David Cannon on his 40-year career, a round with Seve and his dislike of hats…
PUBLISHED: 14:39 11 August 2016 | UPDATED: 14:39 11 August 2016
West Hoathly-based David Cannon is the world's number one golf photographer and in his 40-year career has snapped many of the greats. David spoke to Clive Agran about his years on the fairway.
Rather perversely, it was playing a round of golf with his hero Seve Ballesteros in a pro-am tournament back in 1976 that persuaded David Cannon not to become a professional golfer. “I had been playing in top amateur golf for about four years, was on the fringes of the England team and in the top 10 British youths. The year before I had played in an Open qualifier and was thinking about maybe turning pro at some time. But watching Seve and what he could do convinced me that perhaps my talents lay elsewhere in the sport.”
So instead of joining the ranks of professional golfers, David, who now lives in the pretty Sussex village of West Hoathly, opted for a somewhat less glamorous occupation packing nylon sheets in his home town of Leicester. However, an opportunity soon arose to join the sales team, which he grabbed. “It was a dead easy job that came with a company car and so there was loads of time to play golf, which is really all I wanted to do.”
Life was good, especially as his girlfriend was also an exceptionally good golfer. In fact, it is she who deserves much of the credit for her boyfriend’s subsequent career switch. She was playing in a tournament and a society magazine called Leicester Graphic wanted some photographs of it. David promptly volunteered, borrowed his sister’s Russian camera and set off on his first photographic assignment.
The pictures he took were so good that the magazine used half a dozen. The seed of a whole new future had been sown. A further piece of good fortune followed when David was introduced to Neville Chadwick, who ran the photo side of the Leicester News Service and, most important of all, covered all Leicester City’s and Leicester Tigers’ home games.
The grizzled veteran invited the enthusiastic youngster to ‘carry his bags’ to a rugby match at Welford Road between the East Midlands and the touring All Blacks. Desperate to impress, David promptly sold his beloved Mini car for £300 and bought a top-of-the-range Canon AEI camera.
“I didn’t have a clue about exposure,” confessed David. “Neville gave me two bits of advice; focus on the eyes and try to fill the frame. And those tips are still valid today.” As well as support and encouragement, Chadwick handed his new assistant three rolls of black and white film and told him to have fun but remember the advice he had been given.
“By sheer chance I snapped a rather good picture of a huge All Black forward about to flatten a diminutive East Midlands scrum-half called Les Cusworth.” David was thrilled the next day to open his Sunday Express to see his photo occupying a prominent spot on one of the back pages.
Not long after this thrilling introduction to the world of sport photography, David was offered a full-time job at a Northampton news agency that specialised in football. He was given loads of work and there was plenty of travel, which he enjoyed. Although always busy, the young snapper was nevertheless rather miffed at receiving no direct credit. “It was my work but there were no by-lines.” Eventually in 1983 he joined three other top sports photographers to form the Allsport Agency. Here he not only developed an enviable reputation as an exceptionally talented photographer but he was given a share of the business and promoted to a director of the company in 1986.
Not counting the time he sneaked in with a camera in 1979, the first British Open David covered as a fully accredited professional was in 1982. Since then he has photographed an astonishing 104 men’s majors (including 34 Open championships and 33 US Masters at Augusta), 64 women’s majors, 15 Ryder Cups, 15 Walker Cups, 13 Solheim Cups and six President’s Cups. David has almost certainly attended more top tournaments than any other living photographer and is widely acknowledged as both the most experienced and accomplished in his craft.
Like the pros who played in them, he can remember each without difficulty and can readily recall what happened and who won. His favourite moment? “Seve pumping his fist after holing a putt on the 18th green at St Andrews in 1984. He went on for so long that most photographers ran out of film long before he’d finished. I was lucky in that I’d just put in a new roll.”
How have things changed in the 25 years or so since he started? “When we began Allsport, I was the only photographer covering golf whereas today Getty (which bought Allsport for nearly £30m in 1998) send at least six to every major tournament. It’s much more hectic now, the days are longer and the work is more intensive. Leaving the Masters to one side for the moment, the golf season used to last from about May to September. Nowadays it stretches from the first week in January, when I always try to venture out and confront the elements at Rye for the annual Mad Dogs and Englishmen gathering of past Oxford and Cambridge golfing blues, to the second week in December.”
One development of which he most certainly doesn’t approve is the universal presence of the seemingly mandatory hat. “You can hardly see Rory McIlroy’s or Jordan Spieth’s face, which means you don’t see their personality. I gather that 75 per cent of sponsorship revenue is tied up in these damned hats but it makes my life more difficult and actually rather spoils the impact of the pictures. Seve only ever wore a hat at the Masters, presumably because they paid him a lot of money to do so.”
Because of the unwelcome arrival of the hat, David calculates that roughly 90 per cent of his most memorable photographs were taken in the 1980s.
Do the players know him? “Oh yes. Remember, I’ve followed a lot of them since they were amateurs. Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy, for example, I’ve known since they were in the mid-teens. And they know me all right... even Tiger eventually called me David.”
Has he learnt anything about golf from watching them? “I did pick up a tip from Monty [Scottish golfer Colin Montgomerie] who told me to hold the club with the same amount of pressure as you would apply when squeezing a tube of toothpaste. And being a golfer certainly helps me to take photographs because, for example, I can tell from a player’s follow-through where the ball has gone.”
As well as all the tournament shots, David has also taken the photos to illustrate two books of instruction with Sir Nick Faldo, two with Ernie Els, three with David Leadbetter and one with Seve. “Having done that lot, I should think I have more or less qualified as a teaching professional!” In addition, David has published two large limited edition coffee table books: Fairways of the World in 2004 and Golf Courses of Great Britain and Ireland in 2011. He is now working on a new edition of the former, to be published some time in 2018.
With Getty supplying images to 40 magazines, perhaps three times that many websites and 3,000 newspapers worldwide, there’s no shortage of work. And David travels an enormous amount. “I spend as many as 30 weeks a year away from home and always love coming home to Sussex. West Hoathly where we live is one of the prettiest villages anywhere and I love nothing more than heading out with our dog either into the fabulous bluebell woods or into Ashdown Forest. It’s the perfect way to wind down – except when lovely four-legged Mashie finds a deer to run with! But I never forget how lucky I am to live where I do.” Mashie, presumably, is named after the historic hickory-shafted golf club.
Although he takes his rather more modern clubs with him when he goes abroad, David’s not playing as much as he would like and his handicap has slipped from scratch to nine. His 28-year-old son Chris has taken over as the best golfer in the family and is currently splitting fairways and sinking putts on the Asian Tour. His father relishes the prospect of photographing him holing a putt to clinch the British Open. Perhaps then he might finally be willing to pack his cameras away.
What of the future? “I’ve no plans to retire. As long as I can walk and hump the cameras around, I’ll keep going. I have this ambition to photograph 50 Open championships and 50 Masters and leave a unique legacy to the sport I totally love.”
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