Have camera, will travel – life of our top rugby photographer

Have camera, will travel. That’s been the mantra for veteran rugby photographer Peter Bush, and it’s served him well during a career which has spanned six decades. As LEE STACE finds, he has as many stories to tell as he does pictures to illustrate them.

IT WAS the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Peter Bush’s picture shows the All Blacks and Ulster walking onto the field while armed soldiers and sharpshooters surround the stadium, after a threat to kill a player from either side was made.

Nothing eventuated, but later a bomb warning went out and Bush was escorted to a nearby pub and told to wait.

“There were women knitting and kids playing marbles. I said to the [barman] ‘How will we know when they defuse this bomb? He said ‘You’ll know, boyo. You’ll know’.

“As he was talking, a great roar came through. When this noise went off, I hit the deck. It sounded like a rocket had been fired. Much to my chagrin, I looked around and I was the only one who reacted.

“The woman who was knitting said to me ‘you must be new around here’.”

It’s just one story from a rich bank of yarns the man regarded as the world’s premier rugby photojournalist can tell you when you get him talking.

He has been a permanent fixture at most games during a 60-year career for Truth and later as a freelancer since 1949. Sporting the all-access yellow bib he received from the New Zealand Rugby Union for his contribution to rugby in 2005 and his camera (or “magic passport”, as he calls it) in one hand, you’ll find him running on his prime piece of real estate, the sidelines, trying to capture the magic of big hits, mauls and sweeping backline movements.

He shows no signs of slowing down yet, despite being nearly 80 years old and suffering from creaking joints and deteriorating eyesight. Speaking of which, at one stage Bush wore a patch over one eye (presumably for a detached retina).

When I meet Bush at his Island Bay home, he is preparing for his next job – the Wellington Sevens. It’s an assignment from a South African news outlet, one of the overseas syndications his strings (shoots) for these days.

He feeds off “crumbs” that fall from the tables of the giant media agencies. “It’s a fascinating lifestyle, without a lot of gravy. You could say we’re asset-rich and cash-poor. I didn’t set out to make a lot of dough. I like to say a rolling stone gathers no moss, but acquires a shine on the way down.”

Bush has acquired more than that during his eventful life, which kicked off in the West Coast. As a wee nipper (these are the sorts of expressions he uses), he had a real passion for the outdoors, often hunting, hiking and fishing.

However, when he was nine he swapped his carefree playground for the strict Catholic environment of Auckland’s Sacred Heart College. It was there he bought his first camera – a box brownie (costing twelve shillings and sixpence) – on Ponsonby Rd after being captivated by New York Institute of Photography magazines.

When he took his first pictures, on a Motueka tobacco field, it was the start of a lifelong infatuation.

Bush’s taken many more since then (100,000 by his last count). A colleague, New Plymouth photographer Rob Tucker (right), says Bush’s skills lie with an ability to recognise extraordinary photogenic moments. “He was good at capturing the odd angle and the moment.”

He’s captured many enduring images showcasing the action, drama and excitement of rugby, on and off the field.

But, there’s more to Bush than just rugby, something he makes abundantly clear. “Listen, you can switch [the tape] off right now – I mean that,” he barks, rising out of his seat briefly. “I get sick and tired of being labelled the rugby photographer. Forgive me for getting a bit excited, but people often say ‘I didn’t know you did anything else’.”

He has packed a lot into life, serving in Malaya with the New Zealand army in 1957 and sharing a bloody mary with his holiness, Pope John Paul II, during his 1986 world tour.  He nearly joined the French Legion, too.

It almost happened after he quit his job at the New Zealand Herald to set sail in 1953. Buying his passage on ships, where he cleaned the decks and galleys, Bush travelled the globe – North America, Europe and Asia – via the high seas. “From the age of 10, I wanted to see the world. It sounds weird, but I had no doubt I would do it. I thought I was bullet-proof, until I had one or two narrow escapes, and then you realise it is not all beer and skittles.”

One of those escapes occurred on a German freighter. After exaggerating his “great sea experience”, he received orders from the captain to report on deck to navigate the vessel through a severe storm, after one of crew became ill. It was nearly fatal. “[The ship] just rolled and yawed. The captain raced up in his dressing gown with all the officers and they gradually brought the ship up. I was just about sweating blood. They were really rattling it off in high German.”

