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PORTRAIT OF A PASSION FOR A PERFECT PICTURE

Friday, August 13, 2004 - 11:11

THE obituaries of Henri Cartier-Bresson last week brought the skill of the photographer into sharp focus.
Cartier-Bresson was the man generally credited as having the greatest influence on the movement that transformed photography from a scientific phenomenon to an art form.
"In photography the smallest thing can be a great subject," he once wrote. "The little human detail can become a leitmotif." With a click of a button, Cartier-Bresson could do what most of us will never achieve despite spending thousands of pounds on the latest digital wizardry and boring people rigid with the results.
Extrovert people are often the worst. "That's my cousin, you don't know him, but anyway it's him, only you can't really see his face because the light was funny and I haven't really got the hang of this digital thingy yet." Perhaps you need reticence to be a great photographer — Cartier-Bresson was described in one obituary as "rather shy, self-effacing and restless; inactivity quickly made him grumpy".
Interestingly, that's a pretty fair summary of one of the Island's most able and versatile photographers. If you don't know Vernon Stratton well and meet him at some crowded gathering, you might mark him down as a bit of a grump, aloof even. He has a spartan look about him and he's not a great one for the frilly trifles of social chit-chat. He's a club man but not a club bore and you won't catch him yacking on about his achievements. Directness and resolution are his benchmarks and inactivity does not suit him one little bit.
His life was destined to be busy right from the start. He was born in 1924 in Sunningdale, his parents living in a house that was later rented by the Prince of Wales. There was not much time to enjoy those surroundings before he trotted off to prep school at the age of six, an experience which suited him admirably.
"We had an army PT sergeant at Fernden and he was my hero. We did all these exercises, standing on our heads and performing tableaux. It was wonderful." As he recalls those happy times standing on his head, Vernon Stratton demonstrates a few arm-extending techniques and you can see that his old army sergeant still yields a powerful influence.
"I do exercises every morning. I have a little trampoline in the garden," he says, still giving his biceps a bit of a stretch. "All these things are technology, you see. That's what won the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson's navy were prepared. They could fire off cannons faster than the French."
Vernon Stratton has a natural curiosity about the world around him and anything that has been achieved with clever engineering and human skill. But he was never going to be any sort of academic. "I went to Eton but I was always dyslexic." He managed to get by in the classroom, using his own powers of persuasion to employ other boys' scholastic abilities when essays were required but he needed no help when it came to sport.
Thanks to the prep school sergeant, he arrived at Eton in splendid shape and was a star on the games field, even to the extent of captaining his side in the Eton Wall Game, that unfathomable sport which to the untrained eye looks a cross between posh mud-wrestling and chucking-out time at the Armageddon Arms.
But there was much more to the young Vernon than toughing it on the playing fields of Eton. He was the grandson of David Scott, who had been a portrait photographer in Aberdeen in the 1860s and Vernon had clearly inherited his grandfather's genes. Aged nine, he travelled with his mother on a cruise, aboard the RMS Alacantra.
"We went between Southampton and Rio de Janeiro and I helped the ship's photographer with his printing." That was the start of an involvement in the creative process of photography which has intensified throughout his life.
Like many boys of his time, he started out with a Box Brownie but he wanted more than just to take photographs. During his two-year career in the army, he bought an enlarger in the American PX stores in Bremen and was soon involved in the entire photographic process — taking pictures, then printing and hand-colouring them for the regimental journal.
His army career was quite brief. There is a single-mindedness about Vernon Stratton which brooks no irritation to his intentions. "I became a second lieutenant in the 11th Hussars but I left because I couldn't bear the thought of somebody who wasn't very bright being put over me."
He would have liked to have worked in films but union power at studios like Rank was so entrenched that it was impossible for him to gain entry to that particular closed shop. He finally had to settle for something that was not quite so glamorous.
"I joined the Sunday Times advertising department in 1949. I still wanted to be a film director but at £500 a year, at least it was a job." It was a job that he did rather well, his analytical mind swiftly learning what is required to be successful in the world of advertising. By the age of 26, he had risen to become the paper's advertising manager.
He was filling newsprint not just with advertisements but also with his own freelance photographs. There are many things that make a good picture and happily for Vernon Stratton, marine shots and sailing boats happen to be among them. He had become an outstanding yachtsman since he first learned to sail on the Beaulieu River and now found that he could combine his love of boats with his passion for photography.
His first freelance commercial photograph, a shot of a Firefly dinghy for an article on Uffa Fox, appeared in Illustrated magazine. Further commissions poured in and he became a regular photographer for the Yachtsman.
"Photographers didn't understand sailing," he says. There was no doubt that he understood it very well. "I was chosen for the trials for the Olympic sailing squad in 1952 but that was because they wanted to borrow my boat," he says, in that understated way of his. It was rather more than that. You don't become an Olympic yachtsman just because you've got an available boat and in 1960, sailing a Finn, Vernon Stratton represented Britain in the Rome Olympics. He didn't get a medal but he did continue close links with the Olympic sailing movement, becoming team manager in 1968.
On land, his career had continued to flourish. He joined the advertising department of Jaeger in 1956 and his eye for detail, combined with changing styles in fashion promotion, was influential in the creation of many of the lasting images of that era.
"I learned to trust my own judgment. Fashion sketches were giving way to photographs and in those days we paid tremendous attention to detail. You couldn't retouch."
He had some pretty good material to work with, though. If you got the shot right (and Vernon Stratton is scrupulous about getting the shot right) you didn't need to retouch when you were using models like Jean Shrimpton, Joanna Lumley and Sandra Howard. The last-named beauty wasn't the wife of the Tory leader in those days, of course.
"I did a cover photo of her for Cheshire Life. All the models were very nice and I also worked with a lot of wonderful photographers, like Norman Parkinson." He was a fan of Parkinson ("Eccentric but brilliant") but was not so keen on David Bailey. "I didn't really like him but the girls were in love with him."
In 1964, Vernon Stratton set up his own advertising agency. "The big agencies didn't want to know about fashion and we got some really good accounts. Jaeger, Charnos stockings, Mary Quant cosmetics. Now you have an army of people to do an advertising campaign — I used to do everything myself." He is quite brisk about this little matter but then his prep school had taught him that if you do your daily exercises, you can tackle anything in life, single-handedly if required. In 1956 he and his wife, Pepe, came to live in St Helens and have since demonstrated that it just takes character to achieve, well, almost anything you want. They are an unstoppable duo, Pepe moving indomitably towards her chosen goals and Vernon getting there by quiet determination.
Prominent among his achievements since he retired ("I find being retired very difficult") has been the major part he played in the building of the extension to the Bembridge Sailing Club. Although many people were involved in this much-acclaimed project, it was initially Vernon's vision that kick-started it into reality.
The club will host an exhibition this weekend entitled Boats and Beach Life and among the works on show will be a number of Vernon Stratton's exquisite photographs. They will make an interesting contrast to an exhibition he mounted in London last year, which consisted of stunningly observed shots of London life in the 1960s.
And early next year he will find some new material for his camera when he takes part in White Night Ride, a charity event in which seven motorcyclists will bike from Vladivostock to St Petersburg. He'll be travelling in one of the support vehicles but he'll probably sneak a go on one of the bikes at some stage. There'll be plenty of opportunity.
"It's the equivalent of going twice across America," he says. "And it will be very wintry in Siberia."
Fortunately, though, Vernon Stratton will be doing his Fernden school exercises every day in preparation, so it should all be a piece of cake.

 


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