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|Bob Batchelor is a photographer living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Hi Bob....thanks for doing this interview. I'm a huge fan of your photography and
tell us a little about your childhood and family life?
I was lucky to have been raised in South London during the post war years. My father was a very
progressive man, having suffered as a young man. He was from a working class family of thirteen
children; he got a scholarship to one of London’s best schools and was a Latin scholar. At 13
years of age he was removed from school and made an apprentice toolmaker, 6 months later he
was made redundant.
As a result of this and further ill fortune, he discovered and became active in social reform. As an
employee of GE, this did not work very well; they fired him as soon as they found out that he was
a member of the local Labour party.
My mother was the second daughter from a mining family in S. Wales. Having one daughter was a
luxury, two daughters was a disaster. She was ‘put into service’‚ at a very young age, to an
unpleasant Cuban family in London, from where she ran away and eventually met my father. That
is another story.
My father became chief ‘special effects electrician’ at Denham Film Studios, working under
Alexander Korda on films like “The Rise of Catherine the Great”, “The Third Man” and the ill fated
“I Claudius”, to name a few.
I was the sixth child and a surprise; my mother thought that she had gone through the menopause
when she became pregnant with me.
I was to be given to the woman over the road, who was infertile, but my father stopped the
transaction at the last moment. I managed to get the truth from my dear mama when she was in
So, with 5 much older brothers and sisters and many visiting socialists (Ex International
Brigadiers, Trade Union officials etc) passing through the house, it was confusing and interesting.
What is your early education like and how did it influence you in your professional and personal
My primary school was in the Conservative (capital C) heart of S. London and was staffed by
teachers slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. At nine years old I would be lectured on the evils of
socialism and China, Russia etc etc. With a picture of my father meeting with Chairman Mao
(taken while on a visit to China) and other such stuff in my home, it was very difficult.
McCarthy at school, international socialism at home! This definitely had a profound influence on
my life and personality.
What was living in London like when you were growing up?
London was so badly bombed in WWII that my home was surrounded by bombsites. Despite the
constant fear of being chased off by police, because of there being so much live ordnance
around, these bombed out buildings were the playgrounds of choice.
It was always a disappointment to see these sites being developed. But it was a sign of the
“golden years”, a whole new London, built around the old, with new galleries, new theatres and
Tell us about your teenage years and the interest you developed in art, literature and music. Did
your environment have an effect on your love of the arts?
As a teenager in London’s swinging sixties, I thrived. Encouraged by my dear late brother David
to ‘get out there’.
My friends and myself were all obsessed with art and literature. We would argue about Tolstoy,
Joyce, Rodin, and Henry Moore etc etc. Visiting the London galleries at the weekend was a
regular occurrence, as was buying the latest in American Jazz and Soul, all readily available from
seedy little shops in London’s Soho district. When I could not find what I wanted, I communicated
with ‘Randy’s Records’ in Memphis Tennessee.
It should also be noted that there were no less than five fine art colleges within a bus ride from
where I lived. As you can imagine, this had a very profound effect on the area.
You started working early on, while still in school. You also met some famous and unique
characters early on...can you tell us a bit about that?
I helped to run a jazz club in a local pub, where we had regulars like John McLaughlin and Dave
Holland (later to be heavily involved with Miles Davis). When the club faded away, like so many
clubs do, we handed it over to one of my old school pals, David Bowie. He called it The
Beckenham Arts Lab and it was there that I heard him launch his first release of Space Oddity,
backing himself with a stylophone.
Later, talking with him, some pals and the strange Angie Bowie, he announced that “one day, I am
going to be a superstar”. I looked into my beer, hiding my doubtful look.
Ha! How wrong I was!
All this was before I had even left school; most of my friends were older than me and were hugely
What was your introduction into the area of photography/journalism and what was journalism like
at that time in London?
Having been to hell and back at primary and junior school, I couldn’t get out of the education
system fast enough and found myself a job as a messenger boy for ‘The Press Association’,
Britain’s biggest news agency and of course the contemporary of ‘The Associated Press’.
So I trudged Fleet St and its surrounding area, delivering photographs to all the big newspapers
and all other agencies. They eventually made me assistant photographer in their big and
beautiful commercial studios, working on brochures, magazine ads and fashion shoots.
