Terry Cryer obituary

Photographer admired for his pictures of jazz greats and for his skill in the darkroom

Terry Cryer, who has died aged 82, was a photographer who took portraits of jazz and blues musicians in the late 1950s. He produced sparkling prints with a depth that recalled Victorian and Edwardian photographic values, working in the darkroom with the verve and spirit of someone who had learned speed-printing at a Butlin’s holiday camp and with a cavalier attitude to chemical reactions nurtured in a life led without fear of the consequences.

His switch from skilled hack to artist came about through a chance remark by John Lennon. Cryer was commercially successful but disenchanted with his work when Lennon told him: “If you’re ever any good, you’re always good. It’s always there. You’ve just got to find it.” Cryer took heed and began studying early photography, immersing himself in pictorialism and the work of Stieglitz, Weston, Coburn and Brandt. He experimented in the darkroom, teaching himself long-forgotten toning techniques and learning how to get the best out of modern papers, increasingly depleted in essential chemicals. His work became sought for exhibitions and private and public collections.

He was born in Leeds, the younger of two sons of Richard and Florence Cryer, into a household where a regular wage was a rarity. His mother left the family when he was a year old, around the time he fell downstairs and fractured his skull. Spinal meningitis set in but, with no antibiotics and only primitive surgery to drain fluids away, his survival was against all odds.

On the eve of the second world war, the brothers joined their father in a touring fair before being evacuated to the South Yorkshire village of Braithwell, where they lived with the kindly Ma and Pa Thompson, learning country ways and a lasting appreciation of good food.

Photography appealed to Cryer’s adventurous streak, developed on the rooftops of Leeds, where he stole lead and snared pigeons to sell to butchers, and at 14 he worked for a film processing company where he mixed up chemicals at 100 gallons a time and “felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice”.

Terry Cryer with Louis Armstrong, caught on camera by the tuba player Bob Barclay in Liverpool, 1956.
Terry Cryer with Louis Armstrong, caught on camera by the tuba player Bob Barclay in Liverpool, 1956. Photograph: Val Wilmer Collection

He joined the army aged 17 and was posted to Egypt, where his first job was producing identity cards for 400 fighting men of the East African Pioneer Corps. Coping with the difficulties of photographing dark faces using techniques designed for white ones stood him in good stead for his future portraits of African Americans. He saved up to buy a Rolleiflex but remained bothered by the poor quality of his early negatives and determined to become a better printer. He would go on to become celebrated for his craftsmanship, and was Kodak’s printer of the year on six occasions.

In Leeds he met the tuba player Bob Barclay, who had opened a cafe serving egg and chips with jazz records on the side. This would become Studio 20, a celebrated after-hours nightspot with red beans and rice on the menu, in tribute to Louis Armstrong’s favourite dish, and in 1956 Cryer met Armstrong in Barclay’s company.

American musicians had started coming regularly to Britain, and Cryer photographed the bluesmen Jimmy Rushing and Muddy Waters, and the Eddie Condon and Count Basie bands, and sold the results to London publications. Driving back from seeing Big Bill Broonzy in Manchester, Barclay fell asleep at the wheel and Cryer woke up with a broken neck. A lengthy stay in hospital followed, yet within months he had contrived a trip to London to photograph a Thames riverboat shuffle, still encased in a plaster cast.

In 1957 he married Ann Dear, a schoolteacher, at the urging of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the celebrated gospel performer who was touring with the trombonist Chris Barber’s band. They moved to London, where Ann worked at the Marquee club in Oxford Street while Terry comprehensively covered a flourishing jazz scene in Soho. The crossover then was extraordinary: it was possible to dance to the New Orleans jazz of George Lewis one night and listen to the Modern Jazz Quartet’s neoclassicism in concert the next. Cryer absorbed it all, then suddenly disappeared from the jazz scene, lured by Associated Press and a regular wage.

On a dozen visits to the USSR, his ingenuity ensured him a ringside seat at important events and opened doors at trade fairs where he rubbed shoulders with politicians including Nikita Khrushchev and Reginald Maudling. His aptitude for wheeling and dealing, learnt at his father’s knee, helped him out of several scrapes but did not prevent his deportation to Poland. He carried home several press awards and won the admiration of his peers, then advertising and industrial work for oil companies followed, taking him to Nigeria and the motor-racing circuit. A series of business partnerships kept him commercially active but artistically unfulfilled until the meeting with Lennon, which came about as a result of an enduring friendship with the extended family of Paul McCartney.

A series of photographs of students at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds spotlighted Phoenix, the exciting black dance troupe from Chapeltown, and his fine prints from these sessions, some toned with gold chloride, marked his new role as a master printer.

Cryer was one of the first jazz photographers I knew and one of my early heroes, although our friendship did not begin until three decades later. At his home in Leeds, named Little Holland House after the home of his own hero, the pioneer of Victorian photography Julia Margaret Cameron, he taught me to improve my darkroom techniques. Later he asked me to write the introduction to One in the Eye, his 1992 autobiography.

In the mid-60s, following divorce from Ann, he married Johanna Maria de Jong, a model from Holland, from whom he was divorced in 1981. He is survived by the three daughters, Kelly, Danielle and Julee, of his second marriage, and by his brother, Peter.

• Terence Anthony Cryer, photographer, born 24 June 1934; died 15 January 2017

• This article was amended on 23 January 2017. Terry Cryer has died aged 82, rather than 83 as originally stated.

Contributor

Val Wilmer

The GuardianTramp

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