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Cambridgeshire Photographers - Biography of Frank Bird

(We are most grateful to Frank for allowing us to publish this autobiography).


I left the Central School Cambridge when I was 15 years old. I did not know what I wanted to do in my life, so I started work in the Buttery of Emmanuel College. My wage was £1.50s per week. I was only there for 1 term and then I left to work at Fribourg & Treyer on Kings Parade. This was a tobacconist and while I was there I was given an allowance of 50 cigarettes free per week.

In 1954 I joined the R.A.F. to do my National Service. I was passed A1 in Cambridge, but when I arrived at Cardington it was found that I had a perforated ear-drum from birth. I was discharged a week later and arrived back in Cambridge on November 5th 1954. I could not let my parents know that I was coming, so when I walked in they thought that I had absconded from the camp.

I went back to the tobacconist for a while, then my father saw a job advertised in one of the University Departments. This was Aerial Photography, then in Sidgwick Avenue. I went for an interview and the first thing that Bob Haslop, who was in charge of the darkrooms, did, was to feel my hands. He told me after I had started work that if my hands had been sweaty, I would not have been employed.

My wage had gone up to £3.10s (£3.50p). I learned a lot about darkroom technique. I had to make and bind up hundreds of glass lantern slides with black tape. To save money, the emulsion of some of the slides was cleaned off, so the glass could be used as cover plates. The cleaning was done by using a dilute solution of sulphuric acid. The first time I saw Bob Haslop doing this, he said he could never remember whether to add the acid to the water or the other way round. Remembering my science classes at school I started to back away. He did know what he was doing though! One job I hated was cleaning the glazing drum with oxgall. Most unpleasant.

All the aerial photographs were taken by the curator, Dr St.Joseph. They were used to show up the past outline of various buildings etc. These were more obvious depending on the state of the ground and which crops had been grown. The pictures were taken from an Anson Aircraft using an R.A.F. aerial camera The film was 100ft long and provided 5”x5” photographs. The films were processed at Waterbeach R.A.F Station. These all had to be contact printed at the department and prints were sold to various universities and organisations. I well remember the first time I saw a picture being developed. It was like magic.

I got used to map reading and I only had to hear the name of a city or town to be able to tell you which county it was in. I remember going up to the roof of Kings College Chapel after a very hot spell with no rain. We were able to see the outline of the foundations of the buildings that were on Kings Parade many years ago.

In 1957 I left to start work as an Operator/Printer with Edward Leigh on Kings Parade. He had a studio next to the tobacconist where I used to work. My darkroom was very small. I could touch both walls by reaching out both arms. This was much better than it sounds as there was not much walking about involved! I went out with Edward Leigh on all his commercial jobs and wedding photography. All the while learning! The first assignment he let me do on my own was a booking at Emmanuel College to photograph a sports group. I was very worried that I might mess this up in some way, but to my relief the group had been double booked with Stearns, the studio in Bridge Street. My initiation was not to be on that day!

Skaters on the frozen river Cam

Frank was also a keen photographer in his own right with a good eye. This photograph was taken by Frank on his own account in the early 1960s, showing skaters on a frozen River Cam . (Frank Bird Collection)

One of the many jobs that I had to do at Edward Leigh was to clean the developing dishes with Hydrochloric Acid. This I did in the yard with the aid of a hosepipe. No protective clothing, gloves or glasses. I don’t think it would be allowed now. I learned how to do dry mounting and negative and print retouching. Edward’s mounting press was heated by gas! In the darkroom I learned the art of dodging when printing. This involved using a small piece of card on the end of a wire to hold back the exposure of some sections of a print when using the enlarger. I always used a piece of blue-tack, so I could change the shape of the dodger. I was also able to do B/W (black and white) batch developing by putting at least 12 prints at a time in a dish and moving them from top to bottom in rotation. Sepia printing was also quite often done. If processed correctly, the prints should last well over 100 years.

I eventually was allowed to go out taking progress photographs of building work at various colleges and also the building of the new Addenbrookes Hospital. I also went out photographing the November Rag Days and, twice a year, I went down to the river to photograph the Lent and May Races. The first time I went to the river, I photographed all the boats as they came up to the start. I had not been to the races before and to take the pictures in the other direction when the race was on would have meant shooting into the sun. I was soon put right by Edward Leigh the next day. The photographers from Stearns thought at the time that I had learned something new.

