Richard Matthews – Wildlife Cameraman: An Appreciation
March 7th, 2013
Angie and I were deeply shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Cape Town wildlife filmmaker Richard Matthews. Richard - who co-owned Table Mountain Films - and pilot Mark Berry died earlier this week in a plane crash in Namibia while filming aerials for an international documentary. Richard and his wife Sammantha were old friends of ours dating back to the 1980s here in Kenya. We join their many friends in sending our love and condolences to Sammantha and her children and all the family – and to Mark’s family too.
Richard was unique. I first met him in the early 1980s while working on the story of The Leopard’s Tale (1985). He enjoyed roaming Fig Tree Ridge and Leopard Gorge (above) as much as Angie and I love to – home to Chui, Half-Tail, and Zawadi in times past. He was a talented stills photographer with a great love of East Africa and its people and wildlife. Richard had already established himself as an Assistant Producer with the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol. But his heart was always in Africa where he was born. He was very much his own man and we all knew that Richard would never settle for second best. He had a great eye for the shot and a wonderful understanding of light. He was an artist with his camera and soon decided he wanted to set up on his own as a wildlife cameraman. When Richard heard that a leopard mother had given birth to three cubs along Rhino Ridge in 1985 he decided to step up. That meant taking moving out of his comfort zone – mortgaging his home and heading back to Africa – literally putting his money where his mouth was. We spoke on the phone when I was in the UK – he was concerned about the risk he was taking but I knew this was what he needed to do – this was his golden opportunity – one of those moments when you have to decide if you are going to live the life of your dreams – or step back.
Richard was feisty, competitive and totally dedicated to his craft. He made his film on the leopard mother – it was a classic – some of the shots were achingly beautiful in their artistry – he really did have that magic ingredient. There was a ‘look’ to his work that was all his own. By getting stuck in like this he put his reputation on the line – he was filming the same leopard that the BBC decided they wanted to film for the Natural World! Typically that just made Richard all the more determined and he got some unique footage along the way – including a ‘killer’ sequence to top it off when the mother leopard leapt out of a tree to snatch a zebra foal!
Richard then worked with the legendary wildlife cameraman Alan Root in the Serengeti around the time I was collecting material for books on the wildebeest migration and the wild dogs. By now Richard had met Samantha Purdy – a gem of a lady from Kenya who shared his love of photography and wildlife. Samantha gave Richard her dedication, loyalty and love – and the wonderful children that were and are so special to them both. Later Richard worked with us on Big Cat Diary and we always knew Richard’s ‘rushes’ – they were so beautifully shot – with his unerring eye for sidelight and backlight, mood and emotion. Samantha and Richard agonised over the economics of whether to buy a home in Kenya or head south to where Richard had grown up. There was the question of what would be best for the children: schooling, finances and security, the same decisions that we had to consider in our own lives some years earlier. Samantha’s parents had lived at the Kenya coast – she had grown up there – se we all knew how hard that decision must be for her. But Samantha was always – and is – a team player: supportive, generous and loving. So they headed south with Richard now intent on combining his love of flying with his craft as a cameraman.
Richard was a man of many talents. He was a leader and a pioneer in his field. He had what it takes to step up. With Samantha he founded his own Picture Library in the 1980s, as well as his own Production Company in the UK – Zebra Films. He was a mover and shaker – he made things happen. And even though we lost contact with Richard and Samantha these past few years we were always delighted to hear news of their achievements. Richard had a soft and sensitive side that sometimes got hidden by his drive and determination to complete his ideas. But anyone who knew Richard well understood his vision, saw his kindness and loving side, admired his boundless energy. He will be sorely missed by his friends and family.
With our love and affection to the Matthews and Purdy families – and to Mark Berry’s family. Our thoughts and condolences are with you all.