Harken Derm

Eight Bells: Alastair Black

Published on August 29th, 2015

The world of sailing lost one of its best photographers when Alastair Black passed away in Cowes two weeks ago.

Born in Campbeltown, Scotland in 1927, he qualified as a dental surgeon in Glasgow and married his actress wife Elna. They moved down to England where by 1960 Alastair ran successful dental practices in Lee-on-Solent, on the coast opposite the Isle of Wight. Alastair played tennis (Elna was a fanatic), swam (he was an immensely strong swimmer), and took up sailing in first an Albacore, then a 505.

By his late 40s Alastair decided he had spent enough years peering into people’s mouths, and chose instead to make a big switch, to take up marine photography professionally. He enrolled in a two-year course at London’s Central College of Art during the week, during which period he and I shared a flat in Chelsea. Returning to the coast at weekends, he started shooting sailing boats with a very special creative eye. Soon he was selling his photos to sailing magazines, until one day his work was noticed by people at Nikon in London, who appreciated his fresh, colorful imagery, and started using it on posters and advertisements.

His new career took off. In the years that followed he twice won the Sports Photographer of the Year award, and gained several other awards. He had a successful exhibition in London organized by Nikon, and started working closely with the Tony Stone picture agency, travelling all over the world creating new images. His favorite paradise was the Rangiroa atoll in French Polynesia.

Alastair was not the conventional magazine shooter: he was more concerned with making a strong image than just illustrating an article. He shot yachts large and small, finding unusual angles with emphasis on color, shapes and action. He jumped into racing dinghies such as Finns and 505s armed with his Nikonos waterproof camera that had been custom fitted with a wide 20mm lens. Always closely involved with the sailors, he captured the essence of sailing a fast, wet dinghy better than anyone had done it before. In the process he influenced many of us marine photographers at the time, and many of those that followed, whether they realize it or not!

A few particularly happy memories of Alastair come to mind: watching him swimming a long, long way out from the beach at Kaneohe, Hawaii in rough seas, getting water-level images of windsurfers leaping off waves; sharing a room at the cheapest and nastiest hotel in America during SORC (I teased him for years afterwards for his penny-pinching Scottish ways); the riotous tennis tournament for photographers which he organized at the tennis club in Porto Cervo during a Sardinia Cup. Above all one remembers his gracious manner, his delightful sense of humor, his passion for everything he did.

After 20 years or so of the photographic life, Alastair retired. He and Elna moved to the Isle of Wight, where he died peacefully on August 15. – Guy Gurney

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