The photographer Frank Martin, who has died aged 89, was on the staff of the Guardian from 1964 to 1997, creating an extensive body of work that covered news, arts, fashion, politics and international events.
During his career on the paper he photographed most of his notable contemporaries. These included, among hundreds of others, a young Judi Dench at home and Mark Rylance in rehearsal; the artists Andy Warhol and David Hockney; Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter on the presidential campaign trail in 1976. He captured Fidel Castro and Twiggy; the prime ministers Harold Wilson and Edward Heath; the novelists Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer; the Rolling Stones in an early TV appearance in 1964; and the giant pandas Chia Chia and Ching Ching reunited at London Zoo after an unsuccessful mating trip to Washington.
Frank was in Aberfan for the disaster in 1966; in Belfast during the Troubles, when he got “roughed up” by rioters; and he travelled to India to photograph Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral in 1991, but ended up being sent to cover the floods in Bangladesh, where he took a hugely affecting image of a young child holding her dying baby sibling. In 1967 he had witnessed the Torrey Canyon oil disaster off the south-west coast of Britain and wrote about the experience.
The variety of his subjects was astounding. He would work with just two cameras (Pentaxes, then latterly Nikons), a couple of lenses and a flashgun. The flashgun was usually left in his elegant leather camera case – “available light” was the preferred illumination for the atmospheric portraits that he shot.
One Sunday in June 1989, Frank was in the Guardian office as the duty photographer. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had died the night before. It was decided that Frank should try to get to the funeral in Tehran.
By maxing out his credit card and raiding the managing editor’s safe, an air ticket was bought and he was on his way. He did not need to go home; he always carried his passport. To actually get to the funeral, along with millions of mourners, required Frank to draw on all his experience, resilience and bravery. He ended up at the graveside almost carried by the crowd, but he took some career-defining pictures and was on a plane back to London that night.
In the 1970s and 80s Frank was one of the vast international posse of photographers who followed the twice-yearly, ready-to-wear cycle from Milan to Paris to New York to London. Brenda Polan, the Guardian’s fashion editor at the time (and later women’s editor), said: “Frank’s subject of choice as a photographer was wildlife and he was very good at it, not just because of his expert eye for composition but because he had the patience to wait calmly for the animal to move into shot. That was exactly what catwalk photography demanded – and he was very good at that too.”
He was much admired across the fashion industry and designers often commissioned him to moonlight and take their publicity shots. As a newspaper photographer trained to not just get the picture but to get it into the dark room and into the paper before the deadline, he was fast. “In a profession where one supermodel shot could take a whole tedious day, Frank got the perfect pic in minutes,” said Polan.
He contributed more than just images to the Guardian. He was that rarity among photographers – he could write. For several years, as well as shooting fashion Frank wrote about it too. From Milan in 1979 he reported: “Next autumn’s fashionable woman ... is likely to be a wide shouldered, spiky heeled superwoman with maybe a snap brim trilby and a pinstripe suit ... Square, padded shoulders are inescapable, with peaks and puffs and wings and some leg o’mutton sleeves from Walter Albini; but you will not have to look like Al Capone on his wedding day. The successful designs have balanced the wide tops with clean sweeping lines from neck to hem, full of unfussy sleeves and tailoring excellence.” All his fashion articles were illustrated with his own pictures.
Frank was born in West Ham, east London. His father, Frederick, was a carpenter turned bus driver and his mother, Rose (nee Higgs), worked in a garden shop. He attended the Beal modern school in Ilford before doing his national service in the RAF photographic reconnaissance unit based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, where he also met his future wife, Eileen Williams; they married in 1953. Like several other photographers of his generation, he got bitten by the photo bug during his spell in the RAF.
Following his demob he worked as a “darkroom boy” with a Fleet Street news agency, before landing a job at Bernsen’s International Press Service (BIPS). His successful apprenticeship at BIPS doing all manner of assignments for magazines and national newspapers led to his staff job in the Guardian’s London office in 1964.
In the early days there he also wrote articles for the British Journal of Photography, including a spread on life as a press photographer on London’s coldest street, doorstepping No 10, and an interview with the leading sports photographer of the time, Ed Lacey. In 1977 he was named Men’s Fashion Writer of the Year.
Frank was a respected photographer among his peers, and described by Polan as “a tall, tranquil presence in the heart of the mob hysteria” that often prevailed at the international fashion shows. “We travelled together for half a decade,” she recalled, “muttering to each other that this fashion circus was not really a grown-up way to make a living. I would drag him to fashion parties and designer dinners where you never got a bite before midnight. His oft-repeated gentle reproach, ‘This is another fine mess you’ve got me into, Polan,’ still rings in my ears every time a situation gets sticky.”
After retiring in 1997, Frank returned to his favourite subject, wildlife, and continued to build a large archive. Eileen, who was a crafts teacher, died in 2012; Frank is survived by his daughter, Ann.
• Frank Martin, photographer, born 27 September 1932; died 2 April 2022