Work Hard, Get Lucky

Jack Atley loves sport. Photography is a job. He only took it up, he quips, because he wasn't good enough to win Wimbledon.

 From the Archive: Photo Review Aug/Sep 2002

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Michael Johnson, LA Olympic Games following his record-breaking win in the 200m sprint.

'At the end of the day I'm happy to put the camera in the locker and walk away,' Jack Atley explains. A little reminiscent of lines in an old Bob Dylan song about the boxer Hurricane Carter "It's my work", he says, ‘I do it for pay, and when it's all over I'd just as soon be on my way.'

That’s not to say he’s disengaged from the craft. He taught himself to develop and print photographs as a school kid, and continues to be driven to get great shots – to be a great photographer, in fact. He won’t name his best shot because he hopes he hasn’t taken it yet, but he knows the hardest he’s ever taken. 
It is a now-famous shot of U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson winning the 200m at the LA Olympics – the first time in history a runner had taken out both the 200m and 400m events.

It was a 40-degree day and there was no shade. He had been working 15 – 16 hour days for three weeks without a break, eating little and smoking too much.
“No joke, I was a physical wreck. I probably shouldn’t have even been there,” he admits.

He had been waiting from 2pm until the race started at 9.30pm "for that one frame". A bomb scare had made it almost impossible to move in and out of the stadium.

"You've got 19.32 seconds to get a shot, and if you miss it you're gone. I focussed on the finishing line. He ran past and did nothing. Then he looked up at his time, realised he'd made history, raised his arms and started to scream. I shot 12 frames and I think only one of them was sharp.

To maintain concentration under these kinds of circumstances must be mentally draining. It is a job, and a tough one at that! But it's also a drug: "It's definitely addictive, and when you don't take photos for a while you tend to crave it. The concentration levels mean you're locked into your own little world sometimes. To be the best at anything you have to be selfish at times, and there are times you might even lose it."

"To be the best" and "to be great at something" are phrases Jack uses without either false modesty or cringe-inducing pomposity. It's simply what he aims to be, and it's a dual goal of getting the best out of himself and be the best in the photography game.

The qualities he would like to see recognised in a Jack Atley shot are composition, sharpness, "seeing something that is not obvious to others" and "thinking out a picture".
He says that while quick reflexes and a good eye are important, around 75 percent of what delivers success is research and homework.

"You have to know the game, so you can visualise what's going to happen before it happens. You have to know that Steve Waugh likes the cut shot but doesn't pull, that Gilchrist likes to hook, that Schumacher is good enough to take a bend at a certain angle, that Lleyton Hewitt tends to jump on his forehand.

"That old saying - ‘the harder I work the luckier I get' - really holds true in sports photography."

Jack won a cadetship on the Sydney Morning Herald in 1987. That year two cadets were picked from something like 2000 applications. His mum and dad drove him up to Sydney from suburban Melbourne, dropping him off and wishing him all the best. The first six months for the 17- year-old were lonely and tough, but he had fallen in with some of the best photographic talent Australia has seen. His colleagues and competitors included renowned names like Bob Pearce, Rick Stevens, Trent Parke and Tim Clayton, each of them Press or Sports Photographer of the Year at least once.

So the bar was set very high from the start for young Jack. He recalls the excitement and competitive buzz when the SMH stable of thoroughbred photographers would come back from a day's shooting and throw their pics onto the table. "There would always be an absolutely cracking shot, a world-beater," he explains. "And you just had to live up to that kind of standard."

And he did, if awards and accolades offer any proof. He won Australian Sports Photographer of the Year in his second year with the Herald, and in 1995, by that time back in Melbourne with the Melbourne Age, achieved a personal goal by being named Nikon Australian Press Photographer of the Year before he turned 30. He also has a cupboard full of awards from individual sports and has been official photographer for the Australian cricket team.

Goals are important to Jack, who has the kind of drive that distinguishes champions from the rest of us. And one of those goals was to work for the international sports pic agency, Allsport, by the age of 35.

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Rowing team, Yarra River: "You can get good results shooting rowing - this shot is all about symmetry and teamwork. Shot in bright overcast light, which I love and Melbourne does really well".

Ironically, achieving this goal led to him sit out the Sydney Olympics, which must have been a devastating (denial of) experience. It's as if there was a temporary disconnect between Jack Atley and his destiny. He left Allsport in June 2000, finding the corporate culture of a transnational picture agency business didn't altogether suit the "great shots at all cost" Atley style. On the other hand the exposure to the more nakedly money-making side of picture taking gave him the insight to take the next step and set up on his own as an independent freelance.

"Jack Atley Inc" is moving from strength to strength. He is winning a lot of international commissions and by the time this story is published (August 2002) will have launched a website www.jackatley.com from which he intends to sell a selection of his images. He also has a commercial gallery in the sports-oriented Royal Melbourne Hotel.

So where does he want to be in 10 years' time - sitting under a broiling sun shooting elite sports? Running a boutique version of Allsport? Being the Ken Duncan of sports photography? "In 10 years I want to be sitting in my beach house," he asserts.

Frankly, this is one goal which, in my humble opinion, Jack is unlikely to achieve. The cravings will be too hard to resist.

For more details see www.jackatley.com

See Photo Review magazine Issue 6 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.

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