In 1957, Sir Edmund Hillary and Dr Vivian Fuchs embarked on the first trans-Antarctic crossing since the doomed attempt by Ernest Shackleton 40 years earlier. The explorers were to meet and shake hands at the South Pole and the Times wanted a photo to scoop the world. They chose their best photographer for the hazardous mission, Stuart Heydinger.
Heydinger, who has died aged 92, was a resourceful, brave, 6ft 1in-tall former paratrooper, as well as a brilliant news photographer. When he, his portable dark room and a priceless prototype photograph-transmitting machine arrived in New Zealand, word reached him that the thin summer polar ice at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica could not support the usual wheeled aircraft.
Back in London, the Times panicked, ordering Heydinger to parachute into the snowy wastes, then cancelling that far-fetched notion. Instead, a US navy Neptune aircraft equipped with skis and 16 additional booster jets strapped to its fuselage blasted Heydinger to McMurdo.
After the hair-raising landing, the US commander on the ground, Admiral George Dufek, asked: “Why are you not afraid to die?” Heydinger replied: “I would rather that than go back to London without a picture.” He meant it and, to get the upper hand on the rival photographers there, he surreptitiously set up his transmitter two miles away before heading to the South Pole.
On 19 January 1958, Fuchs and Hillary met and hurriedly shook hands. Heydinger got the shot and, while others were celebrating the historic achievement, he developed his film and made prints. He went back to his transmitter and sent three images to London. News of his scoop soon reached his competitors and they were livid. A fistfight ensued and Heydinger left for home with an enhanced reputation and a broken nose.
In 1960 he joined the Observer as chief photographer and it was at that newspaper, as part of a formidable team including Jane Bown, Michael Peto, Don McCullin, Colin Jones, Philip Jones Griffiths and David Newell-Smith, that Heydinger was able fully to express himself creatively. At the Observer, photographers were encouraged to tell stories, and Heydinger’s empathetic nature had found a home.
He documented the human cost of the Algerian and Indo-China wars of 1962, and produced a 12-page colour feature for the fledgling Observer magazine on the conflict in Borneo in 1964. In Kashmir in 1965, while crossing the Tawi river with Pakistani troops, he was wounded by shrapnel in a rocket attack by an Indian Mig fighter and his cameras were immersed in the river. To save the film he carried his Nikons in a bucket of water for 12 hours to the nearest photo lab.
He also produced excellent portraiture during this time, including of Doris Lessing and Muhammad Ali, and covered football matches, Wimbledon and the Monte Carlo Grand Prix.
But by 1966 something had changed. Heydinger went to see the Observer’s deputy editor, Michael Davie, and told him: “I am going home. I’m not coming in any more. I’ve had enough.” He recalled walking into a pub afterwards and ordering a double whisky. “It was crazy. I was throwing away the best news photographer’s job in Fleet Street. My life was a non-stop adventure, all expenses paid. Yet something had turned sour. Here I was not 40 years old and I had the feeling that I had done it all. My ambition had burned itself out.”
He freelanced for a while, but his waning love for photojournalism was fully extinguished in 1968 when he travelled to Biafra for the Daily Telegraph. The suffering and death he witnessed, particularly that of children, affected him profoundly. He would never work in a war zone again, and he left newspapers behind.
Born in Kingston-upon-Thames, south-west London, Stuart was the son of Violet (nee Grimwade) and Frederick Heydinger, a soldier in the 12th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment. The family were posted to Gibraltar and Yorkshire before settling in Folkestone on the Kent coast in 1935, where he attended the garrison primary school at Shorncliffe camp, and then Morehall school.
In his early teens Heydinger developed a passion for drawing and caricature, honing his powers of observation, and in 1944, aged 17 he began working at the Folkestone, Hythe and District Herald as a trainee, working his way up to cartoonist, reporter and finally photographer.
The following year, when called up for national service, he joined the army and trained as a parachutist. He was deployed to Palestine until 1948, when he returned to Folkestone and worked as a photographer and journalist, including on the Eastbourne Chronicle, before joining the International Photo News agency in 1953, then the Times in 1957.
In 1949 he had married Doreen Baker, a former WAAF truck driver who worked as a delivery driver and shop assistant after the war, and they had a son, Van. The marriage ended in divorce in the 1980s.
Following his departure from newspapers, in the early 70s Heydinger travelled extensively through the Basque country, drawing, painting and photographing its inhabitants.
In 1979 he moved to Germany and made his home in Hude in Lower Saxony. He worked taking pictures for theatres in Oldenburg and Wilhelmshaven and continued to produce beautiful, serene landscape photographs across northern Germany.
In 2007 his work was exhibited in Oldenburg and an accompanying book, Just a Moment… was published. The following year the exhibition travelled to Münster, Emden, then Kingston, and in 2014 a selection of his work was exhibited at Eve gallery in Edenbridge, Kent.
He is survived by Van.
• Stuart Heydinger, photographer, born 5 May 1927; died 6 October 2019