Coachlines - December 2023

20.12.23 Phil McCarthy

A year through a lens: Phil McCarthy’s photo journal

Pictured above: Phil sitting on the ramp, at 15,000ft somewhere above the Midlands

When Lyn asked me to write a piece for Coachlines based on my experiences of a year photographing the Company, I was at first delighted but then daunted. What to say about what I observe at your functions, who to highlight, what funny occurrence, which amazing photograph or, come to that, which moment I shouldn’t have captured.

Before I develop (no pun intended) any of the above thoughts I feel it might be worth giving you a brief timeline of my photographic career to date.

My training in photography was at the expense of the Royal Air Force. Six months’ intensive training qualified me to take architectural photographs of churches, pubs, boiler houses, hangers and control towers, technical imagery of nuts and bolts, microscopic cracks in aircraft engines, official portraits of anyone from the Station Commander to HQ clerks, sports of all kinds, presentations of medals, bar room punch ups and the resulting medical treatment. Air to air, air to ground photography and a few questionable photo shoots at the weekends. All in all, anything that needed documenting we would be called upon to record.

This variety of assignments meant we had to be prepared to photograph anything and everything. A truly wonderful training that would be hard to get anywhere else.

I spent 10 very happy years in the RAF. I was fortunate to fly a great deal, hang out the back of aircraft photographing other aircraft, photograph members of the Royal Family, the Pope and meet fascinating veterans from both World Wars. So many incidents spring to mind but I’ll restrict myself to telling you of one from my first Unit and one from my last week in the RAF.

Back in 1981 an American reserve Squadron flew from Missouri to my base in northern England. The station personnel were excited to have a visiting Squadron of F4 Phantoms descend on them for three weeks so the turn out to greet them was large. The station personnel were paraded on the tarmac ready to greet them, the Station Commander was immaculately turned out, even the local town mayor was in attendance. Suddenly out of nowhere 12 jets screamed overhead, banked hard onto the circuit and touched down on the main runway. In line astern they taxied round and parked in a long line facing the waiting masses. As one, the canopies lifted. The Station Commander marched briskly forward, came to a halt in front of the lead aircraft and as I lined up for the perfect salute and handshake shot the squadron commander climbed down from his cockpit, removed his helmet to reveal a full head cockerel mask with a bright red comb bouncing from side to side. My photo of the Station Commander shaking hands with a rooster made the local papers. I think it was one photograph my boss wished I hadn’t taken!

On one of my last days before leaving the RAF I watched from the office window as a Hercules C130 circled the airfield for touch and goes. It was a quiet Friday afternoon with little happening so I called air traffic to ask if I could take some photos of it coming into land. A Land Rover duly arrived to take me out to the airfield where I instructed the driver to drop me at the edge of the threshold of the runway. I walked to the middle of the tarmac and sat on the very edge of the concrete, checked the camera for film and waited. Before long the Hercules banked onto the approach and lined up on the centre line behind me. It didn’t take long for the spec through the view finder to become something quite a lot bigger. As the Herc descended, first the wing tips disappeared from view, then the two outer engines, then the two inner engines till all I could see through the lens was the nose and cockpit, the navigator straining to look between the two pilots at me on the runway. It was at that moment I looked up and realised I had put the wide-angle lens on and it was way closer than I bargained for. I had time to bend forward till my forehead was almost touching the tarmac as it roared overhead and touched down just behind me. I have to say it was probably the photograph the Senior Air Traffic Officer wished I hadn’t taken!

A close call with a Hercules C130

After 10 years’ service I embarked on a freelance career that has been just as varied. I became a specialist in photographing Tudor and Georgian dolls houses, television studios, film sets and edit suites. City commercial work, publishing commissions, sets for conferences and shows, portraiture around the UK as well as the US.

I have photographed and met some lovely and extraordinary people, some heroes of television and film, seen extraordinary places and historic sites. There are some notable highlights that stand out in the memory. On one occasion I was asked to go along to the Imperial War Museum where I would be given items to photograph. The first, which for an ex-RAF man was iconic, was the diary of one of the escapees from Stalag Luft III detailing and illustrating the “Great Escape” which led to the deaths at the hands of the Gestapo of 50 of the escapees. I was next handed a sheet of foolscap paper. As the archivist headed for the door, I asked what the text was about. ‘Oh, that’s one of the seven copies signed by Adolf Hitler which was sent out to the German Armed Forces ordering the invasion of Poland.” Emotive objects for quite different reasons.

A few years ago, I was invited to take the official photographs of HM Queen Elizabeth II presenting the colours to the Royal Tank Regiment at Windsor Castle. There can be few more nerve-racking moments than when Her Majesty sat down in the centre of the official group, looked up and as I pressed the cable release hoping upon hope the camera would fire, it did, and resulted in the best and most cherished group photograph of my career.

So now after 33 years as a freelance in London I am enjoying spending my time photographing Livery events. I’m very fortunate to work with 20 or so Liveries and being an Honorary Liveryman of the Butchers’ Company means I see things from both sides of the fence, so to speak. The Livery world represents so much of what I value, fellowship, history and tradition, charitable giving and the efforts to support young people at the start of their careers. The Coachmakers embraces all these areas and with your links to the automotive and aeronautical industries along with your armed forces affiliates, I feel very at home every time I attend one of your functions.

