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Interviews

Press photographer Kent Gavin on a life in the newspapers and shooting the British Royal Family

Press photographer Kent Gavin on a life in the newspapers and shooting the British Royal Family

© Kent Gavin

June 2012

One of the world’s most successful press photographers, Kent Gavin has seen a lot in his 45-year career, covering everything from sport to Hollywood film stars. But perhaps his most famous images are those of the British royal family, with whom he has forged a close working relationship over 30 years. His new book, 'My Royal Appointments', lifts the lid on life with one of the world’s most famous families. CPN Editor David Corfield catches up with him in between assignments.

There aren't many working press photographers listed in the Debrett’s 'Who’s Who'. The self-titled ‘modern authority on all matters etiquette, taste and achievement’ lists Gavin as a fan of football (specifically, his beloved Arsenal FC) and goes on to record a rather long list of awards and achievements, of which we will come to later.

As one of the most senior working British press photographers, “I’ll never retire!” states Gavin, he embraces technology and approaches every new innovation and product launch with the enthusiasm of a teenager. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but try telling Gavin that.

“Digital photography has made my life so much easier,” he admits. “The quality is really excellent. Sometimes when I’m out there working I wish I had the speed and quality of today’s digital cameras. All those years ago when I was changing films with one hand and reaching for a lens in the other, an EOS digital camera would have taken away a lot of stress.”

But in making it easier to take a good picture, does it make for a better photographer? “Not in my book, not at all,” he firmly states. “The skill – and indeed the art – of seeing a good picture in the first place is something no camera can take away from you.”

© Kent Gavin

The Queen has always had a passion for horse racing. It’s shown here quite clearly in this expressive image.

This was made very apparent in the recent Jubilee celebrations where Gavin was photographing the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

“The Queen and Duke were originally supposed to be sitting on the chairs in the middle of the Royal Barge, so I positioned myself right at the front so I could look back at them and photograph them with my EOS-1D Mark II N with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. As it turned out, because of the inclement weather they both stood behind the chairs and used them to shelter from the wind, hence the photographs I got were of two chairs and the Queen and Duke from the waist up!” Gavin laughs at the memory, but still reckons: “it was a great day and one to be remembered.”

Gavin’s career with Canon equipment started way back in 1968 when he was sent to document the culling of fur seals in Canada for the Daily Mirror. “I had a Canon P rangefinder at the time and shot perhaps one of my most iconic pictures on it,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful little camera, very light and great for reportage work where you had to react quickly. I fluctuated after that for a few years with other manufacturers and then went back to Canon in the mid-1970s, and I have remained loyal ever since.”

Like most of today’s press photographers, Gavin has built up quite a collection of cameras and lenses over the years. “I am using a couple of EOS-1D Mark II N bodies and have a selection of lenses, the most important of which are the EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM, the EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM. I’ve got pretty much every lens Canon ever made, but the one I could never be without is the 70-200mm, without a doubt. It’s such a cracking lens and pin-sharp too.”

© Kent Gavin

Prince William was christened on the Queen Mother’s 82nd birthday. Gavin was given the order of service for the official photographs and noticed they hadn’t planned for one of the Queen Mother holding William. “I was asked not to, but I broke ranks and went up to the Queen and said: “Excuse me Ma’am but there’s one very important picture missing.” When I told her, she said: “Oh my goodness, how did we miss that?”

Royal connections

Gavin is the first to admit he’s been around a bit. “I guess I’ve been there and done that – and bought several T-shirts along the way!” he laughs. “I’ve won British Press Photographer of the Year award three times with portfolios of pictures covering everything from wars to weddings. And the biggest wedding of all came in 1981 with the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was Diana’s arrival to the scene that kick-started my coverage of the Royals. There was so much interest in the lady, I ended up photographing her every day, such was the demand for pictures of her. And I haven’t really stopped since – it’s become something of a career within a career.”

