Michael-John Jennings the Picture Librarian at the Times (News Licensing) photo archive dropped PAN a line this week.
“Hi Will, I wanted to share with you a blog post I did from the archives last night (March 4), on Sir Roger Bannister. Myself and Jack Hill the Times photographer were lucky enough to meet the man in 2014 after I found the 6 remaining glass plates of him sat in our archive of him breaking the 4 minute mile in 1954, we visited him to shoot some new portraits and present him with the framed images…”
Great work MJ! and very happy to run this thorough piece on photo research on the pages of PhotoArchiveNews.com
In early 2014 I was in the vast photographic archives of The Times doing editorial research on 1950’s football trawling through boxes of glass plate negatives when a glass plate from 1954 caught my attention. In negative form I instantly recognised the finish line moment of an athlete crossing the line, the caption confirmed my suspicion it was Sir Roger Bannister, it said it was Oxford, 1954. I instantly ran out to cross check our handwritten yearly diaries (Image 1) to check if this was the historic sub-4-minute mile world record, the diary from 1954 confirmed that indeed it was, and even more significantly I could only see one old image had been digitised from a print many years back on our system. I went back into the negative box to find a set of seven well preserved glass plate negatives (Image 2) magnificently captured by The Times photographer William Horton.
I scanned the negatives that very evening and contacted the Picture Editor on The Times explaining that only a tiny cropped image was used way back in 1954 and that these superb negatives had not been digitised before today, some perhaps remain unseen, they should be seen and could make a great feature.
Sue Connolly the then Picture Editor on The Times instantly knew these images had the potential to make a great picture feature for the coming weekend, and indeed they made the print and online edition of The Times that very Saturday “A fresh glimpse of day history was made”.
What happened next was a rare but superb example of the power and potential of a photographic archive and the importance in preserving unique historical content.
On Monday morning I had a phone call from the Picture Editor explaining that Sir Roger Bannister himself had called The Times and The Sunday Times via a journalist friend John Bryant. Sir Roger was a Times reader and had seen the article, he was most enthused by the images and wanted to see the full set if possible. I got to work printing and framing the images, later that week I met Times staff photographer Jack Hill and we set off to Oxford to meet tha man himself, Sir Roger Bannister.
On the way myself and Jack spoke about what pleasure it was to meet a living legend and discussed what we might ask him. On arrival we were welcomed into his home by his wife, the artist Moyra Bannister, an incredibly friendly and accommodating lady who proudly showed us some of her artwork on the walls as we waited in the hall.
Sir Roger welcomed us in and was keen to see the images, he was pleasantly surprised to see we had brought all the images framed and the original Times report from 1954 framed as a gift. Sir Roger went on to chat at length about that historic day as he looked at the photographs, his memory of every detail of that race was fascinating to hear. We brought along the original glass negatives to show Sir Roger and these really fascinated him and he wanted to pick them up and look, breaking our usual policy we allowed it and it made a fantastic portrait (Image 3). Sir Roger kept saying was how The Times photographer did such a remarkable job capturing the race in particular the finish line image as most other photographers and reporters had been placed on the inside of the Oxford track, William Horton however was on the track itself looking straight down the lens at Sir Roger as he crossed the tape in 3 min 59.4 seconds (Image 4).
The original 1954 Times coverage of that day (Image 5) had only used one tight cropped shot of that image, as was typical of the time, in general photographs were not often used in broadsheets at that time and certainly not sets of images. However that very image seen in full un-cropped showed so much more, it tells a story of a time, a place, and a moment in history. Seen together those seven photographs illustrate perfectly a narrative of that world record breaking race unfolding from the starting lineup to the vision of Sir Roger exhausted at the finish line.
Jack Hill shot a series of wonderful portraits of Sir Roger that day for The Times as we sat and discussed that historic race, he also had the foresight to have a second camera set up recording his words as he spoke at length about his love for running and his amazing medical career.
Apart from how lovely and accommodating Sir Roger and his wife Moyra were, two thoughts endured with me after that day;
It reinforced to me how important our photographic archive is and how images can touch people. When you are responsible for such a vast historic archive as the one at News UK you acknowledge like most working archives that not all of it can be digitised overnight. However never make the cardinal sin of assuming it must have been scanned before, always check, cross check and keep digging for more. Once you find something you know
is important make sure you push it to senior editorial as soon as possible. Finding that set of seven glass plates that day led not only to great feature in print, but then to meeting Sir Roger , a new photoshoot and a great piece of video. All of this came about from our own unique content within our archive feeding directly into creating new contemporary content. In these days of homogenised content and identical agency feeds we must preserve and utilise our own unique content, both analogue and digital photographs and the two can compliment each other in new and creative ways.
The other overwhelming thought was how joyful Sir Roger looked talking about running, it was clear it meant so much more to him than that world record or the fame. It was a true passion, something he was perpetually fascinated by. He spoke of the technicalities of his running gait explaining how it allowed him to improve and get faster the importance of training and stamina but also crucially how running made him feel, the emotion, the need to improve, the competition, the winning.. it was a way of life.
We found out today that Sir Roger Bannister had died surrounded by family and friends in Oxford. After hearing the news announced I decided to show my two young girls aged 4 and 7 the footage of Sir Roger on the track in Oxford breaking the world record on YouTube, they were enthralled by it. Sixty Four years later he is still inspiring young would be athletes, his legacy will be everlasting, rest in peace Sir Roger Bannister.
MJ first ran the article on Medium here.