Rag Day students

Thousands of students were involved in fundraising on the annual Cambridge Rag Day. Edward Leigh took photographs throughout the town capturing the occasion and photos of the event were displayed in the photographer's window, copies to be purchased therein. These two students were snapped by Frank Bird in the early 1960s . (8 x 6 print, Frank Bird Collection)

During the Lent races Frank Kenworthy and Len Jewitt, who were Stearn’s photographers, and myself, would sometimes make a small fire in the hedgerow to keep ourselves warm in between races. Hot soup and coffee also helped. We were there one year when the Fen Ditton Ferry sunk. It was way overloaded with many spectators who were quite merry with glasses of beer. It was always said that it would eventually sink one year and there would not be any professional photographers nearby. Thus it did happen and a member of the public got his picture of the sinking Ferry printed in the Cambridge Evening News. At one time I knew the names of all the college boats, but my memory is not so good now.

It was great working on Kings Parade. There were not so many foreign tourists around, and it was quite unusual to hear an American accent. I became good friends with all the people who worked nearby at Campkins and KP Camera Shop including the one and only Tommy Howell.

Eventually I started to take wedding photographs. The first wedding I attended was of one of my neighbours' so that made things a lot easier. I still have a copy of this first wedding album, which she gave me a few years ago. All the work was done with a 5”x4” Micropress camera. I had 20 film holders containing 40 sheets of Ilford HPS 400ASA film. This fast film was used because although it tended to be a grainy film, this was not obvious on a 5”x4” neg. I was then covered for all sorts of lighting situations. I could not take any candid pictures. All had to be formal groups with about 4 shots left for the reception as there was no way that I could reload the holders. I had to make sure that the cake cutting was done immediately the bride and groom arrived. So many people smoked then, and if I left it too long the flash would have bounced off the smoke filled room. I worked out the system and exposure needed to take pictures against the light with a fill in flash. Much to the annoyance of the other guests who had to wait until I was finished. I did so many weddings at St. Edwards Church on Peas Hill that the vicar allowed Edward Leigh to cut a small hole in a grill wire next to the vestry so I could take pictures during the wedding service.

Many goods would come into the studio on Kings Parade to be photographed, including equipment from most of the Pye companies. There was also the original DNA helix by Crick and Watson to be photographed. I met and photographed them in front of a blackboard with the DNA formula in chalk. Edward Leigh was a stringer for the Times newspaper and I was sent out to cover an air crash, a laboratory fire and the van perched on the Senate House roof by students.

Frank Bird posing with a new Pye portable radio

4 x 4in Photo by Edward Leigh of photographer Frank Bird posing on the roof of the studio with the latest model of portable radio by Pye. Mid 1960s. (Frank Bird Collection)

I would help my boss when photographing large badly lit interiors where there was no power points. He would use a large 6”x4” cut film camera. By stopping the lens down to f45 or more, the exposure would sometimes by as long as 30 to 60 seconds, giving me time to run round the room firing off an electronic flash at the walls. As long as I kept moving, I would not appear on the photograph.

The B/W stills were also taken every year of the Kings College Christmas Carols Service for the BBC. I feel very privileged to have seen and heard the service so many times. I also did progress photos at Kings College when the chapel was being cleaned. Climbing up several ladders I can now say that I have touched the roof of Kings. We would also go to the Arts Theatre to photograph dress rehearsals of Shakespear plays and also Gilbert and Sullivan Operas.

Stills from a concert of carols at Kings College

An interior shot by Frank Bird in Kings College Chapel of the BBC filming the Festival of Lessons and Carols - mid 1960s (6 x 6 in print Frank Bird Collection)

Kings College Chapel during cleaning and restoration

On a different occasion in the mid 1960s this shot shows scaffolding erected to facilitate cleaning and restoration of Kings College Chapel (8 x 6in print Frank Bird Collection)

The ceiling being cleaned, Kings College Chapel

The ceiling of Kings College Chapel - the stoneware on the left shows the effect of centuries of illumination by candle-light, while the gleaming white stone illustrates the effect of cleaning. (10 x 7 in print Frank Bird Collection)

Studio portraits and indeed all photography was done in B/W. The portraits were taken with a long focus ex aircraft camera with a roller blind shutter.

Edward Leigh once told me that he was asked to take a photograph of a dead man in his coffin as the family did not have any pictures of him. The coffin was propped against the wall and Edward went under his black cloth. It was while he was focusing the lens that he noticed that the top hat of the man was slowly dropping. Very shocked, he came out and was told that the man had been cut in half by a train. He always swore that this was true.