So now to Lyn’s request that I talk about some images taken during the past year. I never set out to take an artistically memorable photograph. Time is often of the essence at Livery functions so often it is a case of pointing the camera and don’t stop shooting till the end. It is only later, sitting at the computer, does an image stand out as being a little more special. That said, I have learnt over the years that there are often moments that lend themselves to a little patience, where you can pick the subject and wait. For me the set of photographs of an event, be it a lunch or dinner or awards ceremony for instance, has to tell a story. A beginning, middle and an end, so I try to reflect this by taking formal images then reverting through the reception and meal to candid ones. The speeches are always a lottery as to where the speaker is going to look, if in fact they do look up. Often speakers talk to one side of the room, which is fine if that is the side I’m photographing from but if you see me cross from one side to another it is because I have decided they are never going to change direction.

Image 1: Maggie Smith during the Orkney road trip

Image 1

The fellowship of the Coachmakers, and any Livery come to that, is something I enjoy capturing and image 1 makes me smile whenever I see it. Taken during our memorable road trip to Orkney this summer, we had just finished dinner and emerged outside to view a fine old Bentley belonging to our speaker and guest. I wandered over to a small group who were photographing the sunset and with my mobile phone, I took this shot of Maggie Smith. The colours and wonderful smile, not to mention the two glasses of wine just make it a lovely fun image.

Image 2: Fellowship of the Livery

Image 2

Nothing special technically or artistically but the absorption in conversations is something I try to pick up on. I see this setting so often and I never tire of recording it.

Image 3: Sharing a joke in the line-up

Image 3

What can I say about this one? Just a great moment where you wonder what was said. So often these images are ruined by something happening in the background, a glass being upended, or someone’s expression, but on this one everything fell into place. The eye line runs from the Master through to the young cadet. Her expression adds to the image, had her eyes been shut I would have cropped her out but I don’t think it would have been as strong an image. She perhaps has heard what was said!

Image 4: A gentle image

Image 4

I look for these views. With a long lens I search the room for a window through to someone where the light is good and I can see someone reasonably clearly. For this shot I knew the gentleman would look up at some point so I waited and sure enough he did. It’s a gentle image.

Image 5: Sums up the Coachmaker philosophy

Image 5

To me, this sums up what the Coachmakers does so well. Here we have the youth sandwich! The interaction between young and older generations that is so important to what we do in the Livery world. The lighting across the wood paneling allows the three people to stand out perfectly but as with image three, it’s the smile!

Image 6: Leading lines with Liveryman Mike Hawes

Image 6

There are a few reasons that I picked out this image. The viewer’s eye is drawn left to right along the table and then diagonally back across the picture (leading lines, as I remember from my RAF training) and then from the far gentleman’s face looking up to the speaker then diagonally down to the Master in quiet reflection. It literally is a view into the room and the scene as I took it through a doorway, that allows me to be more discreet. The second reason is that the speaker Mike Hawes, guest and new Liveryman was a neighbour some years ago, our daughters would play together and attend Brownies. It never ceases to amaze me how often the Livery world renews old and sometimes lost friendships and acquaintances.

Image 7: Capturing a lovely expression

Image 7

So often when photographing people it comes down to spotting a good photograph and waiting for a better one to arrive. I saw this view a few times during the evening but someone or thing was always in the way, so I waited and waited and finally the view opened just at the point of this lovely expression.

Image 8: A moment of fun with IPM Julian Leach

Image 8

An image that makes you smile gladdens the heart. I had no idea this was going to happen. I was lucky I had the long lens trained on the Master when Julian picked up his gift of dog biscuits. When photographing people, it nearly always comes down to the eyes and in this case even the dogs!

Image 9: Misti Bell enjoys the Banquet

Image 9

Taken at the Guildhall Banquet, I was photographing the interview with Derek Bell on the stage when I caught sight of his wife. The lighting was just right, and the people around were not too distracting.

Image 10: Assistant Eric Wallbank’s moment of reflection

Image 10

I finish where I began, Orkney. We were on a guided tour around some standing stones, being buffeted by the wind. I had the long lens on so I could stand back a bit and pick out faces in the group. As a portraiture study this was my favourite of the week. Because the subject is looking past the lens there is no eye contact, this allows you to study the image for longer. All the images in my examples, bar the first, are where there is no eye contact, by design or coincidence…I’ll leave it for you to decide.

So there you have a little about me and a quick look at some of my favourite photographs of your past year. I am very lucky in that I am doing something I love as a job. My 44 years as a photographer has had many “moments” along the way. Falling through a roof with my camera and landing in a wheelbarrow below, to being described by an American Governor as “the smartest Goddam photographer I have ever seen,” sitting in an F4 Phantom jet in a vertical climb with full afterburners on, to photographing HRH The Princess Royal for her official Master’s portrait for my Livery. I owe all I have had professionally to one organisation, that of the Royal Air Force. It trained me in a profession that has given me a lifetime’s career but more importantly life skills that are as pertinent today as ever they were.

Photography is like any art form, its purpose is to stir an emotion.