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Shearman details life behind sporting lens

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Mark Shearman has achieved extraordinary success as a sports photographer, specializing in track and field. He has a remarkable portfolio — containing images of Olympic legends such as Edwin Moses and Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt and Sebastian Coe — that few can ever hope of compiling. But, he admits without hesitation, he’s as hungry as ever to remain at the top of his game.

He’s traveled to more than 80 countries. He’s had, by his own estimate, more than 1,000 cover photographs for the London-based Athletics Weekly magazine. And he’s adapted to the changing technology to remain one of the best in the business.

“Since 2001,” he recently told The Japan Times, “I have shot exclusively digital and cannot ever envisage ever shooting in film again.”

The reason?

“Working predominantly against a deadline,” Shearman noted, “it has made my life so much easier with the ability to transmit images within seconds of taking the pictures, and when returning from an event in the U.K. by train or from abroad by plane, I can utilize the traveling time by working on the images I have taken.”

He described his laptop as a “portable darkroom.”

Decades before laptops popped up in every corner of the globe, Shearman established himself as a photographer. Now 72, he has captured images at 13 Summer Olympics (and the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Games).

On the global stage, he got his start at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but that October, he was not a credentialed photographer in Japan’s capital city. No problem. He purchased spectator tickets and got to work and “moved around the stadium as much as I could,” Shearman recalled, citing his methodology at the now-torn-down National Stadium.

“My initial impression of the Tokyo 1964 Games was really the size of the games,” he recalled. “I had never attended an event of this importance or magnitude before.”

Two years earlier, Shearman got his big break, one that would set the stage for his life’s work.

What was the catalyst?

A meet at the Tooting Bec track, in South London, on May, 6, 1962, when, for the first time, he attended an athletics event with a camera. A friend had informed him that pole vaulter Trevor Burton had planned to break the U.K. record at the meet. And, for Shearman, it turned out that the fact that, his friend said, Athletics Weekly “might be interested in a picture” was of greater significance.

On that day, Shearman, who lived about 13 km away in Worcester Park, only took pictures of the pole vault competition. Burton failed to break the U.K. record, but he sent a photo of Burton to Athletics Weekly. That picture landed on the cover.

“I would today consider it a very ordinary picture, but at the time it was exciting to see it used, it was my very first published photograph — anywhere, not just in AW,” he said.

As for his first cover photo, Shearman admits it’s still “very special to me.”

“At the time I thought ‘that was easy,’ but quickly found out that it was not always that straightforward to get pictures published,” he continued. “But it gave me the confidence to attend events every weekend and submit them to AW, as well as local and national newspapers. . . . It opened a door to a lifetime of sports photography.”

His determination and commitment to his craft paved the way for the success and recognition that followed. But it took some time to reach the pinnacle of his field. Between 1960 and ’73, Shearman was employed by photo agency Fox Photos and photo departments within government bureaus. He used every weekend and his annual leave to attend local and major events, including the Summer Games in Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich.

The hard work paid off.

“In 1973″, he noted, “I had built my freelance business up to a stage where I was able to become self-employed. In 1962, I was determined to make sports photography my life, but I certainly did not think that I had the knowhow. After 53 years I am still learning.”

The rest is history.

“Mark has consistently been the best athletics photographer I have come across,” Randall Northam, a former treasurer of the Sports Journalists’ Association, was quoted saying on the British organization’s website.

Shearman said, “The biggest compliment I regularly receive is that magazines in many countries are still happy to publish my photographs.”

He revealed that his images of American Dick Fosbury’s back-first high jump, which earned him the gold, at the 1968 Mexico City Games and Coe’s gold medal-winning 1,500 triumph at the 1980 Moscow Games rank as his favorites from those 13 Olympiads.

Here’s his recollection of Fosbury’s revolutionary approach to the high jump: “This was the first time I had seen anyone clear the high jump bar with that technique. I wondered at the time whether other athletes would copy him. Now, of course, this is the accepted way to jump.”

For Coe, the future IAAF president, the Moscow Games delivered unforgettable emotion — for him and observers spanning the globe. It’s worth noting that Coe was the favorite in the 800, but finished second behind compatriot Steve Ovett, who was then tabbed the favorite to win the 1,500.

“But as we know, Coe won and my photo shows the joy and relief on Coe’s face as he crossed the finish line,” Shearman stated.

Shearman offered the view that his best pictures are probably those of euphoric gold medalists Bolt or Mo Farah at the 2012 London Games or Briton’s Kelly Holmes, who claimed victories in the women’s 800 and 1,500 in Athens in 2004.

In addition to Olympic duties, Shearman, official photographer for UK Athletics since 1996, is a regular at domestic weekend events — cross country, track and field (indoors and outdoors), road racing — as well as major international competitions, including the Commonwealth Games and European Championships.

Beyond the realms of sports media and athletics, Shearman’s work has not gone unnoticed. For the 2014 New Year’s Honours List, he received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to sports photography. Queen Elizabeth II gave him the award at Windsor Castle that July.

“The pride I felt when I was awarded the MBE was as a professional photographer, ” he said, adding that “I derived a lot of pleasure in knowing that someone (I don’t know who) thought I was worthy of being nominated . . .”

