Tall tales from successful career

22:04, Nov 10 2012
Southland Times photo
Retired photographer Brian Tall looks over a June 23, 1941, copy of The Southland Times.

Southland photographer Brian Tall tells Sue Fea about a life spent behind the lens in a different time.

Back in the day, former Southland newspaper photographer Brian Tall was renowned as a prankster. It was in the days before political correctness and occupational safety and health.

Now aged 79, the retired photographer barely snaps a shot, but he can still tell a good yarn about the good old days.

"A lot of things we did back in those days wouldn't be allowed now," he says with a grin, recalling his favourite story.

It was during the late 1960s. The circus was in town and news got out that the circus orangutan enjoyed a beer, so Tall took the ape along to the Grand Hotel for the perfect shot to shout it one.

"I can still remember it. I sat him up on the bar and this big hairy arm came up. He was sitting up sideways on the bar slurping the beer with his big lips," he said.


The temptation was too much for Tall, who took the orangutan by the hand and walked him back to the offices of the The Southland Daily News.

"Mr Hutton-Potts, the editor at the time, was sitting at his desk with his office door slightly ajar as always. I knocked and he said, ‘What is it, Tall?'

"I said, ‘There's someone here to see you, sir'.

"He replied: ‘Show him in'. So I did. I pushed the ape inside his office and shut the door," Tall says, still roaring with laughter about it more than 40 years on.

Mr Hotton-Potts, who had a distinct loathing of animals, screamed loudly.

"They reckon you could see his footprints on the ceiling," Tall says.

He then loaded the ape into a taxi to take it back to the circus, placing it in the front passenger's seat.

"Old Laurie Tall, my cousin, was sweeping outside his fish shop. You should've seen his face when we drove past."

Tall left Southland Boys' High School in 1950, aged 17, and was initially hired by Hazeldine's Studio to develop film. A natural behind the lens, he soon advanced to photography.

"We learned on Graflex, with the old box with a front that popped up. You looked into it and everything was back to front and upside down. I remember taking pictures at the races from the front row stands - the horses were running in the opposite direction."

Everything was done on quarter-plate glass plates and Hazeldine's was kept busy providing photographs for both The Southland Times and The Southland Daily News.

The well-known Southland firm also took and processed the black-and-white and blueprints for Invercargill architects, processed films for chemists and took studio portraits and passport photos.

Tall's sense of humour made him a hit with children, so he also assumed that role.

During his time at Hazeldine's, they converted to 5 by 4-inch cut film.

In 1956, he was taken on as the first photographer for The Southland Daily News evening newspaper.

The paper bought its own speedgraphic camera and his first job was to set up a dark room.

"They also bought an electronic graving machine, called a klischograph, to make the blocks. Previously, we had to go around to Craig Printing."

"I used to take the photos, process them and make the blocks. The sub-editors would draw up a frame for the blocks. They then went through to Ted North, who cast the plates to fit on the printing press."

Tall would develop a negative, wash it and hang it up to dry overnight or put it in a dryer.

"I used to develop film and transfer it onto a piece of glass underwater to stop the bubbles and then put it up into the enlarger. I wish we'd had digital back then."

He recalled flying to Dunedin for an England versus All Black rugby test in the 1960s.

"Don Clarke kicked six penalties and they won. I only had time to photograph the first half, shot through to the ODT (Otago Daily Times) to develop my prints, flew back to Invercargill and made the blocks and had it ready for the pink sports special that night."

He returned to Hazeldine's in 1966, two years before the News closed down. A few staff went over to The Southland Times, including the legendary Fred Miller and Pat Veltkamp.

A reunion was held in 1988, where many a tall tale was resurrected.

Morning-tea pranks were common place. There was the time when Tall drew a distinctive crack on Jack Fenton's bald head with a black beauty pencil. Retribution came the following night at Tall's stag do, with a good nuggeting in the wrong places.

One time, Helen from the office screamed and dropped the kettle when someone returned from an Australian holiday and produced a lifelike fake snake.

"We used to play lots of jokes on Fred Miller. I remember photographing him asleep at his desk. He used to bring his little pekinese dog to work and one day someone plonked some fake spew [from the same Australian holiday] under Fred's desk."

Miller, who awoke to cries of, "Miller, look what your dog's done", rushed around apologising and trying to clean it up.

Once, Tall was covering the Miss New Zealand contest in Invercargill's Centennial Hall.

"I had to be up on stage with all the girls and some of them were wandering around backstage topless. Fred Miller was highly amused about this."

A little less fun was flying in a light plane, using a four by five-speed graphic camera, photographing with the passenger's door taken off.

"I flew with this Dutch pilot once over Mt Linton Station. Not long after, he was caught speeding in his car. He was topdressing one day and noticed the black-and-white car of the traffic cop, who busted him, parked up down below. He flew down with one fell swoop and dumped his whole load of fertiliser on the cop's car."

One of his most memorable photos was the dramatic recovery of a worker who collapsed and died down a well in the Queens Park gardens.

"Bill Small, the gardens' boss, went down to bring him up and he got halfway up and fell to the bottom too. They called the police and fire station. The fireman got halfway down, took his apparatus off and died as well. I got a picture of Constable Harold Jenner retrieving one of the bodies. It was very sad."

Tall also did a stint at H & J Smith as a retail manager, and worked in Queenstown both for the store and for The Southland Times, before he and his son bought Central Glass.

These days, his camera comes out only on very special family occasions. He hasn't kept many of his old newspaper photographs, but the images of happy and sometimes not so happy memories are still sharp and clear in his mind.

The Southland Times