Award-winning former AP photographer Russell McPhedran dies
Former Associated Press photographer Russell McPhedran, whose balcony photo of a hooded terrorist at the 1972 Munich Olympics became one of the iconic images of the 20th century, has died after a heart-related illness. He was 82.
McPhedran, who was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame last November, worked at the Sydney bureau of the Associated Press from 1985 until his retirement in 2003. He was the longest-serving photo editor at the Sydney bureau of the AP.
”Few photographers take a picture powerful enough to enter the permanent consciousness of a nation, let alone become instantly recognizable around the world. Russell McPhedran, or Russ as his mates call him, has a clutch of them,” friend and former colleague Michael Bowers said in writing a tribute for McPhedran ‘s Hall of Fame induction.
The Glasgow, Scotland-born McPhedran arrived in Sydney with his parents in 1950 and became a copy boy for The Sun newspaper in Sydney. He later spent four years on Fleet Street in London, during which time the subjects of his photographs included The Beatles and Ronnie Biggs, who was better-known as the Great Train Robber.
The most famous photo of his career came during a scheduled rest day for McPhedran at the track and field events at the Munich Olympics. McPhedran, then working in the Australian media, was tipped off that something was happening at the athletes’ village.
On Sept. 5, 1972, members of the Palestinian ”Black September” group attacked Israelis at the Munich Games, killing an athlete and a coach and taking nine others hostage. The hostages died later during a botched rescue attempt at a military airfield outside Munich.
In all, 11 Israelis were killed in the siege that shocked the world and ushered in a new era of global terrorism. McPhedran’s photo appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald; a near-identical AP photo was published widely.
McPhedran covered seven more Olympic Games, the last at Sydney in 2000 with The AP.
”The adrenalin rush you get when you have taken what you know is a great picture is fantastic, you know you have done it,” McPhedran told Bowers.
McPhedran was on vacation when he attended a party thrown by Biggs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to celebrate 20 years on the run by the Great Train Robber.
While working for the Daily Express in Britain, McPhedran had covered the initial robbery, on Aug. 8, 1963, when Biggs was one of a 15-member gang that attacked the Glasgow-to-London mail train, stealing 2.6 million British pounds.
”I read a small article in a paper . my wife worked for South African Airways at the time so I asked her `how would you like to go to a party in Rio’?” McPhedran said.
He asked friends at the Daily Express in London ”to print up a bunch of poster prints of the fugitive showing his life on the run, Ronnie going to jail, the Scotland yard mug shot before escaping from England, what he looked like after surgery that sort of thing.”
McPhedran went to see Biggs on his arrival in Rio, and it was a good result: ”As soon as he saw the poster prints he said, `these will look great on the wall at the party,”’ McPhedran said. ”And I said, `yes they will, but only if I come with it,’ and he said, `you are in, son.”’
Often photographed with famous people he was assigned to cover, including Frank Sinatra and U.S. President Bill Clinton, McPhedran was an avid golfer who almost always hit it straight, much to the chagrin of his opponents who tried to smash it further but with less success.
At his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he spent most of his speech thanking friends and associates who had flown in to Sydney from parts of Asia and New Zealand. He treated all his workmates the same way, whether he knew them for 10 minutes or 10 years.
McPhedran was in the process of collaborating on a book about his work. He died Monday, days before a mock-up of the book, of which McPhedran had seen some drafts, was scheduled to be finished.
”This isn’t all about you, this is about history,” McPhedran’s wife, Shirley, said the publishers told her husband during initial discussions about the book.
He is survived by Shirley. They were married in London in 1964.
Funeral arrangements were yet to be announced.
Dennis Passa is AP’s sports writer in Australia who has known the McPhedran family for nearly 30 years.