Fate plays strange tricks on ordinary people sometimes. It did with me when I first met Ernest Mervyn McQuillan.
That was about two years ago. I was the ordinary person. Ern was, among other remarkable things, the trick that Fate played on me.
The meeting arranged by my friend Les Johns did the trick. It literally changed my life.
First, I discovered that Ern was once a Newtown (Sydney Australia) kid like me. We went to the same Newtown school. We were both interested in sport and were both quite good at it. There the comparison ends. Very definitely.
You see, Ern is one of Australia’s best known twentieth century press photographers. His dedication and skill saw him in continuous demand throughout the second half of the twentieth century under the gaze of such demanding taskmasters as Ezra Norton, the Packers, and Rupert Murdoch.
As for me, I am merely an ex-teacher in schools and universities, and a writer with a particular interest in history. That might help you to understand why my weekly chats with Ern for the past two years have made me a riveted listener, and a discoverer of surprising historical details few people would know about.
I have got so close to Ern’s life I feel my own life has changed into something close to his. Seriously. At times I think I am, like Ern, a former drinking mate of Keith Miller, the famous Australian cricketer. Ern knew him very well, as you can see.
I feel I have photographed the Queen’s first step on Australian soil in 1954 …
It’s wonderful fun this “work.” I’m starting to feel like a Balmain (Sydney) Rugby League star meeting the Queen.
While we’re on Rugby League, I seem to have gone over to another club, Newtown. I’m starting to think I was once a good mate of “Bumper” Farrell, Newtown and Australian footballer as well as Head of the CID at Darlinghurst (Razorhurst), Sydney …
I’m beginning to dream I was the one who showed Richard Nixon how my old (now vintage) camera worked. No fancy digital machines then. The Quarter Plate Speed Graphic Press Camera was no piece of trivia. It was heavy. It gave you once in a lifetime pictures close up or far away; still or moving.
One problem however! You had to be an artist to use it. You had to predict the shot before the event happened. You had to have a sense of proportion and sensitivity. You had to get the light and other mechanics right. And you had to have allies in your human subjects and a rare kind of affinity with the non humanYou developed the photos taken with your big, heavy camera yourself, if they were satisfactory. One shot and you’re in — or you’re out …
Ern’s meeting with such a powerful figure was no minor achievement. You might enjoy this study of Australian Prime Ministers’ struggles to do the same.
After sharing so many stories with Ern, I feel I am really identifying with that military photographer of World War II?
Reality again. I WAS there at the Sydney wharf when the hospital ship Manunda brought my grandfather Sidney Isaac Levi home after his work on the Burma Railway. I have since discovered Ern was there with my family and me.
Was that me who knew famous jockeys and their families as close friends? Did I visit their homes and family functions?
Was I available for special shots to fit in with the Jockeys’ lifestyle? Was that me, for example, who needed a shot of the champion George Moore in his colours? Did I go to his Sydney home and find him playing tennis? Did he kindly agree to help me, but refuse the arduous task of exchanging tennis shorts, shoes and socks for jodhpurs? You can find the image of George here, sans tennis shoes and socks.
Was it me who flew around Australia for four years in a Gypsy moth taking photos of the Australian landscapes, including the great Maitland flood of 1955? Was it me who was taught to fly by the pilot in those air voyages, A.J.R. Oates,”Titus” Oats, the DFC+ war hero of Beaufort Torpedo Bomber fame in New Guinea and elsewhere, to give “Titus” a break from flying?
A little sad reality. One thing I really am — extremely sad now to discover that “Titus,” incredibly brave in wartime, was later killed in a crop dusting accident in South Africa? Ern gave him so much life in our discussions that the later discovery about Africa was almost like a bereavement.
Did I pick up Mrs Petrov’s shoe and hand it to the Russian agents when she was being arrested at Mascot, Sydney in the 1950s by the agents? Ern did; after he took this picture.
Was I the young son who learnt to box in my father’s gymnasiums, training and road running with some of the 60+ champions my father, Ern McQuillan the famous and perhaps greatest Australian boxing manager, trained and managed?
Did I actually get to know Chief Little Wolf and “Dirty” Dick Raines, the famous enemies of the wrestling ring, who were actually the best of friends and worked out their wrestling moves at Ern’s father’s gymnasium?
Reality again. I too am really glad now that young Ern, forced by a caring mother and boss Ezra Norton, to give up boxing and focus on press photography. It was a big step for the young pro. after he won all six of his bouts in the ring, as “Ernie Mac,” by knockouts.
Was that the wondrous Betty Cuthbert who ran out onto an empty athletic field as a favour to Ern, to give Ern (and ME) an action shot?
Some trick on this ordinary person, those two years of discussions between Ern and me! One emotional outcome for me is a desperate longing to see books and at least one film result from this great Australian’s fascinating life, making good use in the Ken Burns mode, of hundred’s of photographs at his disposal.
The pictures and comments of this post are an iceberg tip. The rest makes an amazing story.
There is the potential for several books – on our nation’s twentieth century history, and on remarkable, passionate incidents for several sporting categories.
Film Makers? Book Publishers?
Where are you? In Australia or anywhere.
Let his amazing records be known for the future. We have hundreds of pictures. The research is done. Find him and give his art to the future. You will not be sorry!
I feel so strongly about the majesty and excitement of Ern’s life I need to give it a high place in my “TO DOs” here. He is still a delight to talk to. My next posts in this place will try to show you more of the adventure, the significance and the variety of that life.
Here’s to Ern, a warrior I have been extremely lucky to find.
All images on this site are Ern’s, my own or from Wiki Commons. If there is any error, please tell me and I will fix things immediately. All my thanks to the wonderful Wiki service, and to the artists who share their strength and bring us joy.
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