David Cannon: The rise of a legendary golf photographer
With his last name, you could say David Cannon was destined for a career behind the lens.
In receiving the PGA of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Photojournalism in May, the 67-year-old was praised for his “technical mastery and artistic ability.”
But while his first professional camera was a Canon, the Englishman’s journey to become one of the world’s leading sports photographers was anything but predestined: he hadn’t even had formal training.
Born in Sussex, Cannon was a talented golfer in his youth with a handicap of one. He competed in numerous amateur tournaments, finishing eighth at the 1974 British Youths Golf Championship and playing alongside a young Nick Faldo at the following year’s tournament.
But sharing the fairways with the future six-time big winner dashed all hopes of a professional career for Cannon.
“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 cloth company, but after four years he longed 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 capture some local sporting events, Cannon was all in.
He sold his car to finance a small telephoto lens and camera – a Canon AE-1, of course – shortly after 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 that have served as the basis of his craft ever since: “Focus on the eyes and fill the frame.”
“I was gone, that was it. The lightbulb came on,” Cannon said. “Golf suddenly took a huge backseat and every free minute I had was buying cameras with extra money, taking pictures, going to games.”
In 1983, after capturing everything from the Commonwealth Games in Australia to the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Honduras, he joined the esteemed photography agency AllSport. Although it was acquired by Getty Images in 1998, Cannon has worked there effectively ever since, specializing in golf to quickly become one of the most recognizable names in the field.
“I loved every minute of it,” he said, and there have certainly been many minutes to love.
Cannon has covered more than 700 events and nearly 200 men’s and women’s majors, according to a interview with the Ryder Cup, the biennial event in which he has participated 17 times.
Cannon’s eye-watering estimates of his career stats: shot 3.4 million frames, flew 2.6 million miles, visited 115 countries, slept 5,000 nights in hotels, and walked 21,000 miles of golf courses.
Still, Cannon insists it’s a necessary commitment. While sports such as football offer photographers – at the very least – the opportunity to celebrate almost every game, golf’s less dynamic nature can mean low scoring.
“You can go at least six months — probably two years — without getting a fantastic final frozen image,” he explained.
“Golf is very slow. People don’t realize how physical it is to shoot golf. You can walk 25,000 steps a day, and all you get are individual shots of golfers hitting the ball and nothing interesting if they’re on fairways all the time.”
Fortunately for Cannon, his career coincides with some of golf’s most iconic players, many of whom he has personally come to know.
He kept in touch with Faldo, became good friends with Ernie Els and got to know Greg Norman – a trio with a combined 12 major wins – and sat in the front row at the height of the Tiger Woods era at the turn of the century.
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He has been shooting Rory McIlroy and newly crowned US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick since they were amateurs.
Yet one name stands above all others: Seve Ballesteros. “Never meet your heroes,” goes the saying, but Cannon not only had the pleasure of photographing his all-time sports idol, he also became a close friend.
A portrait of the legendary Spaniard taken near his home in Pedreña in 1996 remains one of Cannon’s best-loved images. And his photos of the five-time major champion’s iconic fist pump celebration at St Andrews en route to a 1984 Open victory are some of the most enduring images of Ballesteros, who died of brain cancer in 2011.
“It’s probably the most defining image of my career,” Cannon said. “Currently, that’s my favorite.”
When Cannon took that shot, his 36-exposure camera only offered him 25 shots to choose from throughout the series. Today he would have five more photos to choose from in one second. But while technology has changed dramatically, the principles of sports photography have not.
Cannon was reminded of one of these guiding rules when – as a caddy for his pro golfer son Chris – he overanalyzed a three-hole swing earlier.
“‘Dad, that’s one thing you have to learn, there’s a 10-second rule in golf,'” Cannon recalled his son saying. “‘Ten seconds after you hit the shot, you can’t get it back, you can’t help it, you have 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’ll never happen again. I think that’s a pretty handy rule.”
One of the main skills of the craft is to preemptively sense a story or moment and move to prepare accordingly. It’s easier said than done on courses of miles of fairway, with multiple plays at once, but the advice can pay off big.
These were reaped in abundance by Cannon at the 1999 Alfred Dunhill Cup through his shot of basketball icon Michael Jordan and Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia during a footrace across the St. Andrews fairways, once described as “the greatest golf shot of all time”. in Golf Summary.
Hearing that Jordan and Garcia were goading each other on the first tee, Cannon decided to stay out and follow the duo past the third hole, the point where the newspaper photographers – hesitant to move further away from the clubhouse – decided to turn back to go inside.
“I heard Jordan say to Garcia, ‘You want a run, boy?'” Cannon recalled.
“It was a lot of fun following them that day, and from then on I was walking a few hundred yards ahead of them all the time.”
It’s the kind of know-how that has kept Cannon at the forefront of his field for more than four decades. Not bad for someone with no formal education.