How often have we done something we later came to regret. Even selling cherished objects in a mistaken bout of clearing the decks. Many of us, I know, have sold Leicas or M lenses and then bitterly regretted the action. Worse, I’ve sold and then bought the same camera or lens again after a few months. Act in haste, repent at leisure…
Even famous photojournalists of the 20th Century aren’t immune from the syndrome. It happened to John Robert Young eight years ago when he decided to sell two extraordinary Leica bodies. Now, he’d like them back if he could.
John’s career started as a darkroom assistant at a commercial photographer’s in Chichester, Sussex. He was conscripted for National Service and volunteered for the Palestine Police at the time of the British Mandate (1919-1948).
Later, he went on to become one of the best-known photojournalists of his time. He was the official photographer for, among others, two Prime Ministers, one Canadian, one British, and the Hollywood star, Shirley MacLaine.
The Leica connection
For many years he had what he describes as a delightful relationship with Leica UK, then under the directorship of the late Uli Hintner.
His team provided outstanding support during his time as a photojournalist and long before the term ‘ambassador’ emerged in relation to camera usage.
Uli invited John to publicise the Leica brand through a series of advertisement in the national press and the cooperation proved highly successful. However, John’s Leicas were stolen while he was photographing the Spanish Foreign Legion. Leica UK immediately came to his aid with replacement camera and lenses. They provided an M6 Classic which was engraved with John’s signature on the top-plate. Later, he purchased a black M6 TTL and had his signature engraved to match that on the Classic.
Eight years ago, John decided to sell both bodies through Red Dot Cameras. He has regretted the decision ever since and is now seeking the help of Macfilos readers in an effort to trace them.
He is particularly keen to trace his old M6 Classic, which, he remembers, had a customised frame-line set up because he prefers an uncluttered frame.
The Classic accompanied John on his travels, photographing the good, the bad and the ugly. He realises that the new owner may not want to part with the camera (or cameras if they stayed together) but John would be open to discussion. He says that the owner might be interested in some other items from his collection, including a customised black M3 and a military green M3.
So, if anyone knows the whereabouts of either of these John Robert Young cameras, please get in touch through me, email@example.com. The number for the black Classic M6 is 1741675 and the number of the M6 TTL is 2549051
During his long career, John travelled the world, from the Great Wall of China to the rainforests of South America and remote regions of Africa, documenting war, famine and devastation. In quieter moments, he photographed famous politicians, artists, musicians, beautiful women, a Nobel Prize winner and religious leaders—along with the odd terrorist. He gained access to China’s People’s Liberation Army, visited Dr Albert Schweitzer in his jungle hospital, experienced famine in Ethiopia and had lunch with Hitler’s filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. And, of course, the list wouldn’t be complete without Northern Ireland…
A dangerous city
Living with the Foreign Legion
During his long career, John lived with the French Foreign Legion for his best-selling book, “The Foreign Legion”, published by Thames and Hudson. Len Deighton, the best-selling author and film producer, gives us a flavour of John’s experiences in his foreword to the book:
“In our far-travelled communication sated, permissive society there are few remaining conversation stoppers. But any man who can say, ‘I served with the Legion’ is guaranteed an audience. There is something intriguing about an enclosed society. It attracts our attention, arouses our curiosity and baffles by exclusion.
“The Legion is an enigma, even to the French. The Legion trusts no one, and even retired veterans speak cautiously. And the Legion has its enemies. Some suspect that the Legion has political ambitions, and the Algerian revolt in which one battalion of the Legion supported the rebels, did nothing to quell the disquiet. The Legion is demanding; the work is tough and its punishments are hard.
“The old stories about men buried up to their necks in sand are not inventions of some Hollywood hack. Even now the Legion has its own justice and life is harsh for those unwilling to accept Legion ways. But the Legion is more than just a military formation and it has survived because it provides not just a home and family, but a new life and a new country. The Legionnaire is not merely a civilian who becomes a soldier. He is an immigrant and exile. For many Legionnaires, leave has no attraction and no meaning.
“The Legion is a secret world and is jealous of that secrecy. There is no doubt that the Legion recognised in John Robert Young a fellow spirit. In fact, one Legionnaire eventually confided, ‘No matter what authority you had from Paris, if the Legion didn’t like you, you wouldn’t be here.’’’
John provides some fascinating statistics about the Foreign Legion project, the research and photography for which took eighteen months out of his life in 1982 and 1983.
He travelled no fewer than 50,000 miles by plane, car, jeep, military helicopter, pirogue and shanks’ pony. He visited a number of locations in southern France, including Aubagne, Orange and Castelnaudary, plus Calvi and Bonifaccio in Corsica, Djibouti, Algeria and French Guiana.
His chosen cameras were the Leica R3 and R4, the Leicaflex SL2 and his cherished black-body M3. Over 300 rolls of film were exposed, providing 3,000 transparencies of which just 150 were whittled down for use. Editing time alone took over 700 hours.
These days, John spends time in his well-equipped darkroom and, with the help of his wife Jenny, makes prints from negatives that have remained unprinted in his archive.
He tells me that he has never felt comfortable with the digital process. Somehow, he says, it just doesn’t seem like photography.
Barnack to Brahms
A few years ago John began playing the violin once again and now plays a German instrument dating from the late eighteenth century: “So you might say I have travelled from Barnack to Brahms in a lifetime.”
John’s long and illustrious career provides a remarkable insight into the life of a premier photo journalist working over a span of 60 years.
He was kind enough to send me a copy of his autobiography, Toothbrush, Passport and Camera—Diary of a Photojournalist and it certainly makes gripping reading. It’s an adventure from beginning to end and I can certainly recommend it to readers of Macfilos.
Len Deighton summed up the book: “John’s gripping account of his hazardous and eventful life kept me reading it into the small hours of the morning.”
I can only agree with Len’s assessment. Apart from the fast pace, with a famous subject and high adventure on almost every page, the book is superbly written and wholly absorbing.
If you buy the autobiography from Amazon using this link, Macfilos will receive a (minute) commission.
All photographs (other than the M6 Classic image) ©John Robert Young