Dennis Stone, Heathrow’s longest serving resident photographer, opens up about the airport’s transformation and his outstanding images of celebs across the years.

He’s taken some of the outstanding pictures of the original stars of Hollywood – Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, the Beatles … His portfolio then moves on to the modern era with Goldie Hawn, Princess Diana, Robbie Williams, Kate Winslett and Michael Jackson. And then, the offbeat … of the Queen’s famous Corgis getting off an aircraft.  

We are talking about London Heathrow Airport’s longest serving resident photographer, Dennis Stone, who was recently honoured for his 64-year tenure in his chosen art-form. The airport has just published a book comprising a unique collection of his images. (It has also handed over to him a key to the airport, enabling him to have freedom of the terminals.) Titled A Life At The Airport: A Heathrow Photographer, it is a documentation of his journey with the stars he has met. Five thousand copies were given out for free to Heathrow’s passengers. There was also a month-long exhibition in Terminal 5 that showed his favourite photographs. In addition, 25 framed prints were on show at the terminal’s’ “Expo Gallery”. Seventy-eight-year-old Dennis, who started working at Heathrow as a messenger boy aged 14, continues to work even now for three days a week. His pictures are published in leading dailies. In the words of Colin Matthews, Heathrow’s CEO: “These days it is unusual to work in one place for 20 years, let alone 64. Dennis has witnessed phenomenal advances in aviation and has photographed Heathrow’s transformation from a small airfield to one of the world’s busiest hubs for global connections.” Excerpts from an exclusive e-mail interview:

The airport’s literary experiment continues! At first we had Heathrow’s writer-in-residence Alain De Botton with his A Week At The Airport: A Heathrow Diary (2009). Now, we have your book. Did the first give rise to this equally unique second and a different book?

 No. … A Heathrow Photographer is about championing my career at the airport and preserving and sharing the unique stories and moments I have captured along the way.

You have had what Heathrow calls “an astounding 64-year career”. This must certainly have been across a significant span of time in the evolution of aviation and in Heathrow’s growth. How did your career start? What are your most memorable moments? And what about the iconic aircraft types, very much a part of Heathrow, such as the Concorde for instance? Or the Comet?

I secured the ‘vacant’ postboy position at 14 at the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) , which eventually merged with British European Airways in 1974 and became British Airways.  I delivered mail and stationery to various offices and every now and again, armed with my Box Brownie would take pictures of aircraft or passengers running to get their flights.  It wasn’t until I was 20 – after I had finished National Service – that I began to focus my attention on taking pictures around the airport. It was 1953 when I was made a junior photographer for the press department.

My most memorable photo was taken on an inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight from Las Vegas. Most of the press was either drinking or sound asleep, but I decided to have some fun. I asked a stewardess who always looks after Eve Branson, Richard’s mum, whether she had a spare uniform. Eve used to be a stewardess on British South American Airlines when they flew Lancastrians. I said, ‘Eve, why don’t you put on a red uniform and become a stewardess on your son’s aeroplane?’ She liked that idea, so she got ready and went downstairs and got in position. Richard was seated in economy as he often does, nattering to one of his managers. Eve came down to wait on him and said, ‘Excuse me sir, would you like a drink?’ He went, ‘Oh!’ He laughed and said, ‘Thank you, Dennis, that was rather nice’. He has a copy of the picture of course, and so does Eve.

I’ve recorded a fast developing world of aviation but my favourite plane must be the Stratocruiser.

Many of the stars you know very well ... almost considered family …

I have got to know many celebrities over the years.  Joan Collins is a good friend.  She always sends me a Christmas card every year!  I think she likes the fact that I am one of the few people older than her! I used to play squash with Tommy Steele and often shared the odd drink with the likes of Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Branson – the latter on numerous glamorous promotional trips overseas. Liz Taylor is just wonderful too. I’ve photographed her so many times that I promised to take her out for her favourite meal of sausage and mash, then take her on an open-top bus round London because she’d never done that. It’s our joke. Liz would always do a great model pose for me, looking very glamorous.

What about members of the Royal family?

The royal family are frequent flyers and I have had the privilege of photographing them through the years, including the corgis. They especially tend not to stop and pose, making my window of opportunity to get a good shot shorter than usual!  I used to see Sarah (the Duchess of York) a lot though and I got to know her quite well over the years.  She even asked for me once. I felt almost embarrassed.

Apart from the celebrities, what have your other interesting moments been? As an observer, and then as a photographer of other air passengers from across the world as subjects?

I have been lucky enough to see Heathrow grow from a small airport into the world’s busiest international hub which is pretty amazing.  In the old days there were Argonauts, Stratocruisers and Super G Constellations – most with piston engines that I could identify by ear.  And there was just a handful of airlines; Trans World Airlines, Pan American, Air India and BOAC, and planes rarely carried more than 60 passengers. Transatlantic flights departed once a day and took 12 hours – that is, if they arrived in New York at all and didn’t have to turn back!

Passengers used to check in at the Airport Terminal and coaches would take them to their aircraft via a building with just an information desk. There was no division between arrivals and departures, and little security. People wandered freely to the plane and welcomed incoming flights from the side of the tarmac, which made my job of spotting and photographing famous faces relatively easy. One of the first I captured was Cliff Richard in the late 1950s, as he boarded his first flight to New York with his then manager Tito Burns.

You work three days a week at Heathrow? How do you “paint your canvas”, especially when you have had, and continue to have, access to every corner practically?

 I am lucky enough to have built good relations with many of the people and airlines that work out of Heathrow, which means I am never far from a good picture!

 The BBC’s “Airport” was a hit TV series. Your insights and your contributions? Media have used your pictures as well …

I was in the first series and the early programmes were actually written around my activities as the ‘grandfather’ of celebrity photography.  It was good fun but, to be honest, I much prefer being behind the camera, not in front of it.  I often went for late walks whilst the programme was being broadcast so I did not have to sit and watch it!”

It’s been a while since your book was released and then the photo show ... since August 6. What has the response been like?

I feel so fortunate to have worked at Heathrow and carry out a job which I see less as work and more as a passion.  I am absolutely amazed at the response to my photos and the book.  I am often asked about my job but I had no idea people would be so interested in my career.  It has been a real honour to share my stories and photographs with passengers.

Have you managed to capture chaos and then order? What has the 64 years been like?

Nothing short of a complete privilege.  Of course there have been moments when I have had the odd rude remark from a sleep-deprived celebrity but everyone’s allowed an off day!”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012