I should point out that at this time, all the broadsheet newspapers had glossy magazines on the
weekend, filled with great photographs and international journalism. It was a heyday for
photojournalism and I was a very small part of it.
What kind of camera equipment did you use working in the studios of The Press Association and
what was your most memorable "shoot"?
As an assistant in the studios, I had access to three full Sinar kits, in 5x4, half plate and 10x8, also
two Hasselblads and Nikons galore.
I did manage on one occasion to blow myself up by switching channels on a big strobe lighting
unit without discharging the power unit first. That was quite a shock, to find myself at the other
end of the studio in a heap of lights with lots of funny little black particles floating around in the air.
The most memorable shoot was for an H. Samuels jewellery catalogue; it was for a double page
spread, with 80 rings on the page.
It was being shot on 10x8 transparency, looking straight down.
To avoid shadows, we had to place the rings on pins, using plastocene to attach them. This
meant that we had to angle the rings towards the centre of the picture so as not to see the pins
and also to see the very tops of the rings.
We were using the strobe lights, which had domestic lights inside them for modeling. These lights
got so hot, because it took so long to set up, that the plastocene kept melting and whenever it
seemed to be looking good, the rings would fall off of the pins. It took us 14 hours to get this very
simple shot and when we got the transparency back from the lab, it had a magenta cast all over it!
Fortunately, we had a fantastic retouching dept. who washed it in corrective dye.
While working, what other photographers did you meet and how did they influence your work?
One of the photographers there: Bob Mackmurdo, was a recent graduate from The Regent Street
School of Photography. His work was really good and through him I met all of his old colleagues,
all fantastic, all very influential.
The school no longer exists, but it spawned some amazing photographers, one of whom was Paul
Keel. He took photographs at my (first) wedding and created one of the most amazing albums I
have ever seen. It was like a concertina, opening from either end and had all these wonderful
images inside. He just had a beat up Leica with wide angle, no other lens, and no flash. This
album had a huge influence on me (unlike the wedding) and it was through it and my search for
more of that style, that I discovered Henri Cartier Bresson.
That was it; I had found the work would influence almost everything I shot from then on.
It was at this time that you went to college.....what was that experience like?
The Press Association sent me back to college (those were the days), to get my City and Guilds
in photography. As I progressed through the course, I became less and less interested in it. I did
not do any of the set tasks, I had my own ideas of what to photograph, I got bored with endless
lectures on sensitometry/densitometry and left after completing two years and a month of a three-
At the end of the year I was awarded with a high grade pass, all because of my own practical work
done in the college studio, ha ha!
Following your college years....you ended up working in the field of television at London Weekend
TV. How did that come about and what was it like?
I quit the Press Association round about that same time, as result of being sent to work in the
colour labs. I hated the smell of colour chemicals, being locked in the dark and missed using
It was fairly soon after this that, with an introduction from my sister Helen, a film researcher, I got a
job as an assistant cameraman at London Weekend TV (LWT).
LWT was a really good company, it held the license for weekend broadcasting in the London area
and providing huge swathes of programmes for the entire commercial TV network in the UK.
Its original remit (license application), promised to continue its co-ordination of sport for the UK
network and at the same time promised to spend huge amounts of money for arts programming
and drama. For example, it commissioned work from the likes of Jean-Luc Goddard and Ken
My first days were assisting on big dramas and music shows. I watched some of the best
cameramen in the UK and became determined to be as good if not better.
I think I did achieve that high standard, my ability to do the most complex camera moves with ease
and agility got me assigned to some of the best work. I am proud to say that my camerawork was
not noticeable; I made everything as smooth and as coordinated with the action as possible.
In those days, the rule of thumb was, if you notice the camerawork, there’s something wrong with
I am still a firm believer in that.
It sounds like camera work in TV was an exhilarating job! I read that you worked with one of my
favorite actresses Dame Judi Dench...can you tell us a bit about the actors and directors you
I was right in the thick of it‚, working with great directors, many of whom became big names in
Hollywood, like Alvin Rakoff, Richard Loncrane, Mike Nichols, Michael Lindsay Hogg and later as a
freelance, Ridley Scott, to name but a few.
