Alec Russell, who died last month, took racing photography to new levels. JOE RICHARDSON pays tribute

“WHAT he accomplished was to propel racing photography to previously unscaled heights and bring readers closer to the action than ever before.”

These were the words that appeared in the Gazette & Herald, The Press's sister newspaper, in September 12, 2012 on the 60th anniversary of Alec Russell's first-ever published work.

Alec, an 'educating and inspiring' horseracing photographer, sadly passed away at his Norton home late last month at the age of 85.

Alec had become an integral part of York and North Yorkshire's racing community since the publication of his first article in what was then called the Yorkshire Herald in 1952. Although the scant remuneration he received was enough to put him off regular writing for a good number of years, he maintained a great affinity with the still image and the moments he captured earned him a treasured status UK-wide among racing fans.

He returned to the written word just 18 months ago, taking over the Gazette & Herald's racing column following the death of his good friend and award-winning former Press tipster, Tom O’Ryan. In that interim period of 64 years, the pictures he produced – some truly iconic – found him a regular spot in the prestigious Timeform annual, to name but one beneficiary of his work.

And, yet, 'work' is perhaps not the word Alec would have attributed to his career.

Speaking to the Gazette & Herald in 2012, Alec described the moment he first fell in love with the spectacle of horseracing and, at the same time, how his fascination with the art of photography had grown.

“I've been doing a hobby as a job for 40 years,” Alec told the paper as he recounted his entrance into the world of professional horseracing reporting with that article in The Yorkshire Herald.

"The article was called This Was the St Leger 100 Years Ago,” he recalled, “and I wrote it comparing the 1952 St Leger with the race of 1852.

"At the time I was working in local government in York, at the City Treasury. I was very interested in writing and during my National Service in the RAF had successfully completed a course in freelance journalism.

"After demob in July 1952, I wrote a number of articles for various newspapers and magazines. The variety of rejection slips I received did not deter me and the feature in the Yorkshire Herald was my first publication.

“I was paid half a guinea - approximately 52p today - and, as I did not own a typewriter, I had incurred the expense of a typing agency to have it prepared.

“That cost me four shillings - 20p - and after several hours' research and compiling the feature, I felt that there was little future in journalism, having made just six shillings - or 32p in today's money. I thought that this wasn't easy work to maintain."

Alec went to his first race meeting in October 1945 at York Races.

"I was at Holgate Grammar School and I clearly remember going to see Laurence Olivier in Henry V in the morning and saw all these people going to the races, so I went there in the afternoon and was thrilled by the whole thing," he told the Gazette & Herald. "Though we had no family connections with racing, I was hooked.

"My parents had a Box Brownie and so I tried to get pictures at the races but, with a viewfinder that was three-quarters-of-an-inch by half-an-inch, this was difficult to do.”

Undeterred by the constraints, Alec persisted with his new-found passion. During his teenage years, he said, all his pocket money went on cameras, and by the 1960s, he was building his own equipment and processing his photos himself.

It was in the mid-60s that he started selling his work to newspapers and magazines, with his pictures appearing in the Timeform Racehorses annual every year from 1965 onwards. He turned professional in the 70s on the suggestion of his wife, Shirley, with whom he celebrated his golden wedding anniversary in 2011.

In 2008, he was conferred the George Ennor Trophy for lifetime achievement, an award which he shared with renowned sports photographers Ed Byrne and Gerry Cranham.

"I guess that we were three pioneers of specialist horseracing photography,” Alec admitted.

As part of a touching tribute on their website, Timeform said that the “richly deserved” award was a “tribute both to his dedication and to his constitution and his determination”, something that Alec wanted – and managed – to hold on to for as long as possible.

"The worst thing to do,” he told the Gazette & Herald in 2012, “particularly when you get older, is to put your feet up - though the joints do get a more difficult as you get on - but as long as I can manage, I'll keep going."

Alec maintained that the light in the west of Scotland was the best in the UK – and, indeed, for 40 years he was a constant presence at the Scottish Grand National and the Ayr Gold Cup. But he was also a regular sight at the most renowned venues across the country, including Aintree, Cheltenham and, closer to home, York.

William Derby, the chief executive and clerk of the course, said: “Everyone at York Racecourse was very saddened to learn of the passing of veteran racing photographer, Alec Russell.

“Alec told me his first-ever race day was in October 1945 at York Races, and he became a mainstay of the York Racecourse press room, having covered the action on Knavesmire for over 40 years.

“At Ebor 2016, we hosted an exhibition of Alec’s work which showcased both his amazing talents as a photographer and recorded the many great horses and races he had witnessed over that time span.

“Not only was Alec a tremendous enthusiast and supporter of Yorkshire racing, he was a wonderful gentleman who was friendly, warm and helpful to all that he met.”

As the enthusiastic professional he was, Alec knew exactly where to have his film developed near each of the main courses, but his warmth and humanity shone through as it seemed his familiarity with his job never seemed to diminish his passion.

Alec had come into close quarters with some of the biggest names to have ever graced the turf, but he continued to count himself fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time all the way from the earliest of his professional shots in 1972, capturing Brigadier Gerard, Nijinsky and Mill Reef all together, to “superstar” Frankel in 2012.

And his love for the job extended even beyond the confines of the course and meetings. He held one such photograph in special high regard, naming his picture of the great steeplechaser Desert Orchid 'on summer holiday' on the North York Moors in 1989 as a possible favourite .

“It's different to the usual ones I take - it's just a lovely picture," Alec told the Gazette & Herald.

“Frankel is without question the best racehorse that I have seen. He is, I believe, the best racehorse to race in my lifetime, a superstar - comparable to, say, Muhammad Ali was in boxing.

“Seeing him race at York was certainly one of the best moments of my career.

“Brigadier Gerard, Mill Reef and Nijinsky are three of the greatest racehorses ever seen, and all were racing in the early 1970s at about the time that I became a full-time professional.”

Alec’s first encounter with Mill Reef was in August 1970, when he photographed him crossing the finish line in the Gimcrack Stakes in York.

"The picture of Mill Reef winning was just one single shot,” Alec reflected. “There were no motor drives around at that time, so all action photography was simply one shot and then wind on - often with a lever or knob on the camera. How easy it seems now."

Although the technology has changed drastically since his first foray into the photography, Alec's influence has remained constant. It was maybe summed up best around the time of Alec's nomination for his lifetime achievement award in 2008 by fellow horseracing photographer Steve Cargill.

On writing the citation for the George Ennor Trophy, Cargill said: "I did not see Mill Reef win the Gimcrack Stakes in 1970, but I have seen the photograph by Alec Russell that portrays the little horse sauntering home with his ears pricked some 10 lengths clear.

"The Great Yorkshire Chase, the Ebor, the Northumberland Plate, the Scottish National and the Lincoln are races for which it would not seem quite right if Alec Russell were not there to record them photographically."

Alec's funeral will be at Octon Crematorium, at 11am on Monday, (March 19) followed by refreshments at Malton & Norton Golf Club.