He documented his travels at the time. One piece, which appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser, about this “incredible rust bucket” called the Barbeda, cost Bush his position on the freighter, as it featured the headline “New Zealand seaman alleges hell ship conditions on English freighter in Port Lincoln”. “By the time I got paid off, over half the crew had deserted.”

Sea salt may run through his veins, but rugby is where Bush has made his mark, becoming part our national pastime’s fabric due to his colourful personality.

It has made him extremely popular with overseas players and media, says NZPA pictures editor and friend of 40 years, Ross Setford (left). “The first thing people will say is ‘where’s Bushy?’ or ‘how is he?’”

He is also known to randomly fall asleep during conversations. He did so once at a restaurant in London, with his head flirting with a soup bowl, says Setford. “The manager wanted to kick us out, because he thought he was drunk.”

The sound of his snoring has been heard by another good mate, former All Black captain Graham Mourie, while Bush was telling a story to an Irish rugby writer about his time in Malaya. “[He] shook him awake and said ‘By God, Bush. I don’t mind somebody falling asleep during my stories, but when they fall asleep in the middle of their own stories, it’s unheard of.”

He probably dozed off during conversations because he sleeps rough on tour. Setford remembers Bush owning a Volkswagen which he lived out of whenever he was on the road.  If he wasn’t catching shuteye in his Combie, he was probably sleeping on the floors – or even the bathtubs – of his colleagues’ hotel rooms. “I remember one time we had trouble getting a hotel in Galway and five of us slept in one room. We let him have the bed,” Setford laughs.

One floor he slept on was Rob Tucker’s. He says Bush was “pretty lean” when travelling, preferring to hitch-hike or walk rather than pay for a taxi. That was usually because he had no money to do so.

It also meant Bush would turn up on match day wearing a ruffled suit with his shirt-tail hanging out the back (his wardrobe has benefited from a woman’s touch since then, says Setford) and holding a roll of salami, a red onion and some bread. Tucker remembers going to a buffet restaurant and seeing Bush stuffing bread rolls into several bags. “That was his lunch for a week.”

As for the man behind the camera, he has two daughters, Trinette and Rachel, and lives with long-term partner Jane. An avid whitebaiter, you’ll see him with his fishing rod near his Te Horo bach on the Kapiti Coast when he’s not scouting the touchline.

Cooking his catch is a breeze. Setford: “He’s a dab hand in the kitchen (sandwiches and soups are his signature dishes).”

He’s pretty competitive in the culinary stakes, too, judging by one time Setford went to Bush’s house for lunch. “I arrived and it turned out that both [Jane and Bushy] had made soup. Jane said ‘you’ve got to have my soup’ and Bushy said ‘no, you’ve got to have mine’. I tried the two soups to see which was best, but I said very carefully they were both 10 out of 10.”

Cooking’s not something you’d associate with most typical Kiwi blokes, but that’s how Mourie (left) describes him. “That really comes through by everything he does. He is an intelligent guy who loves sport, the outdoors and photography.

“Part of the secret to Bushy is that he’s loyal. He’s good company. If you call around to Bushy’s, there is always a cuppa and a couple hours of yarning. You know you’re always welcome.”

That hospitality was evident during my visit. Not long after we began chatting in his living room (which enjoys a superb view overlooking Owhiro Bay) out came a tin of home baked biscuits and a pot of tea. Hours of reminiscing followed. He’s an animated storyteller, using every device – hand gestures, accents and change of tone – to recreate the moment.

Speaking of moments, Tucker remembers the time first met Bush. It was in New Plymouth in 1969, when Bush (working for Truth) was in town to cover the first match of the Welsh tour against Taranaki at Rugby Park.

Before the game, Tucker was approached by this imposing figure – a “bit of a legend” in his chosen profession – who handed him a bunch of large envelopes. “He was heading back to Wellington on an urgent job. He said ‘champ, would you mind putting a print in each of those and sending them off?’”

