In hot-metal newspapers, eccentricity and flamboyance were everywhere. Brian Duff, chief photographer of the Daily Express in Manchester, who has died after a stroke at the age of 77, matched the requirements with a lot to spare.
In his pictures, he was a perfectionist. In his off-duty hours, he was a manic companion for writers. At the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool during a political party conference, he walked around with a fake tap stuck to his forehead.
He also had a light bulb which he could illuminate from a battery hidden in his pocket. He walked the corridor (packed by party big-wigs) with the bulb in his hand. It was turning itself on and off through some fault. He met a maid. ‘Excuse me,’he said, ‘but this bulb is from my room and there is something wrong with it.”Oh there is,’she said. ‘I can see. I’ll get you another one.’Morale was good; expenses were better. The sad days of contraction and computerisation were yet to be.
Brian was invariably surprising to work with, but never easy. The compulsions of his trade and thought of a big byline were always stirring inside him. He took on a strut while at work that he never had without a camera.
The curl of cigarette smoke added to the poignancy of a portrayal of football manager Tommy Docherty. A picture taken from beneath the Humber Bridge gave a surreal view of a construction that suddenly, through his eyes, became ethereal and beautiful to a degree that it never seemed before.
LS Lowry yawning, Gracie Fields animated in Capri, John Arlott perfectly composed and wearing his sardonic look in Hampshire, Sir Neville Cardus looking typically birdlike, Thora Hird looking like everybody’s mother, Catherine Cookson, Lord Armstrong at Bamburgh Castle: it was a long and distinguished list.
Painting with light, he called it, and there was some self-mockery in the description. But if the pictures the newspaper printed were not, in his opinion, the right ones or if his byline was too small, he was inclined to rant at editors, without notice. They were occasionally outraged at the impertinence, but let it go.
Some of his best pictures were taken for The Independent, after he had left the Express. That newlylaunched paper was particularly sensitive to illustration, and Brian – a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society – found a brief but happy relationship there.
He could say things to people that were shocking but, miraculously it seemed, without offending them. To the painter, Theodore Major (a touchy man), while looking at a new work: ‘Just pass me that paint pot, Theo. You missed a bit here.’On the phone to Harold Riley, the highly-talented Salford artist: ‘Is that Mr Riley? The painter? I would like my kitchen done.’
When we went to see Lt Gen Sir Oliver Leese, an awesome commander of World War Two, he was sporting only one leg. The other was leaning against a settee, fully clothed in one matching trouser leg, one sock, and a polished brown shoe. This was not an heroic leg. It had been detached by surgeons in response to some bodily disorder. Plainly Brian was going to have trouble with his picture. I offered to help the general add the leg to the other one and was surprised when he accepted.
‘You’ll have to give it a good push,’he said. So I ended on my knees thrusting the leg at the general with him murmuring encouragement.
Brian heaved with silent laughter and I could see him heading up the garden path, where he could howl with real merriment without detection.
Latterly, he was weary with his physical problems, but the old light still shone, somewhere.
And there he goes, leaving his son, Jonathan and daughter, Lesley, and their families. Through us and them, he stays alive for as long as we are alive in the shared memories of a passing era.