The Story Behind That Photograph

You know the one: a hand wrapped around a grubby straight-sided pint glass, its contents (London Pride? John Smith’s?) being tipped into the mouth of an anonymous male drinker.

News editors love it, or at least rely on it — here, here, here and here, to point to just a few examples — for illustrating stories about alcohol, negative or positive, regardless of their specific content.

As a result, for some commentators, its repeated usage has become a symbol of  the problem with mass media’s approach to beer:

For our part, we’ve become more fascinated with each repetition. Are there really no other pictures of beer in the stock libraries? Or, as some have suggested, are editors now just using it to troll grumpy beer geeks? And — because we always ask this question eventually — what is the story behind the picture?

Well, this week, for the first time, we saw a photographer, Johnny Green, credited alongside the image and couldn’t resist dropping him an email with a few questions. He very kindly took the time to reply at length while recuperating from an operation at his parents’ home in Leicestershire. Here (with some small edits) is what he had to say:

The picture wasn’t shot for a stock agency, but for the news agency that I’m connected to, the Press Association. I was a staff photographer there for 10 years from 2000 and the picture in question is from December 2006.

I was mainly asked to shoot news, sport and features but occasionally there were drives for us to shoot some stock but this picture was taken to go with a story on Gordon Brown’s impending budget when he was still Chancellor. The price of beer, that sort of thing. Looking at my records, I see I filed it on Friday December 1, 2006 and that I shot it at The Rose on Albert Embankment.

This is hardly one of London’s best pubs beer wise, but it was a place that I hired out a few times around this period for parties in their upstairs room overlooking the river and Parliament and so I think I probably chose it to take this photograph out of convenience as I knew some of the staff, may have been heading there anyway and it’s close to PA’s office on Vauxhall Bridge Road.

Editors do tend to pump out the same old images which personally I find a bit sad, lazy even, but which is also testament to the demise of the industry and the simple truth that there’s less photographers than ever working in the industry. Newspapers hardly have their own photographers any more and the reliance is on using material from agencies like PA, Reuters, AP, Getty, EPA and the like. Amidst this, newspapers have lost their much of their own visual identity. I now know far more photographers who used to work in journalism than currently do. And I’m one of them.

The work I still shoot for PA is a portraiture project at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, while 50% of my time I spend on my own projects which I then exhibit or, as I’m about to push ahead with now, publish as a book.

There used to be a photograph of my ex filling out a lottery ticket which just featured her hand and some blue nail polish she was trying out for the day! That would get used with every lottery story, which again I just found bizarre and a little lazy on behalf of the editors.

As time passes, my own association with these pictures is vague to say the least. It’s one reason why I left journalism. Running around taking so many pictures each day, editing them fast, having to send them so quickly, by the end of the day you’d have forgotten what you’d photographed that morning. So even then your relationship with your pictures suffered due to the sheer volume and speed and looking back years later, there’s almost a blank numbness. At best, it’s a wonderfully interesting and eclectic occupation. You’d be at the Tate in the morning, photographing a private audience with the Queen and whoever at lunchtime before photographing a court case in Elephant & Castle in the afternoon. But once I’d done that for 10 years, I found I wasn’t photographing much of particular interest to me any more. That I did in my spare time, but there simply wasn’t enough spare time.

Nowadays, the commercial work I do for clients I enjoy less than I did journalism, but I have more time to photograph and edit the things I love.

My joint best-seller is this one taken at a pub now closed (formerly The Castle in Plaistow, now flats, what else):

Copyright Johnny Green.

(Before the smoking ban!)

I do love good pubs and great beer. The Pride of Spitalfields, The Seven Stars, The Holly Bush, The Wrestlers all in London, Liverpool’s The Philharmonic, Sheffield’s The Fat Cat, Leicester’s The Globe, ah, happy days! Hophead and Brewers Gold are probably my favourite two ales.

We’re grateful to Johnny for indulging our weird questions and providing a glimpse behind the scenes. You can see more of his work at Saatchi Art and on his own website, Johnny in the Echo Cafe.

6 replies on “The Story Behind That Photograph”

That best-selling picture is a true classic. Well done for such a (nowadays at least, thanks to smoking ban) rare and superb shot.

An extremely interesting reply.

It has sometimes irritated me that any item related to alcohol in the press or on TV, whether it be licensing laws, binge drinking, beer tax, or whatever, has to illustrated by a pint of beer being poured or drunk – is beer the only drink they can think of? Similarly, an item about education is routinely illustrated by a classroom, or the health service by a hospital ward. Clearly none of us is capable of understanding the item without utterly superfluous illustrations; or, more likely, it simply fills space in the paper or time on TV.

I’ve always put it down to the bone idle journalism and the lazy thinking of those in editorial control, and it was interesting that he confirmed my suspicions.

Honestly, beer is over-represented what comes to negative alcohol news coverage. Usually people who do binge drink, do not drink beer. To be accurate, there are multiple breweries which started as attempts to reduce alcohol misuse by encouraging people to drink beer instead of spirits.

Great post and great response, have worked with many snappers over the years and they’re great people, though one did keep me waiting most of the day in Leicester once while he tried to get the perfect shot in a bus shelter of a teen actor playing Adrian Mole. My interview took 30 mins, his pix four hours. — and he’d given me a lift from London. Put me off Leicester for life.

Almost every picture I’ve sold on Alamy has been of pints of beer, one image in particular has sold many more times than the others – I think because It shows up on the first page of a search. Hurray for lazy, time-poor picture editors!

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