Doreen Spooner: Fleet Street's first female photographer
PUBLISHED: 08:00 17 November 2016 | UPDATED: 09:48 17 November 2016
Doreen Spooner joined the Daily Mirror as the first female staff photographer on a national newspaper. Camera Girl celebrates the life of the 88-year-old who thrived in a man's world while raising three children.
Alan Clark calls Doreen Spooner “an unwitting feminist icon”.
“There was nowhere more testosterone-filled sweary and boozy than Fleet Street in the 60s and 70s. I find it fascinating that she entered this male environment and they became fiercely protective of her,” says the co-author of her fascinating biography Camera Girl (Mirror Books £12.99)
Born in Princes Avenue, Muswell Hill in 1928 to Len and Ada, Doreen moved to Bounds Green aged three.
After a spell evacuated to Norfolk she attended Hornsey County School and became head girl.
“At first my mother wouldn’t let me go, but when the bombings started she realised I couldn’t get out of it,” says the feisty octogenarian. It was in Wisbech that she took her early photographs.
“My first camera was a five shilling Box Brownie from Woolworths but when I broke it my dad bought me a Kodak. I took it with me and would go around photographing everything.”
The Blitz was still raging when 15-year-old Doreen returned to London.
“We would stand on the back doorstep waiting until the sound of the doodlebugs stopped then we’d count, hear the bang and know how far way it was. One day they got pretty near but you don’t think about death at that age.”
Len was Art editor of the Daily Herald and later Picture Post who worked with legendary photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. Doreen, whose uncle was on the Express and cousin on the Sketch used to love visiting his office.
“I remember wanting to work on Fleet Street. The photographers would sometimes take me on jobs. I was bad at drawing pictures but I realised a camera cut out all the hard work.”
Len may have hoped a son would follow him into the industry but Doreen was his only child and although he was “cross” hen she left school at 16 to take a photographic course in Fleet Street he arranged for her to have work experience. “I was useful and carried the photographer’s equipment. I watched what they did and thought it was wonderful.”
He also arranged for her to travel to Stockholm with Swedish photographer Karl Gullers and sent her subsequent pictures of reindeers to the Keystone Press Agency who offered her a job at £5 a week. By the time she was 20 she’d landed a staff job at The Mirror where on her first day fellow photographers asked ‘Is she a typist?’ Doreen says she survived says because she was a “tough old boot” and didn’t take things too personally.
“I understood from my dad that Fleet Street was a tough old game and you had to look after yourself.”
Several weeks after starting, she was called into the photographer’s room to find a big cake “They said ‘we’ve played every dirty trick on you to see what you are made of and you’ve come through. You are one of us’ But I hadn’t noticed anything. It was water off a duck’s back!” After that they chided anyone who swore in front of her - the only thing that rilied her was the byline ‘Camera Girl’ insisting ‘photographer Doreen Spooner’ would do.
Her acceptance was helped by a photo of playwright George Bernard Shaw which won British News Picture of the Year.
“He was grumpy and wasn’t going to let me into the house. He came out to talk to me through the gate so I took the picture like that.”
Doreen snapped a brittle and frosty Wallis Simpson, a young Princess Elizabeth whose lady-in-waiting took a photo of Doreen at work, and on a trip to America with former Keystone boss Bert Garai; Albert Einstein.
“Bert banged on Einstein’s door, but when he came out he spoke German to him which made him furious and he slammed the door in his face, but I had already taken a picture.”
In 1951 she went to Paris to work with Mirror correspondent Audrey Whiting who became a firm friend and would later edit the Sunday Mirror. She also met a dashing Le Figaro photographer Pierre whom she married in 1952 at St Bride’s in Fleet Street and promptly quit her job to have babies.
But a decade later Pierre’s alcoholism forced her return to work and she nervously called The Mirror.
“I didn’t miss it or regret it but we were really hard up so I phoned and they said you can start on Monday.”
After hiring an au pair, Doreen spent her days photographing the swinging 60s returning home at night to cook fishfingers.
“The worst was seeing my three year old at the window plucking the curtain as I left for work. But when I asked them if they would prefer me not to work they said no ‘because you tell us about everything you have done’.”
A shoeless Sandie Shaw, a sassy Dianna Rigg, a waiflike teenage Mariane Faithfull, a grumpy Sophia Loren and 17-year-old Twiggy in bed with a cold and a teddy bear all came before Doreen’s lens.
During the 1963 Profumo affair a reader rang in to say “if you want to know where those two tarts are they’re sitting in a Long Bar in High Holborn.”
Grabbing her camera, Doreen headed to where Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies were taking a break from giving testimony.
The landlord had thrown out the press but not expecting a female photographer she smuggled it under her coat and got the scoop.
“They were sitting opposite the ladies room so I went into there, stuck the camera round the door and got the picture.”
Life on a busy tabloid was never dull, Doreen snapped the mothers of Peter Sutcliffe’s victims, topless models who didn’t mind because it was ‘like undressing in front of your granny’ and Margaret Thatcher who “just carried on with her red boxes as if I wasn’t there”.
NUM leader Arthur Scargill made her a cup of tea on a freezing day during the Miner’s strike. and when Prince Philip made his infamous ‘slitty eyes’ comment on the Great Wall of China she muttered at him ‘you shouldn’t have said that’.”
Forming friendships with Marjorie Proops, Anne Robinson and Whiting she feels she was “terribly lucky going back after such a long time. It hadn’t changed much I had a wonderful time, but I wouldn’t like to go back now.”
Reporters would ask for her saying ‘Doreen has a way with her, they tell her everything.’
“I used to listen to get a sense of what they were trying to get out of them. You tried to capture the expression. I liked things to look natural not too artificially set up and I suppose having brought up three kids saved you having the heebie jeebies.” She adds: “The Mirror’s royal photographer Freddie Reed used to say ‘I’ve got a lot of photographs but I haven’t got a picture.’ I thought of that ever so often and stuck by that.”