Tucker got into a bit of strife late on the night after the game when he was printing off some spare pictures to oblige – the editor walked into the darkroom.

Although it was hardly a great beginning, the pair went on to work together on occasion (including a UK rugby tour) and became good mates.

An anecdote in Bush’s new autobiography, Life Through A Lens, brings back memories of that trip – the 1972/73 grand slam tour. Bush recounts photographing the lone figure of disgraced prop Keith Murdoch leaving Wales to fly into obscurity. “Bushy and I both photographed him,” says Tucker. “We got right through security, which was pretty laid back, and actually got on the plane.”

Tucker was there during the same tour when a paratrooper in Northern Island mistook Bush for an IRA bomber after he entered a cordoned-off street. “They strip-searched him and he had to prove who he was. Being Bushy, he got away with it. Wherever you went with Bushy there was always an adventure, that’s for sure.”

Mourie recalls Bush taking “great pleasure” in photographing prop John Spiers- who was very seasick at the time – when the All Blacks were fishing in France in 1981.

But his favourite memory is Bush sneaking into the Murrayfield medical room after the All Blacks victory over Scotland in 1978. “I said ‘how did you get in here, Bushy?’ He said ‘it wasn’t much trouble, mate. I told them the NZRU had sent me to document the injuries for their records’.”

The man himself might start documenting his own soon, his long career starting to take its toll. “It’s not the actual taking of the pictures. It’s getting there, getting out again and leaving lonely stadiums late at night totally buggered. When you’ve got twenty-twenty vision and a ton of energy, it’s a piece of cake. But when you’ve been there for a while, you’ve had enough of being pushed around.”

He hopes to hang on until the 2011 Rugby World Cup. After that, maybe do a few scenic pictures, postcards and more travel. Knowing Bushy, there will be plenty of adventure to be had.


Former All Black Fred “the needle” Allen: “He is still the greatest who ever strapped on a pair of boots. He was a pretty feisty young man… a major in the Second World War. I liked when he spoke, as he was of quiet authority. If guys gave him lip, they tried out 30 or 40 press ups and if they had a bit more to say, they could do it again.”

The Springboks: “Only two teams really played with total, brutal ferocity and great skill – the All Blacks and the Springboks. The Boks were like the second coming, the Holy Grail. In ‘56 when the Boks came here, you couldn’t have got a child of five into some of the grounds, where people had slept the night on wet concrete before they filed in to sit all day for a 2.30pm kick off.”

The amateur era versus professional rugby: “Following the All Blacks in those days, you didn’t give it a second though if they were going to win – it was by how much. They were so well drilled… a lot of the opposition teams weren’t in it. They were tough men and they played a tough game. They weren’t altar boys. In those days, they were men of the land. Most of them were totally fit and unlike today where [they are] pumping iron, they were pumping sterner posts up sheer hillsides. They tested you out a bit before they accepted you, [but] once they’d accepted you, you were there. I enjoyed access to their dressing rooms, which is great trust. You could sit down with them and drink a beer or three. You were part of them, but it’s a different ball game these days. It’s like you’ve been let into the KGB headquarters, but not for too long.”

Changes in photography: “It’s like driving the stagecoach from Tucson to flagstaff and ending up at an Airport. It was a great time to be a photographer, because there was still a bit of mystic and intrigue about it. You went to a game and you had a magazine which had 12 shots. After you had taken 12, you changed over and took another 12. So you may have taken 36 pictures, but you could guarantee half of them were out of focus. The technical difficulties were really something. It took discipline.  Now of course everyone has got a camera.”

French journalist and close friend Jean Cormeir: “He would be nearly as well-known in France as Joan of Arc. He really is something. He’s a huge guy with flowing hair and speaks three languages. He’s the most colourful bastard I’ve ever met, he really is. I’ve met some pretty interesting people, but this guys is unique, a great journalist. What I like about him is he’s one of the great all-rounders. If you interviewed him, you’d count it as one of the great interviews you’ve ever done. He would adjourn and say this is a bit dry and we would go to the bar somewhere and he would have a glass or two of red – he can drink like a fish if he wants to.”

About Truth: “People would deny reading it, but we sold 250,000 copies a week.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *