First female Fleet Street photographer

Born: January 30, 1928;

Died: April 20, 2019

DOREEN Spooner, who has died aged 91, found herself, unintentionally, a trailblazing feminist during the latter half of the 20th century. She was the first woman to become a staff photographer on a British national newspaper, almost all of whom at the time were based along a bustling 500-yard stretch of central London called Fleet Street.

Starting in 1949 and working for 40 years, mostly for the Daily Mirror, Ms Spooner took on and very often beat “the boys” – the usually hard-drinking, walk-over-my-granny-to-get-the-photo male “snappers” – British journalism’s nickname for photographers. Her early career pre-dated the feminist movement but her work was very much that of a woman in a man’s world and, at least in news photography, she shattered the glass ceiling that other great women in other fields were yet to break. She became known as “the Photo Queen of Fleet Street.”

When she first walked into the Mirror’s offices, the journalists assumed she was a typist or tea lady. But they soon took to her, self-imposing a ban on swearing in her presence. She said she never encountered any serious sexism against her by her male colleagues whereas one woman subject she was sent to photograph said: "Oh, I was expecting a man. Do you think your pictures will come out OK?”

Ms Spooner’s feminism, though unspoken when she was young, soon became obvious to her editors. When the Mirror credited her first photos to “Camera Girl Doreen Spooner,” she protested. “If I were man, would you call me Camera Boy?” The paper dropped the description.

By any standards, male or female, her output was phenomenal and she was one of the world’s first paparazzi. Starting out with a Rolleiflex camera, she “shot” royals, celebs, supermodels, artists, philosophers, politicians, criminals, even the near-naked tabloid Page 3 girls. In her memoirs, Ms Spooner quoted one of the young models as saying: “You don’t mind getting your kit off for Doreen. It’s like stripping in front of your granny.”

Among her wide array of subjects were Queen Elizabeth (including before her coronation when she was still Princess Elizabeth), the Duke of Edinburgh, Margaret Thatcher, Leonard Bernstein, Orson Welles, Groucho Marx, Sophia Loren, philosopher Albert Einstein, playwright George Bernard Shaw (a photo which won her the 1950 UK Picture of the Year award), Freddie Mercury, Blondie, the Kinks, Frank Sinatra and the supermodel Twiggy. But she also took pictures on the frontlines of news, covering the miners’ strike, the Yorkshire Ripper murders, terrorist attacks and the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Her first front page photo, both in the UK and the U.S., made her name in 1963. Fleet Street photographers had got a tip-off that two of the biggest news names of the time, top-level call girls Christine Keeler and Many Rice-Davies, were drinking in Henekey’s pub in Holborn, central London, near the Old Bailey court. The girls had been giving evidence at the court during the Profumo sex scandal, in which John Profumo, the married secretary of state for war, was found to have slept with Miss Keeler around the same time she was sleeping with a Soviet diplomat. Along with a male Mirror reporter, Ms Spooner found a group of rival journalists and photographers outside the door of the bar, being refused entry.

Hiding her camera under her coat, she took her reporter’s arm, pushed through the media throng and entered the bar as a couple coming in for a drink. “Who’d ever imagine a woman might be a photographer on a national newspaper?” she wrote in her memoirs. “A woman might be a tart or a monarch, but a press photographer?”

Ms Spooner went to the ladies’ loo close to Miss Keeler and Miss Rice-Davies’s table, left the door slightly ajar and snapped the girls through the gap. She unwound her film and put it in her pocket in case the landlord confiscated her camera. Front page scoop.

In 1986, she was next to the Duke of Edinburgh in China when he made a memorable gaffe by warning a party of young British students that if they stayed here too long, they “would go home with slitty eyes.” Ms Spooner said she whispered to him “I don’t think you should have said that, do you?” He replied: No, I don’t think I should.”

Doreen Beryl Spooner was born on January 30, 1928, in Muswell Hill, North London, to Len and Ada (née Tribe) Spooner. Her father was pictures editor of the old Fleet Street-based Daily Herald and, when she was eight, bought her a five-shilling Kodak camera from Woolworth’s. She first went to Hornsey county school in Crouch End, north London, which was evacuated to the countryside during the Second World War, and later returned to Hornsey School for Girls where she became head girl.

In 1947, she studied at the Bolt Court technical school (including photography) close to the historic Cheshire Cheese pub off Fleet Street. The Mirror hired her in 1949, where the paper’s famous royal photographer Freddie Reed gave her advice she followed all her career. “It’s easy to take a photograph but much harder to take a ‘picture’” – the one which brings out the essence of the person in the frame."

During a spell in Paris with the fledgling but later great Magnum photo agency, she learned from such photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. There, she also married, in 1952, Pierre Vandeputte, a Belgian photographer for the French daily Le Figaro. They went on to have three children and settled in London where Doreen virtually retired to raise them.

Pierre, however, became an alcoholic and, mostly in his local pub, ran them into debt, forcing her to go back to dust off her camera and lenses. The Mirror warmly welcomed her back and she stayed on for more than 25 years. She reluctantly divorced Pierre in 1978 but continued to help him and was devastated when alcoholism got the better of him in 1981 at the age of 56. Later in life, she found happiness with a widowed neighbour, John Davey, until he died in 2013. She is survived by her daughters, Jeanne and Catherine, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A son, Anthony, predeceased her.

To this day, on the wall of the Mirror editor’s office, now in Canary Wharf, there hangs a photo of “two queens” together – Ms Spooner and Her Majesty. “I like to think I played a small part in changing attitudes – never waving a feminist flag, just by getting on with my job,” Ms Spooner once said.