An accidental master: The rise of legendary golf photographer David Cannon
With his surname, you could say that David Cannon was predestined for a career behind the lens.
Upon receiving the PGA of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Photojournalism in May, the 67-year-old was lauded for his “technical mastery and artistic proficiency.”
Yet while his first professional camera was a Canon, the Englishman’s journey to becoming one of the world’s leading sports photographers was anything but fated: he never even had any formal training.
Born in Sussex, Cannon was a talented golfer in his youth, boasting a handicap of one. Competing at a host of amateur tournaments, he finished eighth at the British Youths Golf Championship in 1974 and played alongside a young Nick Faldo at the following year’s tournament.
But sharing the fairways with the future six-time major winner extinguished any hopes Cannon had of a professional playing career.
“When I played with him [Faldo], it was like ‘Oh sh*t, I’m not even in the same league,’” he told CNN Sport. “He was just something else.”
Needing a job to cover the lack of financial reward in amateur golf, Cannon worked at a nylon sheet company, but after four years was yearning for a change of pace. When an impromptu conversation with family friend Neville Chadwick, a photographer at the Leicester News Service, offered the chance to snap some local sporting events, Cannon was all in.
Selling his car to fund a small telephoto lens and a camera – naturally, a Canon AE-1 – soon after he was sitting in a rugby stadium for a New Zealand Tour match in November 1979.
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The 24-year-old was armed with just two tips which have served as the basis of his craft ever since: “Focus on the eyes and fill the frame.”
“I was off, that was it. The lightbulb switched on,” Cannon said. “Playing golf suddenly took a massive back seat and every spare minute I had was buying cameras with spare money, taking pictures, going to games.”
In 1983, having covered everything from the Commonwealth Games in Australia to FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Honduras, he joined the esteemed AllSport photography agency. Though acquired by Getty Images in 1998, Cannon has effectively worked there ever since, specializing in golf to quickly become one of the most recognizable names in the field.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said, and there have certainly been a lot of minutes to love.
Cannon has covered over 700 events and almost 200 men’s and women’s majors, according to an interview with the Ryder Cup, the biennial event he has worked at 17 times.
Cannon’s eye-watering estimates of his career stats: 3.4 million frames shot, 2.6 million miles flown, 115 countries visited, 5,000 nights slept in hotels and 13,000 miles of golf courses walked.
Yet Cannon insists it’s a necessary commitment. While sports like football will offer photographers – at the very least – the opportunity to snap celebrations almost every match, the less dynamic nature of golf can make for slim pickings.
“You can go six months at least – probably two years – without getting a fantastic final freeze picture,” he explained.
“Golf is very slow. People don’t realize how physical it is to photograph golf. You can walk 25,000 paces in a day, and all you’re getting is individual shots of golfers hitting the ball and nothing very interesting if they’re down on fairways all the time.”
Meet your heroes
Fortunately for Cannon, his career has coincided with some of golf’s most iconic players, many of whom he has come to know personally.
Keeping in touch with Faldo, he became good friends with Ernie Els and got to know Greg Norman – a trio with 12 major wins between them – and had a front row seat to the peak of the Tiger Woods era at the turn of the century.
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Photographing Rory McIlroy and newly crowned US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick since they were amateurs, he has had the joy of following their journeys from the grassroots to lifting some of golf’s biggest titles.
Yet one name stands above all others: Seve Ballesteros. “Never meet your heroes,” the adage goes, but Cannon not only had the joy of snapping his all-time sporting idol, he also became a close friend.
A portrait of the legendary Spaniard captured near his home in Pedreña in 1996 remains one of Cannon’s most beloved pictures. And his shots of the five-time major champion’s iconic fist pump celebration at St. Andrews en route to a 1984 Open win are some of the most enduring images of Ballesteros, who died from brain cancer in 2011.
“It’s probably the most defining picture of my career,” Cannon said. “Of a moment, that’s my favorite.”
Tricks of the trade
When Cannon took that photo, his 36-exposure camera afforded him just 25 pictures to choose from the whole sequence. Today, he would have five more pictures to choose from in a single second. Yet while technology has changed dramatically, the principles of sports photography have not.
Cannon was reminded of one of these guiding rules when – caddying for his professional golfer son Chris – he overanalyzed a swing from three holes earlier.
“‘Dad, that’s one thing you’ve got to learn, there’s a 10 second rule in golf,’” Cannon recalls his son saying. “’Ten seconds after you’ve hit the shot, you cannot get it back, you can’t do anything about it, you’ve got to put it out of your mind.’
“That rule works exactly the same in photography. If you miss it, you can’t go back and get it. If you’re at a sporting event, it’s never going to happen again. I find that quite a useful rule.”
One of the craft’s most important skills is to preemptively sense a story or moment and move to prepare accordingly. It’s easier said than done on courses spanning miles of fairway, with multiple games taking place at once, but the advice can offer great rewards.
These were reaped in abundance by Cannon at the Alfred Dunhill Cup in 1999 through his shot of basketball icon Michael Jordan and Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia engaged in a footrace across the St. Andrews fairways, once described as “the greatest golf photo of all time” in Golf Digest.
Overhearing Jordan and Garcia goading each other on the first tee, Cannon decided to stay out and track the duo past the third hole, the point at which the newspaper photographers – reluctant to trek any further from the clubhouse – decided to head back in.
“I heard Jordan say to Garcia, ‘Do you want a running race, boy?’” Cannon recalled.
“It was really good fun to follow them that day, and from that moment onwards, I walked a couple hundred yards ahead of them all the time.”
It is the sort of know-how that has kept Cannon at the top of his field for over four decades. Not bad for someone with no formal training.