Terry Cryer: Life through a lens

Terry Cryer.
Terry Cryer.
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The Yorkshire Evening Post meets Leeds-born photographer Terry Cryer.

He was born in Saville Green, which is now the Ebor Estate in Burmantofts.

After a spell in the army he became a photographer, snapping everyone from Hollywood legends Elizabeth Taylor and Steve McQueen to music greats Louis Armstrong and Nat ‘King’ Cole.

The 76-year-old, who has three grown-up daughters, now lives in Knaresborough.

Interview by Grant Woodward.

“I never took pictures for pleasure, if I wasn’t commissioned I didn’t take them. And I photographed a lot of things I didn’t like.

I took pictures for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and I hate contemporary dance. I did motor racing for Gulf Oil and I hate motor racing.

But I like pictures, you see, so it didn’t really matter.

Jazz got me started but I was never really interested in it.

I’m 50 per cent deaf – my friends tell me I’ve got Van Gogh’s ear for music.

In 1954 in Leeds there was only one posh restaurant that stayed open after the pubs shut and the musicians who had been doing gigs at Leeds Town Hall, or Wakefield or Bradford started going there, so I started photographing them.

“Leeds had a huge variety theatre at the time, The Empire, so the stars from that used to go there as well. It was a rocking place.

My first real job was at a photo studio in Boar Lane where the working class went to have their portraits taken.

I was about 15 at the time and my job was developing people’s holiday photos.

There was a fabulous-looking girl working on reception who must have been about 28. During the summer she was in the Fol de Rols dance troupe in Scarborough.

She took a fancy to me and used to come into the dark room and smother me with greasepaint kisses while the films were developing.

It meant I used to leave them in too long. They would come out black.

I was a War Office photographer with the army in Egypt, even though I hadn’t had any training.

I faked my way in and managed to become a full corporal by my 18th birthday. I saved up and bought a Rolleiflex camera, which I used to go out of bounds with to photograph the local Bedouin people.

“I took a photograph of a Bedouin woman with a lovely strong face, she lifted her veil aside for me to take the photograph.

That was the first good picture I ever took and it told me everything I ever needed to know. It’s still my favourite.

I once climbed Mount Sinai with Charlton Heston.

When I was in Egypt we drove across the Sinai desert to visit a monastery and the fim director Cecil B DeMille was there shooting The Ten Commandments.

I bumped into this very tall fellow and he and DeMille set off up the mountain, so I went with them and started taking photos.

I didn’t know who he was but I said to him, ‘You’re a big bugger, what are they feeding you on?’ He said, ‘Raw meat’.

When I moved to London a friend of mine at the Associated Press asked me to step in for him while he went on holiday for three weeks.

It was only sweeping the floor and mixing chemicals for £2 a day but the Royal Society were celebrating their 300th birthday and all the photographers were out on other things.

Prince Philip was going to be there so they asked me to go and photograph him. I was nervous as hell.

They’d built a robot with lights on top that scurried round a table and when it got to the edge it sensed it and went somewhere else.

I didn’t have a sync lead for my flash so had to do it manually. I opened the shutter but it took me a while to find the button for the flash.

When they developed the picture there were all these little streaks of light around the robot and they said, ‘Cor, that’s bloody clever’, so they took me on at £5 a day.

A good photograph is all about timing. I don’t like pictures that are set up, I like to seize the moment.

My big break was when I was sent to Moscow by the Associated Press. They couldn’t send an American because they weren’t allowed in.

I was terrified and even thought about breaking my arm to get out of it.

But when I got there I was cooking with gas. I took a picture in Red Square of two soldiers, a pigeon and two ladies and they were all in perfect step. You could never stage something like that.

My childhood was a tough one. We lived in a slum with a lavatory up the street, no hot water and a little open fire.

“My father suffered with chronic bronchitis and he’d also had rheumatic fever so we were on Parish Relief, living on about 40 pence a week.

My mother had left home so we only had three chairs. In those days if you were on Parish Relief and had an extra chair they would tell you to get it sold.

I was evacuated to south Yorkshire when I was five and lived with a lady who had been in service to Queen Victoria.

She taught me manners, standing up when a lady entered the room and eating with a knife and fork because we ate with our fingers in Saville Green.

I was there for five years and it was the making of me. She used to read to us and when I came back to Leeds I was light years ahead of the other kids in my class. The teachers called them all by their surnames, but I was Terence.

The thing that might surprise people about me is that I’m not as flinty as I appear to be.

I try to behave now I’m older but I didn’t when I was younger.

The trouble is that I’ve got an opinion, which is why I’ve been a freelance all my life. You mustn’t have an opinion when you work in a company.

I love everything about Yorkshire.

When I went abroad people would ask if I was an Englishman and I’d say, ‘No, I’m a Yorkshireman’.

In my mind there’s a big difference.

“The best advice I’ve been given has always been from Jewish people.

I’ve got a lot of Jewish friends and they’re about the only people on whose advice I ever act, strangely enough.

The best advice was from a grocer in London. I told him I was worried about being sent to Moscow by the AP and he told me not to be a clown, saying it would be the making of me.

And, of course, he was right.

I would love to photograph my own wake.

If ever I find myself lying in bed waiting to die I want all my friends to come to see me and I’ll take their photographs.

Then when I’ve snuffed it I can have a posthumous exhibition.

* Terry Cryer’s exhibition Fleet Street Hooligan runs until June 19 at the Redhouse Originals gallery in Harrogate.


Food: Indian, although my signature dish is Lobster Thermidor

AUTHOR: Hunter S Thompson and George Orwell

Actor: Dustin Hoffman, who’s a lovely bloke. I photographed when he was filming in Harrogate

Holiday: The Middle East

TV: Time Team

Star sign: Cancer