Interview - Terry Cryer: Shooting stars, jazz greats and Soviet Russia

Soviet soldiers marching in Moscow's Red Square. Picture: Terry Cryer
Soviet soldiers marching in Moscow's Red Square. Picture: Terry Cryer
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Terry Cryer has photographed some of the most famous people on the planet. On the eve of his latest exhibition in Harrogate, he talks to Chris Bond about his life’s work.

From the outset, Terry Cryer’s life as a photographer was destined to be a colourful one.

As he himself later said: “I got a job as a freelance for The Jazz News. I faked myself credentials and I got myself a press card. Was this honest? Who cares? I broke the rules because it was a lot more exciting than following them. The establishment move the goal posts to suit themselves. Why shouldn’t I?”

Cryer is one of the country’s most renowned photographers and printers, making his name through his candid, and beautifully- crafted, portraits of such luminaries as Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers, Eartha Kitt and Paul McCartney. These cultural icons are among the famous names featured in a new retrospective of his work at RedHouse Originals gallery in Harrogate.

The exhibition, called Fleet Street Hooligan, offers a glimpse into the man behind the lens and chronicles Cryer’s “out of bounds trips” with the army in Egypt and his visits to Moscow in the early Sixties. There are around 50 vintage and original prints on show and including previously unseen and rare photographs such as his stunning portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, taken at the Dorchester in 1963.

The exhibition traces Cryer’s beginnings on the streets of Leeds in the 1940s, through the smoke-filled jazz clubs a decade later and onto the heady days of swinging sixties London where he rubbed shoulders with the greats of the stage and screen.

Born in an Irish-Catholic slum in Leeds, he was evacuated to South Yorkshire during the war where as he puts, “I was brought up properly by an old lady who took the slum out of me,” he says, laughing. He returned to post-war Leeds which he describes as a “grey, miserable little place” as the city, like the rest of the country, struggled to come to terms with the cost of the war.

By the time he was a teenager he had become interested in photography. “I started with a friend doing little contact prints with gaslight paper and I decided I wanted to be a photographer which, for somebody with my working-class background, was quite difficult.”

He left school without any qualifications at the age of 14 and three years later, in 1951, he joined the Army. “When I filled out the forms I put down that I was a photographer, which, of course, I wasn’t, but they needed photographers.” Cryer was sent to Egypt where he acquired a twin-lens Rolleiflex, which in those days was a top-notch camera, and when he returned home after three years in the Army he put it to good use.

He learned all about “crashing ‘em out”, (speed printing), taking pictures of anything from babies to Saturday night dances. It was during this period that he started going to a jazz club on Upper Briggate, in Leeds, where musicians would hang out after their concerts. It was here that Cryer met and photographed some of the biggest names in British jazz, including the late Humphrey Lyttelton, Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes.

His work started to get noticed and he decided to take the plunge and move to London. “I realised I needed a press card otherwise I couldn’t work so I collected a lot of snaps back in Leeds from local papers as though they were my own work and applied for a press card and got one.”

He worked for Jazz News, who paid him the princely sum of 10 shillings a photograph, during which time he got to know jazz and blues stars like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Muddy Waters. “I would travel with them to do publicity pictures and all the jazz men were first rate and all the black guys from America were absolute gentlemen. They were disenfranchised over in America, they couldn’t drink out the same water fountain, but it wasn’t the same in England, which is why they liked it here, and as a photographer I always tried to give them dignity in my pictures.”

In 1960, he joined the Associated Press and as a fearless young photographer was sent on assignments all over the world. When he wasn’t traipsing around Africa or South America he spent his time photographing some of the most famous names of the 20th century.

So what were they like? “They were just ordinary people who happened to be famous. He was a lovely fella,” Cryer says, turning to a picture of Sammy Davis Jnr on the gallery wall. “Everybody adored him, women were crazy about him because he was such a nice man,” he says. “The only difficult one was Miles Davis. But he got smashed in the throat with a nightstick by the police and it broke his vocal chords, so he didn’t like whitey and you can understand why.”

These days, though, he has little interest in photographing celebrities. “A lot of them seem to believe their own publicity, they’re not the same as the ones I photographed,” he laments.

After leaving the Associated Press he set up his own company listing such corporate behemoths as Shell, Gulf Oil and Nestle among his clients. His work has been praised by the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and photographer Val Wilmer, while his picture of Soviet soldiers marching in Red Square won the Encyclopedia Britannica award. In a career spanning seven decades Cryer has photographed just about everyone and everything imaginable and has around 200,000 negatives at home that have never even been printed.

“A photograph’s about itself,” he says, explaining the skill behind his craft. “The mistake people often make is they’re besotted with the subject. They might see a tramp and start clicking away, but all you get is a picture of a tramp. When you see an interesting subject you’ve got to think of the photograph, that’s the key, the composition – it’s instinctive. When Pavarotti was singing he didn’t think about whether he should go up to a high C, he just did it. It’s part of what he was and it’s the same with taking photographs.”

Terry Cryer – Fleet Street Hooligan, runs at RedHouse Originals, Harrogate, from May 21 until June 19.

Snapshot of a photographer

Terry Cryer was born in Leeds, in 1934.

He left school at 14 without any qualifications and taught himself how to be a photographer and print maker.

His 1958 portrait of Muddy Waters is featured on the Mississippi Blues trail to mark the place of the musician’s Delta cabin.

Sammy Davis Jnr was enamoured with Cryer’s picture of him, taken in a London nightclub in 1960. He used it as his publicity shot throughout the 60s.

Cryer has photographed many famous people including Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen, Louis Armstrong, Bertrand Russell, Nikita Khrushchev and Paul McCartney.