Tributes have been paid to a photographer who started out on his star-studded career because his hands were ‘too big’.
Willoughby Gullachsen, who has died aged 92, spent more than 70 years as a renowned photographer – in the process capturing 189 productions for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
During his career in the region ‘Gus’, as he was known, took pictures of some of the biggest stars of the day, but it was the RAF who initially launched him on his career path.
In the forward to his book, Shooting Through Life, Mr Gullachsen remembered: “I decided to volunteer rather than wait to be called up, and duly went along to the RAF recruiting office to enlist.
“At the end of my initial training I attended an interview with a senior officer to decide which sector I should be trained for. I told him I would like to be an RAF photographer. ‘No, I’m afraid that’s not possible,’ said he, shaking his head. ‘I’ll put you down for an instrument maker.’
“‘But sir,’ I protested, ‘look at my hands, they are far too large and clumsy for that.’ ‘Oh, very well I’ll put you down for a photographer,’ he said impatiently. And so began my RAF career.”
Born in Northumberland in 1921, Mr Gullachsen’s father was a keen amateur photographer and he spent many happy hours watching him at work in the dark room at the family home.
He decided that he wanted to embark on a career in photography but got a rude surprise when he was sacked from an early job.
Mr Gullachsen wrote: “I did not exactly shine in my employer’s eyes however, often being clumsy and making silly mistakes.
“Being a typical teenager, my thoughts were often elsewhere, and after one particularly bad episode, I was dismissed.
“When my father angrily demanded to know why I had been sacked, my employer replied, ‘He will never make a photographer!’ This was the spur I needed and I became determined to prove him wrong.”
Not allowing this setback to put him, off, he persevered, and by the start of 1939 managed to join another commercial photographer in the Birmingham area in a junior position.
After joining the RAF Mr Gullachsen underwent an intensive training period at the School of RAF Photography in Farnborough and was posted to Bomber Command, Scampton. His postings during the conflict included South Africa, India and Iraq.
He wrote: “At the end of hostilities, after the stimulating, challenging, and often gut-wrenching years of my war service, I felt it was impossible to face the mundane prospect of starting work again as an employee for a photographic company.
“So I decided to take a gamble – using part of my demob money I invested in some darkroom equipment which I installed in the bathroom of my home.
“My lounge served as a temporary studio. A showcase advertised my work in a nearby shopping centre, and soon requests started to come in for me to photograph weddings, young babies at their parent’s homes, etc, and a meagre living began. As time went by, my appointments book was so full, I felt financially secure enough to open a studio.”
Mr Gullachsen found work for local papers and was delighted to be asked to work as a local ‘stringer’ for Illustrated, the rival national magazine to Picture Post.
His move into the theatre world was swift: “I was regularly involved with theatre productions at the Dudley Hippodrome and Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and was also frequently asked to do stills photography for ABC TV. In 1966, Images of the Sixties, an exhibition of my work, was held at Birmingham’s Ceylon Tea Centre. Kenneth Bird, the BBC’s press officer called in to see it one day, and asked, ‘Why don’t you do work for us?’ Thus began my career as a stills photographer.”
As well as extensively working for the Birmingham Rep, he photographed many Royal Shakespeare Company productions and was the unit photographer for BBC Drama for 22 years.
Mr Gullachsen also had many exhibitions of his work staged in Birmingham and Stratford, the most recent being his Images Of The Sixties at the Waterhall Gallery of Modern Art in Birmingham in 2005. Many of his photographs are now held in the Library of Birmingham.
Mr Gullachsen wrote: “Looking back over my lifetime working as a photographer, many memories of the people and places I have been lucky enough to have encountered come to mind, from my early portraits of Tembu tribesmen in South Africa while serving with the RAF during the Second World War through many years of working with famous television personalities in Birmingham as well as actors and actresses from the many stage and BBC drama productions I worked with over the years.”
He leaves a son, Lorentz, and daughter, Jan.
Shooting Through Life by Willoughby ‘Gus’ Gullachsen contains over 60 photographs and is available by post from the Polperro Heritage Press, Clifton-upon-Teme, Worcestershire WR6 6EN at £10 including postage and packing. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or via website: www.polperropress.co.uk