British Columbia

Renowned Canadian photojournalist Ted Grant, lauded for modest brilliance, dies at age 90

Over his career, Grant took pictures of era-defining events and people, from the Vietnam War and the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, to Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson crossing the Olympic finishing line and Pierre Trudeau sliding down a banister.

‘Ted’s legacy was himself. It was his caring,’ said Nick Didlick, professional photographer, producer

Ted Grant's famous shot of Pierre Trudeau sliding down a banister at the 1968 Liberal convention in Ottawa. (Ted Grant)

In 1968, Ted Grant was at a Liberal convention in Ottawa when he spotted Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sliding down a banister, arms aloft, and captured the image.

When the award-winning photojournalist was later asked how he got the shot of the grinning leader, Grant said what he often did: "I just got lucky."

Grant died on April 19 in Victoria's Royal Jubilee Hospital at the age of 90. His condition had deteriorated following surgery in February for a broken hip after a fall, according to his son, Ottawa photographer Scott Grant.

Grant, who said his natural-light images were inspired by Rembrandt paintings, is regarded as one of Canada's greatest photographers.

Over a 60-year career during which he mostly worked freelance, he took pictures of era-defining events and people, from the Vietnam War and the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, to former U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson crossing the Olympic finishing line.

Grant captured sprinter Ben Johnson's moment of victory in the 100 metres at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Shortly after, Johnson failed a drug test and was stripped of his gold medal. (Ted Grant/National Gallery of Canada)

In 1999, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communication. More than 280,000 of his images are collected in the National Archives of Canada — the largest such archive for a Canadian photographer.

In 2016, Grant received the Order of Canada for his body of work, which he credited mostly to good timing.

Scott Grant said his father, who was just shy of his 91st birthday in May, had never stopped taking pictures. He was a "bit of a celebrity" in the Victoria assisted living centre where he'd spent his final years for his candid portraits that were printed and displayed.

Ted Grant photographed by his son, Scott. (Scott Grant)

'A very caring and giving individual'

Rookies who met Grant on the job over the decades say he wasn't one to brag.

Professional photographer Nick Didlick said he came across Grant covering a royal visit in Victoria, but didn't realize who he was and shoved him out of the way.

"Some old photographer was in my way. I was a young buck and I needed to get the pictures," said Didlick.

He later described the greying photographer with a stoop to his editor and realized he was a legend.

"[Grant] always had time for others in photography. He was a very caring and giving individual," said Didlick.

Former U.S. president John F. Kennedy captured by Grant. (Ted Grant)

A few years ago Didlick featured Grant as part of his series Behind the Lens, a video series in which he tried to capture some of the "special sauce" of veteran photojournalists. 

Didlick described Grant as "very, very emotional" and that he shot "damn good pictures."

But ultimately, Didlick said, "Ted's legacy was himself. It was his caring."

'He came back with the goods'

Photographer Andy Clark was just a rookie a when he accidentally stepped in front of Grant during a photo scrum.

Clark, who went on to work for Reuters for 27 years, recalled Grant's polite request that he come stand back with him, and his embarrassment when he realized later who he'd blocked.

"He was a real gentleman. You couldn't meet a nicer guy — and he came back with the goods," said Clark.

Portrait of Jackie Kennedy. Grant said capturing a shot like this involves reacting rather than fiddling with settings. (Ted Grant)

He also helped many learn the craft, including his own son.

Scott Grant says he learned everything from his father, who let him do darkroom work and gave him an expensive camera for a Grade 6 field trip. They went on their first shoot together — a CFL football game — in 1969, when he was 13.

They both eventually travelled the world, shooting elections and the Olympics.

"He lived a lot of lives in one," said Scott, 64, one of Grant's three surviving children.

He said his father died in the hospital where Scott's mother once worked as a nurse, before her death in 2013.

"As a dad he was just 'Dad.' But I know he was a lot bigger to a lot of other people. He guided the paths of some of the best photographers that Canada has ever produced," Scott Grant said.

As for his father's legacy, he said his father had a simple hope: "He just wanted to be remembered as a hell of a nice guy."

A self-portrait while flying in 2003. (Ted Grant)
Ted Grant said his shot of Pierre Trudeau was his favourite photograph. (Ted Grant)

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

With files from Eva Uguen-Csenge

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