Doreen Spooner: “Camera Girl”

As shooting occasions are scarce for the locked down photographer, opportunities to read on the subject should expand. At long last, I managed to read Doreen Spooner’s autobiography ‘Camera Girl’. Spooner’s claim to fame is having been the first female photographer on fleet street. The book is more about her than photography -not surprising in an autobiography- and it will mean a lot more to those who know at least half the celebrities she mentions. I had the rare experience of not being quite old enough -nor British enough- to get all the references but I guess the target audience will have no such problem.

There is a fair amount about photography of course. Spooner complains a lot about cameras being to heavy, even though she is only ever pictured with a Rolleicord sized TLR or 35mm SLRs and rangefinders. What would Tina do? one is tempted to ask. Yet, she coped and seems to have been quite enterprising early in her career. She recounts meeting Cartier-Bresson and Capa and drops some comments that will excite film addicts:

… after the war, film was rationed too. You could only take five or six shots plus two or three flash-bulbs on any job. So the craft demanded was far greater than it is today. If anything, these limitations only sharpened the talent of men like Cartier-Bresson and Capa.

If there is one aspect of Spooner’s work that dominated obituaries in 2019, it is the fact that she was the first woman among her group of press photographers. Contemplating gender relations in and out of the workplace does play a prominent role in her book. The topic is approached from a left of centre perspective too, but thankfully without the fatuous postmodern identity politics which dominates any such discussion today.

In fact, Spooner’s take on the matter would probably wind up most contemporary feminists. She recounts how she went about her work “… never waving any big feminist flag or coming into work without my bra (…) . Just by turning up every morning and getting on with the job. Doing whatever assignment was given to me. Never using my gender as an excuse.” Towards the end of the book she even concludes:

I never really saw myself as much of a feminist. I certainly had no political agenda. But I suppose I do like to think of myself as a trailblazer, somebody who wasn’t going to let something as trivial as my gender stop me from doing what I wanted to do …

Doreen Spooner may have entered the trade through family connections, but she did not rest on them. What seemed to sustain her was a measure of competence and resilience that speaks for itself. The fact that she saw her gender identity as a minor distraction would have been a precondition for the progress she made, while the identitarian positioning dominant today all but guarantees that those defined by it will be the opposite of trailblazers.

‘Camera Girl’ comes with an appendix of photographs, including some of the iconic shots discussed in the book. Others are sadly missing. If, like me, you rely on the Kindle edition, be sure to open the photo appendix on a tablet. e-ink is great for text but does not do the images justice.

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