I left Edward Leigh in 1961 to work for the Marine Photo Service in Colchester. They had the franchise on all P&O liners for passenger photography. I sailed on the Himalaya and the Oronsay visiting many countries on the Continent, The Far East, America, and the Pacific Islands. I started as a Second Photographer and finished as a Senior Photographer. The work involved taking pictures of passengers at the many ship board events and on tours to various parts of the different countries. I got quite bored with seeing the pyramids and Pompeii so many times! All the places were still called by their original names and there did not seem to be as much trouble in the world as there is now. I felt quite safe in every country I visited.

Initially all the photography was done in B/W on Rolliflex cameras At the beginning of the Captain’s Cocktail Party every guest had to be photographed shaking hands with the Captain. I had to be able to empty and reload the camera with film in about 30seconds. We had our own darkroom and work room. The enlarger was roped to the bulkhead in case of rough weather. At busy times we would photograph a party in the evening and work throughout the night in order to sell the prints the next morning. On the second trip that I made we took some pictures in colour. The neg. and print developing involved passing the negs or prints through seven 3 gallon tanks. The temperature was very important and if we were in the tropics, I would have to get ice from the galley to cool the chemicals down.

I was paid £5 and 5% of the gross profits as a number 2 and £7 and 7% as a Senior photographer. All expenses such as food, accommodation and laundry was included. On the first trip back from Australia the Tourist section was overcrowded so we were given our own three berth cabin in First Class with our own steward. Unfortunately that only lasted for one trip. We then ended up in the crew quarters. I got quite good at darts playing in The Pig and Whistle, which was the name of the place on all P&O Liners where the crew met for drinks on board. I managed to get to the singles final and was then beaten by the ships plumber. The ship was rolling and he had had a bit more to drink than me. I then had to photograph him receiving the prize!

I came home on leave in 1963 and on a holiday in Brixham I met my future wife. I had already decided that I could not stay at sea too long as it was really a job for a young man, so I came back to work at Stearns in Bridge Street for a while. While there I was mostly taking group photographs and weddings. All I remember at Stearns was that it was very cold working there with a long creaking wooden floor in the workroom.

Again I went back to work with Edward Leigh and I stayed there until 1969 when I joined Peter Lofts as a partner in his business which he had set up after leaving Edward Leigh himself. We started in a one-room studio above a sweet shop in Carlyle Road Cambridge. This one room was the studio, workroom, darkroom and toilet.

Eventually we found premises in Trumpington, in a large building on the corner of Alpha Terrace. We had the basement and part of the ground floor. It took over a month to clear out all the rubbish before we could start working from there. There was no water drainage so we had to dig a pit and install a float pump to get rid of the water. We did our own B/W and colour printing. B/W negs. were processed on hangers in 3 gallon tanks and roll film in metal spirals. We changed the business name from Lofts/Bird Partnership to “Cambridge Photographers”. After Peter left to strike out on his own, my wife, Madeleine, joined the business and eventually it was called Frank Bird (Photography). Madeleine was in charge of Reception, Print Finishing, Bookkeeping, organising weddings, carrying camera cases on location, cooking and looking after our two year old daughter. She was also in charge of me.

Studio at Trumpington

Interior Trumpington Studio

The above two photographs show the interior of the Trumpington Studio, early 1970s. The first shows pumps used in the property before mains water. The second photo shows Frank's home built rig for a copying camera (Frank Bird Collection)


Advertising shot by the Lofts Bird Partnership for the trendy 1960s Alley Boutique in Falcon Yard Cambridge, formerly the Alley Club. Frank Bird recalls that the Traffic Warden was in fact a real Warden who was not only persuaded not to issue a ticket, but also to pose in the shot. (9.5 x 7.5 print Frank Bird Collection)

Lion Yard Development in progress

One of many photographs taken by Frank Bird of the building of the Lion Yard Development in central Cambridge in the early 1970s. (Frank Bird Collection).


Backstamp for Cambridge Photographers prints, reverse of the above image, 1970s (Frank Bird Collection)

In 1975, owing to rent increases, we found a 100 year old ex grocery shop in Cottenham and with the help of many willing friends we managed to set up a studio and darkrooms. The work involved wedding, portraits and much commercial work. The studio would either be full of people, animals, computers, flowers, vegetables and food. We also did most of the group photography for Jesus College and Graduation photography on the Senate house lawn. The cameras used were mainly 120 Hassleblads, 5x4 Sinar and Toyo .

