I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing late last week, of Ern McQuillan OAM. The former celebrated photographer, had been suffering the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease in recent years, and slipped away peacefully at the Barclay Gardens Aged Care Facility at Forster, on the NSW mid north coast.
Ern had attained the grand age of 91 years, after having plied his trade as a photographer well into his seventies
He was the son of famous boxing trainer/manager Ern McQuillan Snr, who produced 38 national champions and another 6 Commonwealth champions. He guided the career of Vic Patrick, a huge drawcard in the 1940’s and probably denied a shot at a world title, because his Stadiums Ltd contract prevented his leaving Australia. Vic had to be content with the Australian lightweight and welterweight titles, and an enviable record of 57 pro bouts, with only 4 losses.
Ern McQuillan took Tony Mundine through a successful career to a crack at Carlos Monzon’s WBA world middleweight crown in 1974, losing in 7 rounds to the Argentinian.
In his youth, young Ernie looked likely to pursue a boxing career, and actually posted 6 wins from as many attempts at Sydney Stadium. He was working as a photographer at Sydney Stadium one night, when his father pulled him aside to tell him one of the fighters hadn’t shown up. Before he knew it, young Ern wearing borrowed gear was in the ring. He won the bout, but as he was exiting the ring he was horrified to see his boss Ezra Norton sitting a couple of rows back.
He was convinced the “sack” was imminent, and Norton actually called him into his office the following day. Thankfully the media magnate was an avid boxing fan, and an admirer of the young photographer’s work. A mild rebuke followed, and Ern in that moment decided to hang up his gloves.
For the next 50 years he snapped pictures that have been sought after by major newspapers, iconic magazines like Australian Women’s Weekly, sports magazines, and book publishers. He did it all in a pre-digital era, when the photographer got only one crack at it.
He was just as comfortable shoving a camera in Richard Nixon’s face when the then USA Vice President visited Sydney in 1953, as he was on the night of high drama at Sydney airport when he snapped a famous picture of Mrs. Vladimir Petrov being dragged onto a plane for an expected defection to the USSR.
He had to battle his way through an army of kids to get some wonderful pictures of visiting American actor William Boyd, known to filmgoers around the world as Hopalong Cassidy.
He was oblivious to danger in the pursuit of the “right shot”, and told me once he’d been guilty of some crazy things. I can still see him between races on Sydney tracks, laying on his stomach inside the running rail, positioning a camera for those spectacular head on photos.
In his mid-seventies he could sprint across the birdcage to grab a certain horse or jockey at exactly the right moment.
Our regular Friday Flashback segment features photos from yesteryear, that were given to me by Ern McQuillan some years ago. “You might be able to find some use for these one day”, said Ern. “Just put ‘em away and use them when and how you like”.
We’ve been using them for three months already, but I’ve still got a few in reserve.
My deepest sympathy to Ern’s sons Garry and Mike, and to his daughters Nicole and Martine. My respects also to Pat Dwyer, Ern’s first wife and mother of his four children. The family will farewell Ern on Monday Sept 10th at the Manning Great Lakes Memorial Gardens 183 Pampoolah Rd, Taree at 1pm.
A photographer needs a personality, if he or she is going to get a subject to relax. Ern McQuillan’s personality was as big as himself. By the time he was ready to start clicking the shutter, the subject felt like an old friend.
He had a humorous quote that he used frequently. “Old photographers never die, they just lose focus”.
What a pity a cruel disease like Alzheimers had to come along and destroy the focus of a wonderful bloke, and a true master of his trade.