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The Bridge Interviews

Mike Russell

Mike Russell

August 2023

Regular readers may remember the stunning photographs of a hawk moth and a mistle thrush both in the June issue of The Bridge, and both taken in Taynton. The editors thought it would be of interest for readers to learn a little more about the man behind the images.

Mike and Wendy Russell have lived in Taynton since 1988, but Mike’s interest in photography and in the natural world goes back to his childhood at school in England in the 1940s. His favourite bird was the red-backed shrike, solitary but fairly common then (but no longer so) around Marlborough in Wiltshire; he often saw one on a bike ride into the countryside.

Born in England, his father’s businesses were in China and Malaya, and his earliest years were in the city of Tientsin in northern China, where Mike picked up Mandarin before he spoke English. He remembers going to Peking (as it was then known) from Tientsin riding in a dicky seat, an upholstered seat which folded out from the boot space of the two-seater car. In his childhood an aspect of his father’s business was bartering for camel and sheep wool in Mongolia, which was floated down tributaries and then the main rivers to the factory in Tientsin, where it was picked over, bundled and shipped overseas, mainly for camel-hair coats in the USA.

University saw Mike follow in his father’s footsteps to study mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mining in the 1950s. The family business included coal mining in Malaya. The seas around Malaya gave Mike the opportunity to develop his interest in photography. He became a scuba diver and teacher of scuba diving, whilst developing a passion for and skill in underwater photography. In those days equipment was less sophisticated, of course. To get good deeper water shots, he swam with a net of flashbulbs attached – no flashguns then. To entice more interesting and rarer fish, they would sometimes take down a bucket of offal. The most unexpected arrival on one such occasion was an eight-foot- long shark – “Quite big enough”, said Mike. Coral fish were his regular images. Mike continued scuba diving off the Florida coast until the mid-1980s while evaluating a possible diversification of the family business into citrus fruit farming.

Florida and Mexico also gave Mike a chance to fish on the warm seas from outboard boats. Tarpon fish can be tempted into “a real fight” using a feathered hook. He had a particularly impressive sail fish stuffed and mounted and shown in pride of place for a while. The choice of Taynton for an English base was influenced by his life-long love of fly fishing. The location had to be accessible to Heathrow (for him to fly out to Malaysia as it became on independence), accessible to Wendy’s family in Droitwich, and “not too far” from the West Country for sea trout fishing.

Travel gave Mike the opportunity to photograph big game on safari in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. A magnificent photo of a lion in repose shows his skill and patience – and good fortune!

Mike’s lifetime in photography on land and under water, has seen huge developments in the technology. These days he has three cameras and a number of heavy long lenses, best used with a tripod. One of his set-ups is indoors, enabling him to photograph garden birds through an open window. The technology allows the camera to pick up and follow a bird’s eye to ensure focus, and take a burst of images – 20 per second is not unusual. Then come the hours editing on the computer – “90% are rubbish” says Mike. Such a far cry from taking reels of film to be developed, or indeed having a dark room at home. Once Mike has identified the best image, he uses a good-quality printing agency for the prints which are mounted and framed around his house. Taynton has benefitted from Mike’s skill and his enjoyment of village life. When you visit the parish church, you will find photo albums recording the life of the village – the famous annual fete, open gardens, and significant village events. They form a delightful record of a vibrant and friendly community.

Ruth and Cedric Reavley

Mike Russell
Mike Russell
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