We did a lot of work for Pye TVT involving Outside Broadcast Vans and transmitters. We also worked for Unwins Seeds in Histon where we photographed flowers and vegetables etc for their seed packets. I also used to photograph gold sovereigns for a collector and author. There was a lot of exhibition work to be done, which meant lots of large prints to be made, mounted and heat-sealed on a vacuum press. The prints were dish developed by rolling them back and forth in the chemicals. There was no room to lay them flat in the dish.

Brochure for Frank Bird Photographers

Brochure for Frank Bird (Photography) late 1970s. (Frank Bird Collection)

I once calculated that I had photographed nearly 1500 weddings. Many funny things happened over the years. I was once photographing a slurry tank for Simplex. I was half way up a ladder on a tall silo while the rep. and the farmer were looking at the tank and the pump controls. I called out that they should put a lace fringe round the tank. It would then be” The Slurry With The Fringe On Top”. With that the farmer touched the wrong valve and slurry was spattered all over the rep. and farmer. I kept well clear.

On another occasion I was doing progress shots at a sewage farm in Clenchwarton near Kings Lynn. I had to climb down a vertical ladder into a vast underground water chamber before it was filled with water. I was half way through the work when a great gush of water came through the manhole. I thought they had forgotten that I was there. They were only cleaning the ladder. Being a true professional I finished the photography before climbing out. I also had to take pictures in an abattoir showing all the processes involved from the time the animals entered until I was given a large piece of beef to take home.

While photographing the Freshmen and Graduands at Jesus College for over thirty years, we had the privilege of meeting Prince Edward when he came to Cambridge. My wife was in charge of making sure that everyone looked neat and tidy on the group. The only person not wearing a tie was Prince Edward, so she told him off ! I thought she might be sent to the Tower. When we left the college after the picture was taken, we were offered £1000 by one of the reporters stationed outside for a negative. This was of course refused.

I also spent a week in Egypt taking pictures at an aluminium factory. The temperature outside was over 40 degrees and even hotter inside in front of a blast furnace. I lost a lot of weight on that assignment.

We opened for business in Cottenham on February 14th 1976 ( Valentines Day) and closed the studio on February 14th 2001

I have looked through records from my business and listed below the range of different subjects I have photographed over the years. These included:

Scientific instruments
LP album covers
Shop interiors and exteriors
Church interiors and exteriors
Visiting cards
Outside Broadcast vans
TV cameras

Fruit and Vegetables
Book covers
Book illustrations
Insurance claims
Farming equipment
Sewage works
Water works
Building in progress
House exteriors and interiors
University and sports groups
Language School groups
Retirement and long service awards
Print copying
Exhibition prints
Graduation prints

While working for Edward Leigh and Stearns and later with my own business, there did not seem to be much difficulty in obtaining work. Edward Leigh relied heavily on his name and qualifications in this regard and to my knowledge he never advertised anywhere. He would take all the photographs for the colleges nearest him, i.e. Kings, Clare, Corpus, St Catherine’s and Pembroke, and Stearns seemed to do most of the rest.

When I started in business, I don’t think there were any companies with their own in-house photographic department. Therefore all businesses would go to a professional photographer to get their products photographed. For example, I would take lots of photographs for estate agents of houses and pictures of cars for sale for garages.

I relied on the yellow pages for advertising; also a lot of work came from advertising agencies. The work only started to slow up with the advent of digital photography and home computers. This happened just before I retired so, for me, it all came at the right time. I started to be asked for the photographs to be either transmitted straight away or for a DVD to be given to the client. A digital back for a Hasslebad camera cost £20,000 which I could not afford to buy. So many companies now use their own staff to take photographs and copying is so much easier to do on a scanner. At one time all the copy work had to be done on a copy camera.

To begin with most of the work was done on B/W film. It was only in the early 70s that Peter and I started to take wedding photographs in colour. Even then we did one roll of film in colour and the rest in B/W. Later some guests would take photographs on Polaroid film and show the results at the reception. They were usually awful photographs so we were not bothered. Now with the advent of digital photography many photographers are finding it very difficult to compete.   

I was involved in photography for 45 years and I was never once bored. I loved the work and people paid me as well.

Cameras and other equipment used by Frank Bird Photographers

Equipment used by Frank Bird (Photography) 1990s (Frank Bird Collection)

Frank Bird Photography label

Label as used on prints by Frank Bird (Photography) 1980s and 1990s


Frank Bird. 31st January 2016


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www.FadingImages.uk is a non-commercial web site for local and family historians, listing photographers in Cambridgeshire 1840-2000
This page was last modified: 27 May 2016, 16:51

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