A former world-record swimmer, runway model, ardent tennis player, cancer survivor, stained glass window artist, major network television director and producer…. There is so much more to Leigh Lofgren than her award-winning photography that’s so well-received by Lakelife readers.
Leigh Lofgren’s photography has been featured on many of this magazine’s covers as well as the pages inside. Also, her various trips abroad to photograph wildlife in its natural habitat are popular articles. But it wasn’t until working on this story that I realized what a remarkably strong woman Leigh is, the many things she accomplished, and the glass ceilings she shattered.
Born in Sydney, Leigh began swimming there at a very young age. She later began swimming competitively under the guidance of the famed Australian Olympic swimming coach, Don Talbot. When she was 16, Leigh was the second fastest swimmer in the world for the 400 and 800-meter and the 400 individual medley. But because she quit competing due to personal reasons, she missed out on the Olympic team.
As she told her story, Leigh lounged back and propped her feet on the desk corner in her and husband, Bob’s, office in their Harbor Club home. She occasionally got up to let their Great Pyrenees, Ike, or rescue cat, Muffin, in or out of the office, chiding them for the interruption and then sweet-talking them in the next sentence.
Leigh’s father is a well-known artist who is exhibited around the world and he didn’t want his daughter to follow in his footsteps, she said; so, when she completed high school, her parents insisted she study medicine at the University of Sydney. Leigh’s eyes twinkled triumphantly as she said, “So, I applied to the school of medicine, but I also applied to the drama, interior design, and TV production schools because those are the things I wanted to do. And I got accepted to all three,” she added with a hearty laugh.
After school, she got a job operating the “big equipment” on the Australian television network, Channel 9. In only four months, she became an assistant director. “I only wanted to do live television, not that soap opera stuff they offered,” Leigh said. “So, I did a live, three-hour show in the mornings, plus news in the afternoon. I did everything and worked 20 hours a day sometimes.”
Noting she was the only woman doing such work, Leigh said, “The big boys of the network used to tell me, ‘You’ll get married, have kids and get all this out of your system one day.’… I was so mad, but I couldn’t tell them what I thought because they were my bosses.”
Deciding to broaden her horizons and get out of Australia, Leigh quit that job and went to Europe in the mid ‘70s, where she was picked up by a modeling company and was a professional runway model for a about a year. Her next job was at a film company for Peter Zadeck, a famous German director of theatre, opera and film. She held other similar jobs until 1985 when her father had a heart attack in London and she went to be with him. There, she was a private assistant for a heart surgeon and, among other things, actually went in the operating room and watched surgeries.
Then one Friday, she got a call from television executive Bruce Gyngell with TV-am, “and he said I could start on Monday,” Leigh said. “I was the first woman to ever direct Good Morning Britain.” She held that position from 1986 to 1991. Meanwhile, she met her husband, Bob, in London and they married there in 1987.
On the news side, Leigh was director when GMB covered the Berlin Wall coming down, the Lockerbie plane crash, and the Clapham Junction railroad disaster. “My husband was on the train, but I didn’t know,” she said. “I was in the newsroom watching footage and suddenly saw my husband walking through the rubble and I said, ‘oh my god, that’s my husband.’ We didn’t have cell phones back then and I heard not a freaking word from him until around seven that night. He had stayed behind as a fireman to help pull the dead out of the wreckage.”
One of the highlights of GMB was the opportunities she had to be with big celebrities featured on the show, including Richard Gere (“He was my favorite because he always remembered me every time he came in,” Leigh said.), Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Telly Savalas, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Mick Jagger, Michael and Kirk Douglas, and Jodi Foster.
But the icing on the cake came one day at the London airport when she ran into one of those former “big boys” from Channel 9, and he asked her what she was doing. “I told him I was doing Good Morning Britain and he said, ‘you’re doing WHAT?’. I said ‘yes, I’m the director.’ I’ll never forget the look on his face,” she described.
Bob’s job moved him back to New York. “So, in 1991, I had to give up Good Morning Britain and move to New York where I had no family and didn’t know anybody,” she said. To make matters worse, union restrictions prevented American networks from accepting her union card, so she couldn’t work in television.
After working part time at the YMCA teaching swimming and arthritic aerobics, Leigh started a job at the Food Network in 1992. As head director, she directed Emeril Lagasse’s and Curtis Aikens’ shows, and designed television sets for programs in California’s wine country. Three years later, Bob’s job moved him to Tampa. There, Leigh set up her own production company called “L&T Productions,” through which she said she “put America’s health network on air in Orlando, 24/7 live television. People could call in and ‘ask a doctor.’ It was really cool, but I worked nonstop,” she said.
Once again, Bob’s job moved them to San Francisco, where Leigh “just freelanced. And we were building this house in Harbor Club at that time,” she said. In 1997, channel WSB-tv in Atlanta contacted Leigh and hired her to direct the channel’s live Christmas Eve program, which she has been doing for 25 years, now. “They would fly me in from wherever I was living at the time,” she said. The show won the Polly Bond Award for Excellence in Live Broadcasting under her direction.
While their Greensboro home was being built, Leigh made sure it included a stained-glass studio. “I learned stained glass when I was 17 and I took night classes in Sydney with renowned stained glass artist David Saunders,” she said. “He asked me to apprentice, but I said ‘no’ because I wanted to do film.” She ran her own business called “A Touch of Glass,” creating and selling her stained-glass pieces.
Health issues, including retinal detachment and aggressive breast cancer, began in 2008. The chemotherapy saved her life, Leigh said, but brought on depression because of the accompanying lifestyle changes. It was too dangerous for her to continue cutting pieces of glass, so she had to shut down her company. “So, Bob suggested I take up my camera and he bought me a really nice lens,” she said. “He took me to Galapagos for seven days, and we had a great time. Then we came back for more treatments.”
Her photography hobby surged and, in addition to becoming a professional photographer, Leigh won many photography awards from the Wildlife Federation and the Georgia Press Association, and a gold medal in the 2012 Egyptian International Photo Contest.
When the 2020 pandemic put a halt to her photography travel excursions and event photography, Leigh wasted no time getting back into her stained-glass studio and letting her creative juices flow. It is obvious from the lilt in her voice when she’s talking about her projects, that she is just as happy “cutting hundreds of pieces of glass” as she has ever been.
(Above: A few of Leigh's stained glass pieces.)
To view Leigh’s photography work, visit her website, leighlofgren.com.
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Story by Lynn Hobbs, photos by Leigh Lofgren, published in the September-October 2021 issue of Lakelife magazine.