Don Whitley, Photographer, likeable, unassuming, bespectacled engineer and scientist, also founder of the hugely successful Don Whitley Scientific company. This is a belated tribute to him, he died on the 28th of February this year, aged 89.
Many of you will know of Don Whitley first and foremost as the man behind Yorkshire Monochrome. He was a Licentiate member of the Royal Photographic Society, belonged to the talented group of photographers who meet as Gamma, member of Ilkley Photographic Society. He was also involved in the Bromoil circle. I came to know Don 30 + years ago, when he invited me to give a talk to the RPS Yorkshire Region with Ray Spence. He was regional organiser for a number of years in the 1980's. A great listener, he always remembered mutual acquaintances, he was unique in the way he always championed others, never himself, and applauded the fair minded diligence of the photographers he invited to the Region.
Don's photography often involved product pictures and staff portraits for his company. His personal work was Monochrome, taken on club outings in The Dales or the Lake District, sometimes on Jane Black's RPS weekends. He added portraiture into his portfolio, with his ability to make people to feel assured and at ease. This enjoyment of the medium came from attending photographic courses at Shipley College and from the chemistry side of darkroom work, but also in recording off-beat humour in his images. I will say his Darkroom was unbelievably untidy - not dissimilar to landfill at times, how he ever found anything in it was way beyond me. An hour in his company was full of laughter, anecdotes, all told in a rich smoky timbre. This man had a wry and perceptive knowledge, coupled with a host of un PC quotes and lucid memories. I've rarely met anyone with his enthusiasm for old cameras and books on photography, kitchen gadgets which were often purchased at 'basement' prices, Don loved a bargain.
He travelled widely, often on company business, but he took the opportunity to take Travel pictures that involved rich colour or the more crafted work he did in other areas involving alternative processes, Infra Red or macro work. Don's contribution to our photographic world was one that allowed others to participate, although in fact he had very little faith in his own pictures, he organised and persuaded, he encouraged and facilitated - he provided the venue for both Yorkshire Monochrome and Gamma and some wonderful catering for upwards of 50 people, involving whole salmon, cooked meats, eggs in mayonnaise ,fantastic salads, and a variety of wines! I never saw him flustered, not once and yet a lot rested on his shoulders. A visit to Yorkshire Monochrome was exceptional, why - one person Don. It revolved around him, but not for his own ends. He turned the handles, built a devoted team and it all worked to a rhyme, a reason and made it a rather special place to give a talk. Don would converse to those attending while pouring them a glass of wine - one of Don's most endearing traits was that he had time for everyone and he was an astute listener. Thanks to the recommendations of Margaret Salisbury and Andrew Rothery Don was rightly recognised with an APAGB for services to photography in 2016.
To me Don was something of a mischief, a bright eyed and irreverent story teller, who loved his whiskey, his red wine, travelling, although he has a few choice remarks about the food and hygiene in some of the far flung places he found himself in. Escapades in Hotel rooms across the planet will live long in the memory of those who shared those business trips. When he stayed in a 15 story hotel where unbeknown to Don they were bloke bungee jumping outside and some terrified bloke in a harness passed his window, he was heard to mutter 'what kind of duff hotel is this!
Alcohol was usually involved and parties often continued after Don had gone to bed in the hotel room in the middle of a sort of controlled mayhem. He was almost impossible to embarrass. I have a wonderful sign he made to go on my Darkroom door, which states that 'all visitors bring happiness, some by arriving, some by leaving'. Who could forget his stories about the book salesman with a pronounced stutter, or his tale about Lab reports and Cat scans or his cleverly contrived ultra thin scrapbook for narrow minded people.
He delighted in women's company and his age never diminished the inventive energy he possessed. He overcame an obvious stammer to become very confident talking to an audience, and later in life he dealt with not insignificant eyesight problems and other health worries, with a straightforward dismissive air. Don was a devoted family man, a father to 7 children, two of his sons, two of his grandsons and a great grandson work for the company he formed with his wife Pam in 1976.
Don Whitley Scientific is now a leading supplier of innovative equipment and services to the micro-biology industry and he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science at Bradford University in 2009 for his considerable achievements in Microbiology. 24 patents carry his name, a monumental legacy. In the all enveloping reflective veil of sadness that followed his death, it is easy to forget his long and extraordinary life and how much he achieved, how far he travelled. It's a very long way from the un-emphatic Southern threnody of Acton where he was born in 1929.
Don Whitley 1929 - 2019