Colin Elsey

Ground-breaking sports photographer
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The Independent Online

Colin James Elsey, photographer: born Brighton 29 July 1939; died Edmonton, Middlesex 8 September 2003.

Colin Elsey was a ground- breaking practitioner of sports photography, journalism's often underrated companion to the written word. A man of his time, and therefore of the old school who appreciated that there was always a "third half" of the match to be played, Elsey picked up a camera in the mid-1960s and went on to capture many lasting images of sportsmen who were his heroes and in many cases also his friends. He achieved the distinction of being accepted and respected by photographic colleagues, journalists and sportsmen alike.

Born in Brighton in 1939, Elsey grew up in Haywards Heath in Sussex. A passionate Portsmouth FC fan, he would cycle the not inconsiderable distance to Fratton Park to see his beloved Peter Harris on the wing, but eventually found the physical nature of rugby more to his liking. When he realised he had a talent for photography, it seemed apposite to combine the two.

Twickenham and the other rugby grounds of London were Elsey's beat in the 1960s and early 1970s. He had spent three years working in paper mills and building pipelines in Canada and, on his return to the UK, aged 24, proceeded to study industrial and commercial photography at a London polytechnic. He was of a physical stature that enabled him to play in the second row for Wasps, but found that he could earn cash at weekends as a "struggling freelancer", developing photos in a tiny bathroom in his Hammersmith flat.

He pooled resources with another part-time photographer, Stewart Fraser, and the pair supplied black-and-white prints from a sweatshop in Hatton Garden to the newspapers in nearby Fleet Street in its heyday. Their breakthrough was to appreciate the dominant role colour photography would play in the years to come.

Together with a third photographer, Mike Wall, Elsey and Fraser established Colorsport in 1969, taking on a junior partner, Andrew Cowie, a couple of years later. They may not have known it, but it was a template for the sports photographic agency, and has since been copied by many others. Fraser attended the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1974 World Cup, he and Elsey were at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and Elsey travelled to South Africa for the 1974 Lions rugby tour. At all the domestic sporting events, too, they were producing colour photographs: for books, periodicals and advertising as well as newspapers.

Ironically, therefore, Elsey's masterpiece - not too strong a word for an indelible and globally familiar piece of rugby history - is a black-and-white photograph of the English prop forward Fran Cotton, taken on the Lions' tour of New Zealand in 1977. Covered head to toe in cloying Wellington gunge, the hulking "Mudman" Cotton stares out of the picture with a mixture of power and pathos. It summed up Elsey's knack of being in the right place at the right time - the cameraman with a sporting instinct - that he was to repeat 20 years later when again scooping his contemporaries to capture Jeremy Guscott's series-winning dropped goal for the Lions in South Africa.

He gave me my first job, when I was 18, as a photo librarian at Colorsport, and taught me all I needed to know and plenty more about the etiquette of the bar. He never once uttered the words "Have you heard the one about?", yet every one around him would be wreathed in smiles long into the night, more often than not in the Island Queen pub in Noel Road, Islington. His social circle extended well beyond his work: he had made many friends in the advertising community around Charlotte Street in London, and was pals with police inspectors and barristers, not to mention the odd pawnbroker.

He would laugh at the memory of the huge England rugby lock Maurice Colclough, unfurling a complete roll of exposed film from its canister, purportedly to see what the pictures would look like. That and many other anecdotes of a full and active life were told without fuss or pomposity; Elsey was left-leaning in his politics, but stuck to sport after photographing the Grosvenor Square riots in 1968. Neither a ladies' man nor a man's man - he was, in fact, both - he was bright and well-read, and loved a spot of swordplay with the English language.

The publishers David & Charles produced a collection of his rugby photos in 1986 (Rugby in Focus: twenty years of rugby action), with words by John Taylor, the former Wales and Lions flanker. Elsey contributed to the official books of the 1991, 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cups, and to two decades' worth of the Rothmans Rugby Yearbook. He affected to regret not driving a very hard bargain with the news desks when he and Cowie produced front-page photos of Erika Roe's streak at the England v Australia match in 1982. But, if Elsey would not have claimed that business was his forte, he was justifiably proud of the thatched cottage he bought and used as his bolthole in Swalcliffe, Oxfordshire.

That "Big C" should be regarded as a doyen of British sports photography would have both tickled and embarrassed him. The hint of pretentiousness in the mere use of the word "doyen" would have been enough for him to cock a good-humoured eyebrow, twitch his fulsome moustache, and order another pint.

Hugh Godwin