Also got to work with more great acting names than you could shake a stick at, like Greer Garson,
Googie Withers, Eli Wallach, John Malkovich, Judy Davies, Judy Dench..I could ramble on for
hours, adding names to the list.
I should say that in my experience, the really talented actors and actresses were always very easy
to work with, those not so talented were the difficult ones. I assume it has to do with self
confidence and natural ability.
Feel free to ramble on......that's an impressive list!
I was promoted very fast and was much in demand for arts and drama. When LWT went through a
period of making too many game shows, I quit and went freelance.
One of my last assignments was to shoot a title sequence for a series of dramas being financed
and produced by the late great Terence Donovan, better known for his fashion photography. He
was a contemporary of David Bailey and Patrick Duffy, all know for their sixties fashion work,
mainly for Vogue magazine.
One of your first freelance jobs was quite interesting....being Mafia related. That had to be scary
One of my earliest freelance jobs came through Terence Donovan.
He asked me to shoot a wedding video, to which I told him, “you have to be kidding, I don’t do that
kind of crap”.
He explained that it was for family acquaintances, friends of Paul Anka (pal of his wife), and that
the budget was 250,000 pounds cash!
So, there I was, driving to Geneva with a truck full of cameras and lights, to shoot a wedding
video. My suspicions were aroused quite early on; when the Bishop of the Notre Dame Cathedral
in Geneva told us we could only use one camera and one light.
Panic struck, we called the main money man (Mr. X, I’ll call him), who was very calm and said, “don’
t worry, I’ll fix it”.
Mr. X called the Vatican direct. Two hours later we got a message from the Bishop, apologizing
and telling us we could do whatever we wanted in his Cathedral.
Suspicions were further aroused when I discovered that Mr. X’s daughter (the bride) was marrying
a nice young man whose family owned all the main construction companies in Naples (Italy). Mr. X
was the owner of a very large oil company in Switzerland and, I suspect, was heavily involved in
money laundering for the Mafia.
OK...despite my curiosity ...I won't ask the identity of Mr. X...do you know what became of the
I am led to believe he is languishing in prison these days and that some of the family were
You also worked for a "Great Crusader" in London that we here in the States are very familiar
with...who was that?
My first assignment upon my return was to work for Billy Graham and his giant backing
corporation, Walter Bennett. I found them to be less trustworthy than the Geneva mob, but that is
yet another complex tale.
Maybe we can talk about that experience in more detail at another time in private .. ha? I would be
very interested in hearing about it.
What work did you do after leaving the Billy Graham Crusade?
Still based in London, I became one of a small band of freelancers, working on music productions,
dramas, and current affairs documentaries. One of the highlights was to spend six weeks working
for the Royal Shakespeare Company, on a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Derek
Jacobi, which I have to say was infinitely better that the Gerard Depardieu feature film. One of the
up and coming stars was Pete Postlethwaite, who was fantastic and is now a very big name in
That must have been life changing! That's some heavy duty stuff and some great actors! I read
that Steven Spielberg once stated that Pete Postlethwaite is "the best actor in the world".
Postlethwaite has a long list of very impressive film credits including "The Usual Suspects", "In
The Name Of The Father", "Alien 3" and "Amistad" to name but a few!
You also made the Rock n' Roll scene ....which at that time was sensational...and fell in love....... ?
I became one the top names on the Rock n’ Roll scene, spending most weekends on some big
stage or other, being an ‘on stage’ cameraman, in the thick of the action and being deafened by
huge sound systems.
As a result of this, I was asked to go up to Glasgow to help out on a Scottish based music and
arts magazine series called Halfway to Paradise.
I met and fell madly in love with the production coordinator. I then concentrated all my efforts into
getting work in Scotland and became a regular commuter between London and Glasgow. The
production company, Big Star In A Wee Picture was getting some really nice commissions and I
benefited handsomely, nice lighting camera jobs and time to spend with the woman I loved (past
Then you worked on a travel series about the current culture....how did that experience effect you
and impact the development of your technique?
I was included in a list of cameramen to work on an ongoing series called Travelog.
Commissioned By C4 in London and given a generous budget, it was a travel series not looking
at flights or hotels. It was about culture, through the eyes of chosen guests. Most of the choices
were serious journalists, but with a good sense of humour.