A beautifully packaged seven-page feature in Practical Photography showcased Shearman’s work and some of the stories behind his iconic photos a few years ago. The magazine also declared this: “From humbled beginnings, the Surrey-born photographer has amassed the largest and most significant athletics portfolio of the modern era.”

About that glorious portfolio, let’s turn to Shearman for some insight. For instance, Bolt’s triumphant celebration in Beijing after grabbing gold in the 200 meters included this description alongside the photo: “. . . (It) was the event that introduced Usain Bolt to the world. Rather than shoot him head on, I moved about 40 meters beyond the finish line, knowing that if he broke the world record he’d throw his arms up as he continued to run round the bench.”

Mission accomplished.

Shearman envisions what will happen next and puts himself in a position to succeed. To do so, he’s constantly looking for the best angle, experimenting with various backdrops throughout the day and night.

In short, he refuses to rest on his laurels. Laziness is not an option.

“I noticed at major games like the Olympics that many photographers are happy to work from one position,” Shearman said. “I don’t. I will move around the stadium to get the best viewpoints and estimate I will walk up to 10 km during a day’s photography.”

To make this a realistic approach for work, he dedicates himself to a regular fitness regimen, running and walking for about an hour each day.

Shearman also makes a genuine effort to chronicle each Olympiad in a slightly different way. After all, he wants there to be something unique about shots from each of the various quadrennial extravaganzas. He admitted that “I do try to include where possible signage that indicates the city and games where the event is taking place.

“For the events that take place outside the stadium, i.e. the marathon and the race walking,” he added, “I make sure that famous landmarks are included in some of my shots, e.g. the Houses of Parliament at the London Games and Tiananmen Square at the Beijing Games.”

There have been adventures and disappointments along the way.

Shearman didn’t capture the iconic image of Bob Beamon’s world record jump (8.90 meters) at the 1968 Mexico City Games. The record stood for 23 years — until Mike Powell soared 8.95 meters at the 1991 IAAF World Championships in Tokyo. Shearman was there, too. (He’s been to Japan on two other occasions: for the 1999 World Indoor Athletics Championships in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, and the 2006 World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka.)

“I got a very ordinary couple of pictures in the qualifying round,” Shearman said of Beamon. “On the day the long jump final was held, there were a number of events going on at the same time so I decided that I would photograph the final three rounds. Frustratingly for me, he only took two jumps in the final (round) then retired from the competition.”

Shearman called that “a bitter lesson for me.”

He added: “I do now try to photograph the first couple of rounds of all the field events to ensure I have action shots of all the competitors.”

Another incident forced him to frantically improvise in order to recover from a camera malfunction. It was in 1973, at Crystal Palace in London, where Briton Dave Bedford set a world record (27 minutes, 30.80 seconds) in the 10,000.

“Those were the days before digital cameras,” said Shearman. “After about 20 of the 26 laps it occurred to me that I had taken more than 36 pictures but the film was still winding on; well, it wasn’t, the film had not taken up and I had no pictures.”

The veteran camera man exhibited poise under pressure, which he described vividly more than four decades later this way: “I hurriedly put the situation right and got shots of him over the last four laps and crossing the finish line. Dave is now a good friend of mine and 42 years later, he still reminds me of the disaster that I narrowly avoided.”

Shearman credits Gerry Cranham, a south London photographer in the 1960s and early 1970s who was considered the U.K.’s top sports photographer as being a helpful mentor.

“When we met at events he was always happy to give me tips and advice,” Shearman said.

Among his colleagues in the business today, he said he respects the work of fellow Brits Michael Steele and Stu Forster, both of are employed by Getty Images. They’ve worked together at numerous World Championships and Olympics

“(They) both have the knack of being at the right place at the right moment,” Shearman said of his professional colleagues.

Indeed, that’s one portion of the recipe for photographic success.

By all accounts, Mark Shearman has accomplished an inimitable level of success and sustained excellence in sports photography. But beyond the 2016 Rio Olympics and all the intrigue of another sporting festival to photograph, he has another long-term goal in mind: to return to Tokyo for the 2020 Games for his 15th Summer Olympics.

That, he said, would be “a fitting time and place to finally retire.”

  • runbei

    When I worked at Runner’s World 1972-74 we were always delighted to receive the latest batch of Mark Shearman photos. They were beautifully composed because Mark always found a wonderful perspective, and they were beautifully developed and printed (Tri-X and HC-110?). They had a classic, epic look that was completely unique and wonderful.

  • runbei

    When I worked at Runner’s World 1972-74 we were always delighted to receive the latest batch of Mark Shearman photos. They were beautifully composed because Mark always found a wonderful perspective, and they were beautifully developed and printed (Tri-X and HC-110?). They had a classic, epic look that was completely unique and wonderful.

  • A2er

    Lasse Viren – blood doper par excellence.

  • jcbinok

    Very cool story.

    This year at an undokai, my principal handed me a digital camera and asked me to get some shots. What a great idea; rather than sit under the tent like a zombie, I was all over the grounds taking both action shots and candids. Many were used for the annual slideshow presentation during November’s happyokai. I was proud, and I think that decorum would’ve prevented a lot of the best shots from being taken by the Japanese school teachers. Not that I was disrespectful, (as evidenced by the fact that the shots wound up in the slideshow) just unafraid to scurry out onto the field during a dance routine or ask a stranger for a candid.