Years ago, back in his native England, a young Michael Brennan was working as a grunt for The Croydon Times. He liked the job and working for a newspaper, but he had always fancied himself a proper reporter. One day, he asked a higher-up employee what his prospects might be writing for the paper.
He was 21 years old and had grown up in working-class Sheffield. He had never handled a serious camera in his life. He couldn’t afford the Rolleiflex that he coveted, so he ended up buying a cheaper Yashica. He fiddled with the camera on his own, and colleagues gave him basic instructions, but Brennan didn’t study in a regular classroom. He didn’t take workshops or go on photo-walks. He dove headfirst into the trade, snapping pictures for The Croydon Times, then The Sunday People and The Daily Herald. He worked his way through the ranks, photographing a wide range of subjects.
In 1967, Brennan found himself on the edge of a large body of still water in England’s Lake District. He was supposed to witness the pilot Donald Campbell as he attempted to break the water speed record in the hydroplane Bluebird K7. The day was expected to be historic, but it took a tragic turn. Campbell launched forward, slowed, then turned around, hoping to make a second attempt. The hydroplane lifted off the surface and crashed into the water, killing Campbell and wrecking the vehicle.
Brennan took a quick burst of pictures as the hydroplane crashed. He felt confident that he had captured something, though it was impossible to say what he had culled from the seconds-long cartwheel. When the pictures were developed, Brennan discovered he had taken three perfect shots: the hydroplane in midair, then smashing into the water.
The photos appeared in LIFE magazine. Brennan won the British News Picture of the Year Award.
Today, he is among the most acclaimed living photographers in the world.