Capturing the World's Fastest Man: Then & Now

Norman Potter
Photographer Norman Potter was quick enough to photograph the world's fastest man in 1954

Norman Potter, who has died aged 85, witnessed five decades of immense change as one of Fleet Street’s most respected news photographers. We pay tribute to Potter by looking again at his masterwork, a split-second shot of British athlete Roger Bannister running a four minute mile in 1954.

The image of Usain Bolt turning to flash a grin as he heads to the finish line is rightly celebrated as one of the finest images of the genre. It is a decisive moment, one aided by the cutting-edge equipment available to the photographer, the photographer’s mastery of these tools and his environment, as well as a little luck.

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Usain Bolt of Jamaica competes in the Men's 100 meter semifinal on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

With all great images, come echoes from images past and in this instance, Norman Potter’s shot of Roger Bannister is a worthy predecessor. Using a glass plate camera, it meant Potter had just the one opportunity to capture the exact moment Bannister would break through the ribbon, running a mile faster than any man had before. Potter was a junior photographer for Central Press at the time.

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Roger Bannister about to cross the tape at the end of his record breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford.

That the image should represent previously unimaginable speed and achievement is a neat metaphor for the image itself. Picture agencies like Keystone, Fox Photos and Central Press would send their photographers all over the world or employ ‘camera men’ in different regions, all in competition for the scoop – the best image relayed in the quickest time. 

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1930: Photography By Cable And Wireless, known as phototelegraphy or wire photography.

Potter typifies the newspaper camera man of the mid-20th century: tenacious, trained on the job and indifferent to personal status. In a time when photographer by-lines were a rarity, it was getting the shot that mattered. When Getty Images acquired the Central Press archive in 1996, the year of Potter’s retirement, the Roger Bannister shot remained uncredited.

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April 1965: Frances Shae toasting to future happiness with the Kray twins, after her marriage to Reggie Kray, right.

Assignments were varied – a press conference, a protest, a Kray wedding – and the camera man was expected to bring the same narrative power to all these divergent stories. Some were more challenging than others and in Potter’s case it was neither train wrecks nor violent demos, but celebrity snapshots.

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1929: Fox photographer and daredevil R J Salmon dangles in a crate suspended from a crane to take an aerial shot of Fleet Street, London.

Along with photographer Fred Carroll, Potter ended up in a tussle with Frank Sinatra, a decade before the term paparazzo was coined. Taking photos was one part of a job, reckoning with all walks of life the other. We celebrate these Fleet Street practitioners for their character and humanity, which is there to see in their images. 

The Getty Images Archive houses these collections of glass plates, 33mm film and darkroom prints for posterity. Having been missing for 20 years, the original 5x4 glass plate was discovered in a box of miscellaneous broken negatives, albeit cracked in two.

Norman potter/daily express/hulton archive/Getty Images


To restore this historic piece, our conservator carefully realigned the two halves of the plate and sandwiched between clean glass. The edges were then sealed with conservation tape to prevent movement and entry of dust. Once this work was complete, the negative ‘sandwich’ was scanned and retouched to remove the fracture line from the digital master, restoring the image back to its original state.