This was a big turning point for me, because the series producer, Richard Lightbody, had very
firm views on how his ‘babies’ should look.
He hated moving shots, he hated zooms, pans, tilts, tracks and any kind of filters, but he wanted
images that were interesting and exciting.
So each of us cameramen had to find ways of making static frames interesting, which was an
excellent challenge and my love of stills came to the fore.
I would seek out ways, like looking for reflections that changed whenever somebody walked past,
or looking for great depth with things happening foreground and/or background. This became the
style I took with me to many productions.
As to the programme itself, well, it was amazing to work on.
You shared an incredible and frightening experience with Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Anne
Applebaum on a trip to the Ukraine...it sounds like a ready made horror/suspense movie, with
soldiers, guns, bloody hotel lobbies and also like a romance movie with you falling in love with a
city...Odessa, the seaport in southern Ukraine located on the Black Sea and once the location of
an ancient Greek colony.
What's the story of this trip?
We took an American journalist, Anne Applebaum to Odessa in the Ukraine. I flew out with the
sound recordist via Austrian Airlines, given 5 star treatment on the flight, champagne sloshing
around in our eyeballs, we landed in Odessa amidst several hundred grounded and rotting
Aeroflot planes. Upon coming to rest we were boarded by two soldiers carrying their
Kalashnikovs, who handed a piece of paper to the flight attendant. She read it, picked up her mic
and made the announcement, “would Mr. Batchelor and Mr. Harmer please make themselves
“Please collect your hand luggage and make your way to the exit with these gentlemen”.
We were escorted from the plane at gunpoint, ordered into a waiting car, driven twenty yards,
ordered out of the car and into the arrivals hall. This, I soon discovered was VIP treatment, to be
put at the head of the line in an Eastern Block country was a huge advantage. I had to return to
the airport five hours later to meet Anne, she got the same treatment, but I did notice several
people from my flight, still being processed.
Our hotel, if you can call it that was an old ‘Intourist Holidays’ venue, terribly run down with
strange things growing amidst the plumbing in the bathrooms. We had been ripped off by the
Moscow based agent and we discovered that there were so many people involved in our
arrangements that by the time they had each taken a slice of the budget, there was not much left
for our accommodation.
This was made worse and more than a little scary by the fact that members of the Ukrainian Mafia
were occupying the same hotel as us.
They were none too pleased to see me with a large camera; they would stare at me, refusing to
even nod in my direction. These grotesque monsters with their nylon sports suits and huge gold
chains were an obscenity.
One morning, as I made my way out, the lift lobby next to my room was awash with somebody’s
blood. I did not hang around to investigate.
This was post glasnost and the Ruble had disappeared from the face of the earth, $100 bought
you a million coupons or more.
Despite all of this, I fell in love with Odessa, built by Catherine the Great and modeled on Paris, it
was laid out in a grid pattern and is a beautiful city. It was autumn and there were small piles of
burning leaves wherever you went. With that smoke in the air and the autumnal light, it was a
We shot a beautiful sequence on the famous Steps of Odessa. Now, with a moving staircase
running either side, it is really quite funny. There are about ten stages between these escalators,
on each side of the original. At each stage there is a babushka seated, usually with knitting on
their laps, whose purpose is to keep order. If they see somebody running or larking about, they
leap up and shout at the perpetrator, telling them to behave.
Wherever we went, people would stop us, talk to us and then try to sell us whatever they had to
sell, usually the shirts off their back, it was hard to witness. What had happened was the worst
excesses of capitalism had taken control.
I met an old Jewess, wearing her Red Army medals she had earned for her part in fighting the
Nazis, who was near to starving. We interviewed her and she read us poetry by Babel. I loved her!
The funniest part of the trip had to be our departure. The very young, but very talented director;
Saul Dibb, bought me the nastiest, most Kitsch present of a plastic, silver framed Icon.
It looked like something from the clearance shelf of the Dollar Store. As we went through security,
the customs officer who was emptying my suitcase asked me if I had bought any icons, a serious
crime in that part of the world. I said, “no”, just as he took this dreadful piece of plastic out of my
baggage. He and I both fell about in fits of laughter.
What an incredible tale...and with a happy ending! Any other great trips come to mind?
