The art of anticipation is what brought John Varley to capture some of the most iconic people of the 20th century in moments other photographers would have missed. After a Beatles concert, Varley abandoned the press-pack waiting outside the entrance, and caught the band jumping over a wall behind the building to escape the masses.
“The last thing he wanted to do was get a run-of-the-mill photo. He always wanted to think outside the box and do something a little bit differently than everybody else,” said his grandson James Varley. James, who is currently working in Doha with the media team of the local organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, also runs his grandfather’s archive Varley Media, a recent partner of IMAGO.
Covering the World Cup seems to run in the Varley family: During the 1966 World Cup final, John used his slick whits to get out of the stands where he was initially placed, and on to the pitch. According to James, he paid a messenger boy for a pitch pass and used some German picked up during his National Service to trick the steward. “In this broken German he said to the steward that he was just coming back from the toilet, and he let him on the pitch. In extra time, he captured the shots he wanted, and it is still the greatest day in English football history.” With thousands of photos flooding the IMAGO database for any given sporting event today, the fact that Varley could create magic with limited film puts his keen eye into perspective.
It was John and his knack for foreseeing a moment, which brought him to take the iconic photo of Pele and Bobby Moore embracing after a group match between Brazil and England in the 1970 World Cup. By closely following Moore after the final whistle, he found the two players exchanging jerseys — a photo that is still ingrained in the hearts of football fans across the globe.
“He was never keen on setting things up, he wanted action, he wanted things as they were going on,” said James about his grandfather’s style of photography. “He liked covering life, he always wanted to be innovative and the enthusiasm, the passion really shines through in his work.”
Varley even managed to get Henry Moore alone in a room. Being one of the most prolific sculptures of the 20th century, the exhibition held on Moore’s 80th birthday was attended by thousands including royals, security and press. Varley cleared everyone out because he specifically wanted Moore alone candidly strolling amongst his sculptures. To no surprise, it was his shot which made it into the Daily Mirror and won a World Press Photo Award in 1979.
A true documentarian, James said that even on his days off or during walks with his wife, Varley always had a camera. When former US President Jimmy Carter was visiting England on Varley’s day off, he squeezed into the crowds without a press-pass and photographed Carter waving at an angle from which no other photographer managed to shoot. It was his photo yet again which made it into the Daily Mirror that day, although he wasn’t even on the clock.
The Daily Mirror was in fact the home for a large portion of Varley’s career, and was one of the largest circulating newspapers in England at the time. It gained him access not only to five World Cups, but also Royal Family affairs, concerts, Muhammad Ali fights, and other high-profile events.
“When I look at his archive, I’m just mesmerized by the fact that he was there for so many of these defining moments in 20th century history,” says James. But James says that his grandfather never made his prowess known to those around him. “He was a very mild-mannered person, he wasn’t full of himself or anything like that,” he recalled. Growing up they played football in the garden and James would see him go to the back of the house where he built up his dark room, and spend hours digging through the stacks of film and old photos.
Varley’s son, James’ father who also went on to work as a photographer and later in television, handed the archive over to James after Varley’s death. As they went through the old darkroom James realized, “It’s kind of now or never…So I wanted somewhere, just a platform really, to show his work with the world,” he said. They digitalized the archive and launched the website in 2016, licensing and selling the photos ever since.
Varley started off in his hometown of Doncaster as a darkroom assistant for the Evening News, then at the Leo White’s East Mid agency, and finally for the Daily Mirror where he started off photographing Leeds United FC. In fact, most of the football club’s archive is thanks to Varley, and much of Varley Media’s customers are Leeds fans. But Varley who was always regarded as a Leeds fan, was first and foremost a Doncaster Rovers fan — something James says most don’t know about him. The rest of the Varley family however, remain loyal to Leeds United. Before working on the Qatar World Cup media team, James worked as a video-journalist for Leeds United FC himself.
“For me it seemed like a natural step to want to go into the media,” said James. “It’s nice to carry on the family legacy a bit, especially now being involved in the World Cup. My grandad’s most famous work is from the five World Cups that he covered and for me to be involved in this one in Qatar, keeping that legacy going in a small way, means a lot to me.”
This interview was conducted by Columnist Sofia Bergmann with James Varley. Discover the esteemed Varley archive in full here.