at the game. This time they were not very good, but I enjoyed it and it became a challenge. Some people were happy for me, more excited than I was, but I was not happy. Comparing them to the pictures in national newspapers most were awful. I needed to improve.

MANCHESTER

Nikon F301

Soon I would be following Shrewsbury Town as normal but being pitch side at Crystal Palace, Notts County and Manchester City. At Maine Road, I met Albert Cooper (Daily Mirror) who took me under his wing. He suggested I went to a NCTJ course in Sheffield to study Photojournalism. Any excuse to leave college for the day, I went with a friend (Ian Day) and we had a look around and met the infamous Mr Paul Delmar. I neglected my A levels from then on and spent most of my time at the local newspaper and at Shrewsbury Town reserve games and training snapping away. I was lucky enough to borrow 300mm or the 600mm lens which the staff photographers at the newspaper did not care for. I slowly mastered the art of follow focus.

Nowadays lenses are autofocus, but following a man running with a depth of field of 4 inches was a skill to behold.

Myself and Ian got onto the NCTJ Photojournalism course but things did not really change. I may sound like a rebel but if I had completed my A levels I do not think I would have got on the course. It was so fierce and competitive. Instead of finding a local beauty in Sheffield and mocking up a picture to symbolise National Ice Cream Day for Mr Delmar, I normally frequented Sheffield United matches or did night shots outside of Sheffield Wednesday.

During my time at college I met Marc Aspland (Then Watford Observer supporting a nice quiff). I fondly remember Marc, I clocked a cassette tape on his car seat of Street Fighting Years by Simple Minds when we were trying to get a picture of him outside The Richmond Pub in Sheffield whilst learning to be paparazzi. I had never met him before, but we were told what car he had. I asked him if he liked Simple Minds and I knew I had the target. We then went for a beer and I think I made his day when I mentioned I liked a picture of his of a man kissing the front of a fighter jet that I had seen in The Times.

Out of the blue came Allsport photographer Russell Cheyne. He was an ex-Delmar pupil too. Rusty was ace (and still is). He tried to get me a job in the dark rooms with Nick Potts and Gary Prior. I had no goals, I had no dreams. I just followed the journey I was on.

But just as important however, in those days we had to pay for film and developing. There were no compact flash cards to shoot on, delete and then subsequently reuse like with digital photography today.

Photographic paper was expensive.Thus when you had a nice picture you knew it had a value. Selling prints resulted in having more cash to improve printing. To this day, I deplore people who give pictures away and are happy with a byline. Ego trips get you no where! Bylines do not pay the bills at Tesco.

For every £200 I would earn, I spent £210 on paper. Always in debt and always with smelly fingers due to not washing my hands whilst processing!

Allsport offered me £4,000 a year as an office junior but I decided to keep shooting Shrewsbury Town for my regional newspaper the Shropshire Star. David Geddis at Shrewsbury Town was more of a magnet than Vinny Jones at Wimbledon.

DORTMUND

This new job gave me a car and a decent wage a previously unknown freedom. Following Simple Minds around Europe in 1991 probably had a bigger effect on me than any education would and I discovered places like Dortmund and Zurich and found out that they had teams like Shrewsbury had a team. Travel quickly taught me to speak French, for 6 years at school I was deemed useless, now I could speak with a Belgian accent!

I somehow found myself shooting the civil war in Croatia alongside now BBC journalist Paul Wood. Exciting yes, but I still preferred the theatre of football.

Then one day at Gigg Lane, Bury – I met Neal Simpson. He was a director of EMPICS and before I knew it, I was contributing to 90 Minutes magazine. At that stage I thought I was OK at taking pictures of football. WRONG! The leap up from being a regional newspaper photographer to what Neal demanded was immense. I freelanced and made mistake after mistake. I went to Walsall and shot like photographer of the year, went to Maine Road for Man City v Liverpool but did not perform. I stuck at it and 18 months later, I eventually went staff at EMPICS and got to travel the world. I visited nearly 90 countries and did more Simple Minds tours. Discovered Japan and thought time and time again that my destiny was in Tokyo.

The boss at EMPICS sold our beloved agency to the Press Association and I could see the writing on the wall and left.

AMA was started in 2006.

I often get asked how do you get into Photography? Or especially Sports Photography.

Well, it is certainly unlike going into law. There is no route. You don’t go to uni, get a job and that’s it! You do it your own way.

There are no qualifications to achieve, only to learn the language of photography. There are no rules. There are no real requirements apart from the obvious one of taking pictures as a skill – but you have to learn to BE a photographer. I often relate my job to that of an interpreter in that to get a job you have to know the language before hand and equally remind people who, although they can drive, do they really see themselves as a rally driver? It is still one of the professions where I believe you need to be the office junior, serve an apprenticeship to kill the glamour of it all. Even in the 80’s for every hour spent flying in a helicopter, you would spend 14 hours in a darkroom printing the pictures.

I’ll retell some stories about playing mind games, how to impress a picture editor and how to get your foot in the door some other time.

Previously all I wanted to do was work in TV but my path changed.

I followed my passion for following football and the picture frame with a group of Scotsmen writing a lifelong soundtrack in the background.

I still want to fly helicopters but everyone has their own route, their own tale.

This was mine.

Advertisements

2 responses to “53 Days to Go : How I started

  1. Hi there! Amazing history! I really like to read how did u get started and your path to archive the place you are now! Thanks for your time to share this in ur blog!

    Very inspiring!

    Valdecir, São Paulo, BRAZIL

  2. Great blog, as a budding amateur photographer it’s great to read someone’s own adventure, I too would frequent Town matches on both Riverside and wakeman end, but who was the guy who used to take photos from the window in the Wakeman school, he knows my step father and got us into the players lounge after a home game during the mid eighties.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s