Farewell to the King of the Sporting Lens

Mike King (Photo: Charlie Sanders)It is almost two weeks now since the photographer Mike King collapsed at his mother’s house and died at the appallingly young age of 52. It has been a pretty horrible fortnight for everyone who knew Mike.

Many of us hadn’t seen him for months or years but his regular presence on Facebook, sometimes chirping and chirruping on other people’s posts or sharing one of his own photographs, meant that he was very much a presence in our lives. His sudden death has stunned us all.

The more comments I have read during the week has made it abundantly clear that I was not the only person who valued Mike’s basic core of decency as much as his extraordinary talent with a camera. But perhaps this is the norm when someone dies, we hurry to sing their praises. And then forget them.

Except I don’t think Mike will be forgotten quickly.

Odd man out: Diego Maradona catches the camera before taking on the USSR at Italia '90. ((Photo: Mike King)
Odd man out: Diego Maradona catches the camera before taking on the USSR at Italia ’90. ((Photo: Mike King)

On a professional level he was one of the best sports photographers there has been. If you want to think in sporting terms directly then he was to photography what Usain Bolt is to athletics, what Lionel Messi is to football. One of the best, not just of his own generation but across the ages. His images will outlive all of us.

He started young, just 22 when he went to Los Angeles for his first Olympic Games. And from there he was launched. Olympics, World Cups, Grand Nationals. He did the lot, always delivering a punchy news image which had an X-factor in terms of mood and composition. He wasn’t trigger-happy in the way many photographers now are in the digital age. I recall interviewing him in around 2006 for Athens International Radio and he made the brutally frank observation of the future of photography: “If you fire off a thousand pictures, one of them is bound to be half-decent.”

West Germany striker Juergen Klinsmann takes a tumble during the 1990 World Cup final (Photo: Mike King)
West Germany striker Juergen Klinsmann takes a tumble during the 1990 World Cup final (Photo: Mike King)

Mike learned his craft in the age of smoke and mirrors when a photographer would shoot some film during the first half of a match and then send it off with a runner to deliver direct to the sports desk. I seem to recall a lot of hairdryers in press boxes as well but that may have been in the 1990s when laptops came into play.

Mike’s work for the Observer and the Sunday Telegraph was outstanding. His image from the 2001 Grand National of a jockey flying through the air, won him many awards including Sports Photo of the Year. It is now an iconic image as indeed are several others including Diego Maradonna in the team line-up and Juergen Klinsmann rolling on his head. There are others. Many others.

Mike's favourite photo: so many stories going on in this image of the 2001 Grand National (Photo: Mike King)
Mike’s favourite photo: so many stories going on in this image of the 2001 Grand National (Photo: Mike King)

“When I was embarking on my career in the strange world of sports photography the person who helped me more than anyone else was Mike,” wrote Tom Jenkins, another master of the lens, on Facebook.

“He was a massive inspiration not only because of his beautiful creative eye but his technical ability was second to none. He was the undoubted master of follow-focus in those halycon days when cameras didn’t tell us what to do.”

What has come through since Mike’s death is how universally liked he was. In his excellent obituary for the Sports Journalists Association, Steven Downes describes Mike as a “kind and gentle man.” I cannot put it better.

I was the recipient of his kindness on several occasions. Once when I was running the London Marathon for the first time in 2002, he offered to do some shots of me so that I could boost my fund-raising for Lepra. On a crisp February morning, we met on Peckham Rye and he fired off a roll of film. They are all excellent photos although perhaps, if I were to criticise, they showed the rolling contours of the runner’s stomach just a little too clearly.

Haile Gebrselassie giving some good advice to a first-time marathoner
Haile Gebrselassie giving some good advice to a first-time marathoner (Photo: Mike King)

I was also working on the race as a writer and had managed to secure a ten-minute spot with the great Haile Gebrselassie. We did the intereview in a little broom cupboard of an office; at one point the door nudged open and there was Mike with his beloved Nikon F3 up to his eye and a grin on his lips, snapping the moment. Not sure it meant too much to Haile but it meant a lot when Mike later sent it to me.

Not long after that I roped him in to do some photos for a feature I was writing about Martin Johnson, the England rugby captain. It meant a trip up to Leicester.

“I’ll drive,” said Mike in a manner which brooked no argument.

“Sure that would be great,” I replied. We are going to meet him at the training ground at 11. I would like to be there by half ten. Traffic is never too clever getting out of London. How about we leave at about seven?”

An example of Mike's vision. A stunning photo of rowers at Hampton in 1991. (Photo: Mike King)
An example of Mike’s vision. A stunning photo of rowers at Hampton in 1991. (Photo: Mike King)

“No I will pick you up at half past eight. Plenty of time.

“But Mike, we have to get around London and then on to the M1. That might be cutting it a bit fine.”

“Ok, call it eight-fifteen.”

The famous black Saab stopped outside my flat in East Dulwich at around eight twenty-seven.

But I needn’t have worried about time. We were in Leicester by ten and eating a traditional trucker’s breakfast at his favourite cafe.

I won’t pretend it was the most relaxed drive I have had – I am not a great passenger and did feel the need to close my eyes on a number of occasions. But Mike was chilled to the core as he drove and chatted all the way.

As we lived close to each other in East Dulwich we would occasionally drive to Twickenham together. I think his record was about seventeen minutes. Had he not ben a photographer he might easily have become Cabbie King in London. He was a true Londoner – he took some wonderful photos of the city – and understood the backstreets as well as anyone – and this in the days before SatNav.

“Snap of my day. Clouds from Greenwich Park on a long exposure.”
Mike King, October 19, 2014

Later, when we had moved to Greece we were letting out our flat in Nunhead. He was across the Rye in East Dulwich. Our boiler went on the blink leaving leaving our tenants in the cold. Mike volunteered to take them some heaters and made sure they were ok.

He didn’t need to. We were mates but not bosom pals. It was just Mike. If he could help he would.

Mike will be missed for many reasons. Mainly because he was such a good guy. All of those who knew him will be thinking of Mike’s kids. They are still young, perhaps too young at the moment to understand what a broad impact their father had on the rest of us.

One day, when they are able to take a step back from the grieving, I hope they realise not just what a fine man he was but also what a great artist he was; the King of kings.

©Barney Spender 2015

Follow me on Twitter @bspender

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