By Michaelangelo Rucci
When English actor Paul Eddington – of Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister and The Good Life fame – was asked how his epitaph should read, he replied: “He did very little harm”.
This was Bryan Charlton, of sports photography fame in Adelaide – and for a little time in Eddington’s London in the early 1970s.
More to the point, Charlton did much good – and well beyond capturing great achievements on the sporting fields through his sharply focused camera lens.
On a typical Adelaide day many years ago, Charlton was driving along Magill Road in the city’s eastern edge when he saw a bad driver sideswipe a parked car and move on.
Most people – fearing road rage or fed up with the bureaucracy in reporting a crime – would have turned a blind eye. Not my problem ….
Not Charlton, a man who did very good things. He chased the offending driver, stopped the villain, collected all the details and then returned to the damsel in distress on Magill Road.
But Charlton did not stop at just handing over the much-needed details to police. He also comforted the shaken woman – and ensured she reached home safely.
He was a chivalrous man, in an understated and elegant way.
He did very little harm … and much good.
Charlton came from the era when sports photographers saw everything and said little. And they did little harm (before the paparazzi theme emerged in a sharper 24/7 news cycle that put more and more sport on front pages than the back of newspapers).
Charlton died at the end of January after a difficult period with inexplicable lung problems – a curse of much harm while he waited for a double lung transplant in Melbourne.
He deserved better. He had not smoked. He had not touched asbestos. There was no explanation for such a torment on his lungs.
A man who did little harm did not merit such.
As the family noted, Charlton was the “soul mate and best friend of Denise, (the) outstanding Dad and father-in-law of Daniel and Lauren, Kirsty and Jon. Proud Poppy of Angus”.
“One of a kind,” they added.
In November, on a day when his lungs were not limiting his movements, Charlton brought a collection of his photographs to show while being interviewed for the SANFL History Centre newsletter as part of a continuing series about the men and women behind the lenses on South Australian sporting fields.
Whatever initial reluctance Charlton had about self-promotion, the interview today serves as an important recollection of a man who did much good with a camera – and in life.
This was Charlton through his lens:
BEHIND THE CAMERA
As a 15-year-old Bryan Charlton “slept” in the line-up outside Adelaide Oval on the Friday night before the 1966 SANFL grand final so he could get a front-row position behind the southern goal to see his beloved Sturt finally win a premiership – the first of five in a row.
For the next five decades, Charlton was in the best “front row” inside the boundary at the biggest sporting venues and sporting events around the world. He watched sporting greatness unfold through a lens capturing award-winning photographs for The Advertiser in Adelaide, The Age in Melbourne … and the journals of some of Adelaide’s finest schools, such as Pulteney and Scotch colleges.
“And now, after 50 years, I am adjusting my eyes to seeing Port Adelaide games from the grandstands,” says Charlton, who also has crossed the great divide to be a Port Adelaide fan in AFL ranks – after “being tarred with the Sturt brush” by his grandparents and parents.
In the search for SA football’s greatest photographs as chosen by photographers, Charlton prefers to nominate the work of much-admired colleague Ray Titus rather than any from his grand and detailed portfolio.
The image? The rise to the heavens by Magarey Medallist Barrie Robran at Adelaide Oval in 1971.
“I was in a forward pocket and have a photograph of the mark head on,” says Charlton, who had his image published both by The Advertiser and in London.
“But it is nothing like the picture Ray took from side-on. In fact, it is miserable by comparison. They say you need to be lucky with photography in live situations. Ray made his own luck. He was that good.”
Charlton followed his dream to sports photography. In 1967, as a 16-year-old finishing his schooling at Adelaide Technical High, Charlton had won a prize at the Royal Adelaide Show – and was nominated by his teacher for work at the Highways Department.
“I always wanted to work at a newspaper, as a sports photographer,” recalled Charlton.
He did take up work with the Highways Department after his applications at The News and The Advertiser did not deliver a cadetship. He had even tried Messenger Press but was overlooked because he had no driver’s licence to use a car to get to jobs.
“And within a month there was a vacancy at The Advertiser,” said Charlton.
At 16 in 1967, Charlton was on the doorstep to his dream job – and by his resume containing a picture of some Sturt footballers in action with the Hyde Park (today Glenunga) team.
The Advertiser’s senior photographer Barry O’Brien took Charlton under his wing, taking the rookie to SANFL games on Saturdays – a rostered day off for Charlton.
He won a national photographic award for a picture from a waterlogged SANFL game at Glenelg Oval featuring Tigers hero Brian Colbey.
“Barry O’Brien and John Burdett were fantastic football photographers at The Advertiser – and kind to take me under their wings when I started,” Charlton said.
In 1975, when O’Brien had his weekends taken up by horse training or baseball, the challenges of being a full-time sports photographer at a major daily newspaper was Charlton’s dream fulfilled.
He had 18 years with The Advertiser, leaving on the arrival of Rupert Murdoch; and then 20 with The Age in the Adelaide bureau for the Melbourne newspaper.
“I was able to work to the words of great writers at The Advertiser – Geoff Kingston, Merv Agars, Mike Coward and Gordon Schwartz, one of the greatest gentlemen you could ever meet,” Charlton said. “And Greg Baum, Patrick Smithers and Peter McFarline at The Age.”
Charlton’s roll call of great SANFL photographs is – Barry O’Brien: Norwood coach Bob Hammond and Mike Poulter hugging after the 1975 grand final at Football Park; John Burdett: Sturt ruckman Rick Davies’ high mark over Port Adelaide rival Chris Natt in the 1976 grand final at West Lakes; and Ray Titus: Robran.
From his own lens, Charlton nominates his image of Norwood hardman Neil Balme turning West Adelaide ruckman Dexter Kennedy’s face “to jelly” and any of Glenelg high flyer Graham Cornes in aerial marking contests.
Charlton did work in London in the early 1970s and returned to Adelaide with his new carry case for film and lenses made of aluminium.
“At quarter-time of one South Adelaide game at Adelaide Oval, I went onto the field to take photographs at the huddles,” Charlton recalled. “When I came back to the boundary, it was gone.
“It had floated to the forward pocket … Winters in the 1960s and 1970s were always wet. The grounds were always waterlogged. And photographers were always drenched. We would get back to the office, strip off our wet-weather gear and leave it to dry while we went into the dark rooms wearing dust coats while we processed our photographs.”
So how does a Sturt boy, who had his father ribbed by Port Adelaide supporters while he worked at the port come to follow the Port Adelaide Football Club in the AFL? More so after be had become besotted with master Sturt coach Jack Oatey during a school visit.
“I never took to all the euphoria with the Crows in 1991,” Charlton said. “But at the first AFL training session at Port Adelaide late in 1996 I was made so welcome by (coach) John Cahill that 10 years later I was a supporter going to games on the Gold Coast, Perth and two or three times a year in Melbourne.”
Charlton also took on special photographic assignments for Port Adelaide, as he has done with cricket and football intercollegiate matches in Adelaide.
“After all these years,” says Charlton, “I am back to enjoying the game as a supporter and feel 2020 is a year we will remember having footy amid a pandemic was a saviour for many of us.
“For more than 40 years I was on the front row of many great sporting events from football to Commonwealth and Olympic Games. I went to memorable occasions such as Grand Prix races in Adelaide. There also have been major news events, involving travelling on the Prime Minister’s plane.
“It has been a gifted life watching sport. It has been a dream.”
You can read more about the Life of Bryan at http://bryancharlton.com/