News photographerDoreen Spooner

Born in London, Spooner’s father was the picture editor of the Daily Herald newspaper. He sometimes took her to work, where she met his staff photographers. Ned Spooner bought his daughter a camera from Woolworth’s for 5 shillings when she was 8 years old, and that directed her entire life: she became an avid photographer, and in 1949 at age 20, became the first female staff news photographer for a national British newspaper, the Daily Mirror. Her first photo credit read, “By Camera Girl Doreen Spooner.” She put an end to that right away: “That was a bloody cheek,” she said later, and pointed out they don’t call the other photographers “Camera Boys”. But she embraced it later: her 2016 autobiography is titled Camera Girl. She was assigned to take news shots of Leonard Bernstein, Sophia Loren, Yves St Laurent, Orson Welles, the Queen, “Queen” singer Freddie Mercury, and hundreds of others. She covered riots, strikes, disasters, and the Yorkshire Ripper murders.

Spooner during her prime, with her 35mm Nikon at the ready. She started in the era of glass-plate negatives, but retired before digital cameras became widespread.

Spooner fit in because the men respected her ability: she won the British News Picture of the Year award in 1950 (with a photo of George Bernard Shaw). “I like to think I played a small part in changing attitudes,” she said later, “never waving a feminist flag, just by getting on with my job.” If there were any lingering doubts, she erased them when — because she didn’t look like a press photographer — she managed to get into a restaurant with her camera to photograph Secretary of State for War John Profumo’s mistress; “The Profumo Affair” is one of the most notorious British political scandals, and Spooner’s photo took page one of the Mirror. Spooner would stand up to any man: when traveling with Prince Philip during a trip to China in 1986, the prince told some British students that if they stayed too long in China they would “go home with slitty eyes.” Spooner, who was standing next to him, immediately dressed the Royal down for his racism. But that didn’t mean she only got meaty news assignments: she was assigned to do fashion shots (“Twiggy was a gift to the camera, she could put anything on and look incredible,” she said. “It was simply impossible to take a bad photograph of her.”), and even the topless “Page 3 girls.” Spooner was elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and a member of the National Council for the Training of Journalists. Spooner retired in 1988, and died April 21, at 91.

Spooner’s Page 1 scoop.

A Postscript: One more story about Spooner that I decided not to include in the write-up. When assigned to photograph the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Spooner heard the Duchess (the former Wallis Simpson) berating the Duke (the would-be king Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry the divorcee), for calling their small dog “Tom-Tom” instead of “Thomas” in her presence. Spooner later remarked, “It seemed to me the duchess had two lap dogs.” As you saw, Spooner was an observant news gatherer, and aptly demonstrated dry British wit.

From This is True for 5 May 2019