Wed, 24 July, 2024

John Varley

Posted: May 4th, 2012

JOHN Varley, retired Daily Mirror photographer in Leeds, has died aged 76. John was a pictureman with a ‘golden eye’ who looked through his lens and saw his picture in the following day’s paper.

Each morning he thrilled to see it published. Especially, that world renowned picture of Bobby Moore and Pele embracing after Brazil beat England in the World Cup in Mexico in 1970.

He did a special deal with the Mirror to take time off every four years to cover the World Cup and he had travelled to Mexico with his reporter colleague in Leeds Allan Staniforth in a Mirror car specially prepared for the Mexico rally.

Not bad for a Doncaster-born lad who started in the darkroom of the Doncaster Gazette. He later joined Eastmid News Service in the town and had several spectacular pictures in the nationals.

But his biggest triumph came covering floods at Catcliffe, near Rotherham. Every national used his pictures next day, some devoting a page to his work.

Outstanding was a picture of a policeman, waist deep in floodwater carrying a tiny baby to safety. It was a picture that went round the world and it impressed the Daily Mirror enough to take him on as their Leeds staffman. He never looked back.

He worked in Biafra and Belfast highlighting the suffering of children in those troubled areas.

He was a good man in a journalistic world of heavy language who was heard only in times of stress to utter the words ‘flippin heck’.

He leaves a widow, June, and two sons, Andrew who has a thriving Leeds picture agency, and David, a TV cameraman and producer.

By Leo White

Alastair McQueen writes:

John Varley was one those photographers who was more than just a little bit special, particularly where young reporters were concerned. As a newly-joined Mirror youngster there was always comfort in having him with you on a job, particularly on a difficult interview.

Like the London-based Eric Piper he knew instinctively when young reporters were struggling and when to step in to help.

Working with him on a story was always a joy, always an exciting time because Varley was always out to get a show in the paper, no matter how run of the mill the job

Despite his reputation as one of the best cameramen in the game he always had time for the up and coming youngsters, particularly young photographers. He never forgot the struggles he had as an agency man.

Way back in the early days of the Irish troubles I was in Londonderry with him. Trevor McBride the local freelance was also on a shift for the Mirror. Out we all went to cover some disturbance or other and the Army flooded the place with teargas.

We were all on our hands and knees in a street near the Bogside, choking, weeping and swearing. An armoured personnel carrier had become trapped and the rioters – despite the gas – had managed to force the doors and wedge them open and were trying to kill the soldiers inside with scaffolding poles and other weapons.

Suddenly, out of the blue, two old ladies charged with furled umbrellas and put the rioters to flight. Trevor McBride ‘thought he’d got a couple of pictures.’

But back at the improvised dark room in the City Hotel the streaming eyes were forgotten as Varley looked at McBride’s pictures. They were superb and caught the grannies in full flight. Many a staff man, envious of the shifter’s success, would have tried to wangle a share of the glory – not John Varley. He rang the picture desks in both Manchester and London and did a hard selling job on McBride’s pictures giving him all the credit.

He followed it up later with another call to Alex Winberg, the London picture editor of the Mirror, to ensure McBride got all the credit plus a big byline and was paid more than he would have been on shift rate.

The Mirror Irish edition splashed: Charge Of The Brolly Brigade. The story was big because of the pictures and it made it big in the main editions. The phones in the City Hotel were ringing into meltdown at midnight as the Mirror dropped on other picture desks.

Another time, again in Northern Ireland, I was part of a Mirror team helping produce a special edition. To my delight Varley was part of the team and again he produced another stunning example of that Varley magic.

The word came back that London wanted a symbolic picture. Everyone wracked their brains but the result was next to nothing… until Varley decided he was going to go for a stroll with his camera.

Off he went to Ardoyne, one of the toughest areas of the country, and hit the jackpot.

Only a man with Varley’s genius for a picture could have got it. He spotted a cross entwined with rusting barbed wire atop a church. Simple. We’d all seen it thousands of times, but once Varley’s lens was trained on it that cross, in his words, was ‘the symbol of Northern Ireland’s agony’.

And that was how the Mirror played it. As he proved time and again, the man was in a class of his own.

Derek Jameson writes:

John Varley worked for me when I was picture editor of the Sunday Mirror in the sixties. He was an absolute delight – a great photographer, gentle, charming and courteous, ready to go to any length to get a good picture. In fact, the other photographers reckoned he would crawl through a field of the proverbial to outdo them. How sad that yet another esteemed friend and colleague has passed on.

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website.