There’s no doubt the Royal Family know who Gavin is – he’s been around them a long time. They trust him to do his job with the utmost professionalism. “Princess Diana personally chose me to photograph Prince William’s Christening in 1982 at Buckingham Palace,” he remembers, with a great deal of pride.

© Kent Gavin

Prince Charles and Princess Diana pose for photographers on the banks of the River Dee, in the grounds of Balmoral Castle, Scotland, 1981.

To his credit, Gavin has won the Royal Photographer of the Year award seven times, an accolade he’s proud of. “I’ve also won Royal Photographer of the Decade twice (1980s and 1990s). Following Diana around the world became a full-time job!”

With all this contact with the world’s most famous family, have any of them every asked for photo tips? He laughs: “Prince Andrew was very keen on photography and actually has a very good eye for a picture."

“One of my favourite Royal pictures is of the Queen Mother holding William as a baby,” Gavin remembers. “It wasn’t even a planned picture either. A list had been supplied of who was going to hold him and I looked at it with wide eyes, realising that they had left the Queen Mother out. For me, that was the picture. After all the others had been taken I politely mentioned it to the Queen who summoned her mother to take part in the shoot. She agreed at once with a big smile. I shall never forget that moment because for me it was the best picture – the youngest Royal meets the oldest.”

Gavin’s coverage of the Royal Family has been brought into sharp focus in this, the Queen’s Jubilee year. “I was approached by a publisher and was given just seven weeks to edit the pictures down to a selection of 200 and scribble down some thoughts,” he recalls.

© Kent Gavin

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (with Prince Harry) are welcomed aboard the Royal Barge 'Spirit of Chartwell' during the 2012 Diamond Jubilee weekend.

“It covers my 30-odd years of life with the royals and is all about my memories and stories behind the pictures. I’m hoping people are going to find it interesting – it’s my fourth book now so on that basis I must have been doing something right!”

The business today

As Gavin looks back on his career, he feels sorry for young photographers coming into photojournalism today. “You’ve got to be very lucky to make any money from the business now,” he remarks. “Unless you’re a salaried photographer with an agency, life for the freelancer is very hard – and very expensive. I was looking at replacing my kit with the latest EOS-1D X bodies, but when I saw the price I nearly fell through the floor!” he quips. “You need the best equipment to do the job, certainly, but it comes at a price. The problem is that the rewards are not there like they used to be."

“Budget restraints on daily newspapers now mean that world events aren’t covered in the way they used to be. When I was at The Mirror as a young man there were 28 staff photographers who used to go all over the world covering stories. These days the pictures come in from local agency news feeds instantly, effectively making staffer jobs redundant.”

It’s a point Gavin is keen to make, and it highlights how the world is changing as information and images become ever more instant. “But there will always be a need for a quality picture, and the right kit with the right photographer will always get the best results,” he stresses. “It was the same when I started, choosing the best film and finding the right lens, and it’s the same today with the right sensor and the right image processing. Canon has got it bang on with the EOS System and I can’t ever see myself changing – or retiring, for that matter!”

Kent Gavin’s equipment:

Cameras:
2x EOS-1D Mark II N

Lenses:
EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye
EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF35-350mm f/3.5-5.6 USM L
EF50mm f/1.4 USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF1.4x II Extender

Accessories:
2x Speedlite 580EX flashguns
Apple MacBook Pro
Think Tank backpack

Biography: Kent Gavin

Kent Gavin

Kent Gavin is a pre-eminent British photojournalist whose iconic images have featured consistently on newspaper and magazine covers throughout the world. Through his key position as Chief Photographer with the Daily Mirror (a newspaper he joined in 1968), Gavin had the privilege to become accepted as one of the few trusted and respected Royal photographers. He has won British Press Photographer of the Year four times, Royal Photographer of the Year seven times, was named Royal Photographer of the Decade for the 1980s and 1990s, and is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.



Showcase

The streets of Belfast were a regular haunt for newspaper photographers in the early 1970s as the British Army were brought in to combat terrorism.