Another great trip was to Naples (Italy), which was to bring me into contact with yet another crime
Naples is one of the most extraordinary places in the world. If anybody was interested, there is
one book I would recommend, “Naples 44” by Norman Lewis, which explains so beautifully, the
enigmas of the place.
One must understand the very close relationship Naples has with death, much to do with being at
the foot of a large and dangerous volcano.
As a result, funerals are a large part of Neapolitan culture. So a funeral was one of the items on
our agenda. If you wander around the old narrow streets, about the width of a compact car, which
are brimming with people, Vespas and cars, you will see small notices posted on lamp posts, walls
These are announcements of forthcoming funerals, inviting the reader to attend, with flowers.
Our fixer, Salvatore found us an ideal event. “Bob”, he said, “you are going to lurve‚ this funeral”.
He described some enormous hearse, about 20 ft long, all black and glass, with wheels 5ft high,
“and it is driven by twelve black whores”.
“Salvatore”, I said, “I think the word you are looking for is horses”.
Sure enough, when we got there it was a huge monster of a hearse, driven by twelve black
horses, with black plumes mounted on them.
This was the funeral of the wife of a member of the Comorra crime family, the oldest crime
organization or secret society still in existence. We were given permission to film the hearse, but
not the funeral itself. But it was too good an opportunity to miss and I got a little carried away.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw three large, suited, unhappy looking men approaching. “I think
we‚re done here”, I said and off we scuttled, but found a little hidden store front from which to
shoot the cortege‚. That was pretty scary but amazing.
I have always found funeral rites and rituals to be a fascinating part of all cultures. That Naples
funeral must have been a very amazing and surreal event. And yet another Mafia encounter....I'm
getting a little paranoid.... should we be talking about this...ha?
At one point you married and moved to Glasgow...can you tell us about that?
I eventually married Aileen (production coordinator) and moved to Glasgow, where she formed a
production company with a fantastic journalist called Les Wilson.
Les and I were to become something of a team; he taught me a great deal about structure and
writing. I was captured by his constant enthusiasm.
In return, I taught him how to use images in a more creative way. Simple stuff, like not really
needing to use two different shot sizes when interviewing contributors, which was the old method,
done like that so as to be able to splice it together. I told him that we just need one beautiful
framing and then we need really nice illustrative shots to cut it together.
Les managed to get commission after commission, some mini drama series, some current affairs
docs and many dramatized history docs.
My experience in drama came to the fore, especially when we were commissioned by C4 Learning
to make a series on the life of Robert Burns.
With a beautiful script, written by the celebrated short story writer Chris Dolan, it was a real
challenge for me.
The series on Robert Burns must have been a really exciting challenge! What a short but
amazing life he led. A very prolific poet and lyricist ...author of Auld Lang Syne....and something I
just recently learned...the "Bard Burns" was also a Freemason....another fascinating topic.
It was to be my first job lighting a period drama and with the writer and commissioning editor
saying that it should be all “shaky wobbly” like NYPD Blue,
Horrified, I had to persuade Les to ignore them. First of all I explained that to shoot a period
drama, with a small budget, we would have to rely upon period locations, where since the
industrial revolution, lots of horrid bits have been nailed to the walls. Like fuse boxes, power
supplies etc etc, secondly, why be fooled by a style that really does not suit the story.
I told him that we should create beautiful frames, beautifully lit and let a well-chosen cast work
within those limited spaces. Also, I managed to persuade him to use the John Ford style of
shooting, know your script and shoot no more than what you need. (Unlike the modern style of
shooting over and over and rarely having the courage to say “got it in the can”).
Les, bless him, told me to go ahead and do what I wanted to do and we’d face the consequences
I studied paintings from the period, in fact any pre-electric work, to see how they portrayed faces
and backgrounds in candlelight. I then made a nice deal with a local Gaffer Electrician, he would
supply himself and a truck full of lights that would be on a “pay for what you use” deal and a very
large supply of amber gels.
The end result was so well received hat nobody said a word about it not being like NYPD Blue, in
fact we received nothing but praise‚ for having made such a fine work on such a small budget and
got many other commissions on the back of it.
What other series or documentaries have you worked on?
I worked principally with Les for the eleven years that I lived in Glasgow and when Les was
involved in multiple projects, I became director/cameraman. I directed a highly acclaimed series
on the history of transport in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, of which I am very proud This
was a long trek, ferry after ferry, meeting extraordinary people with extraordinary tales and then
my discovery of an American lady called Margaret Fae Shaw. She was a wealthy heiress whose
parents died when she was very young. She used her money to travel and subsequently met and
married the Scottish poet John Lorne Campbell. They bought the island of Canna and became
Lairds. She was obsessed with cameras and photographed and filmed the life of the Gaels in the
1920s and 30s. She had left her extensive archive in the care of BBC Scotland and I gained
access to it. She filmed the first plane landing on the beach at Barra’s Cockleshell bay, still used
as the main airport on Barra to this day. BA runs a regular service there.
Her stills and movies are astonishingly good and I used much of it.
Would love to see those stills and film footage!
This was when I fell in love with post-production, editing, dubbing, introducing music and using
archive material. Just making the story interesting, enthralling and watchable was like a new toy to
I was always a fairly compassionate person and my part in allowing people to speak freely on
camera made me even more so. For example, the lady whose husband was a warder in Perth
Prison, taken hostage by the inmates during a riot, who described to us the horror of seeing him,
with a noose around his neck being paraded around the roof of the prison for two weeks. She
watched this on the daily news for the entire two weeks.
This and the tale of murder and the subsequent executions of very young Nazi POWs has stayed
firmly in the forefront of my memory to this day.
What an amazing career and life you have had so far Bob! I feel like a hermit now...ha!
I could write endlessly on my experiences, but would take far too long, so I would like to say what I
think of current broadcast TV.
On the whole, I see that the monsters in charge are afraid of talent and experience, they hire
whoever is the cheapest (pretending to introduce new talent) and send them out with all the latest
technology and little else. I see most new documentaries as “a triumph of style over content”.
Horrible shaky camerawork, considered to be more appealing to the viewer, facts repeated over
and over again and no sense of real storytelling.
Vast quantities of money being invested in technology, programme budgets being cut to the
bone. I am no longer a part of the media world and we have parted company. I miss the creativity
but not the new breed of media demi-gods.
Incidentally, it is the advertising sales depts. that now dictate what gets commissioned, not the
commissioning editors, people with delusions of adequacy.
I may sound bitter, but I am not, just saddened to see such a great art form transformed into
something to fill the gaps between advertisements.
I did carry a stills camera with me and whenever the opportunity arose and the setting was
inspirational enough, I used it. Sometimes I was commissioned to do so, but under UK copyright
law, if the production company supplies the film, they own the copyright. As a result, I do not have
much of that work in my possession, alas!
Thank you so much Bob for taking the time for this interview. It was a pleasure to hear all the
fantastic adventures and follow your path to where you are today!
One last question since you mentioned your disappointment in broadcast TV today. Are there
recent shows or documentaries you have seen that have really impressed you? Anything that
really stands out as cinematic excellence?
I do think that Ridley Scott has a great understanding of Cinema, he knows the essence of the
story and how to lay it down on film. Together with his talent as an art director he makes what I
would call ‘Great Cinema’. Steven Spielberg is no slouch, he is another one who grasps the
grandeur of the silver screen.
I loved Michael Clayton. It has a quality I love, it is a complex story woven together beautifully and
credits the viewer with having a certain level of intelligence, something that many modern
productions fail to do.
I hope I don’t offend anybody, but much of what people say is great, is what used to make good
TV drama and worked much better as such. Or, for instance, Reservoir Dogs, that so many
people rave about, is to me, just a piece of ‘theatre on film’.
So many films nowadays used to be TV Drama, a much forgotten (largely because of budget)
medium, it is a nice blend of theatre and cinema and I wish there was more of it.
As to TV, there are some good productions out there, many of them documentaries, sometimes
ruined by turgid voice over artists. I like to experience the enthusiasm of the presenter/voice over
artist. Sometimes the production will get its backing because of a ‘big name’ being attached to the
I looked forward to watching Discovery’s “Life” and was terribly disappointed by Oprah’s voice
over. She sounded so detached from what was on screen, as if she was just reading a script in a
voice over booth several thousand mile away from the production, which she probably was. What
Interview with photographer Bob Batchelor