Sally Soames obituary: Fearless photographer with personal touch

Soame shot exclusively in black and white and relied as much as possible on natural light

 Sally Soames: winning a photograph competition in the Evening Standard kick-started  her career. Photograph:  Soames family via The New York Times

Sally Soames: winning a photograph competition in the Evening Standard kick-started her career. Photograph: Soames family via The New York Times

 

Sally Soames

Born: January 21st, 1937

Died: October 5th, 2019

Sally Soames, an intrepid British photojournalist who prided herself on establishing a personal connection with the politicians, actors, writers, artists and others she photographed, died on October 5th at her home in London. She was 82.

Her son, Trevor Soames, confirmed her death and said she had been in failing health, with declining mobility, for many years.

Known chiefly for her portraits, Soames, a rare woman in the testosterone-fuelled world of Fleet Street newspapering, was a purist. She shot exclusively in black and white, considering colour a “vulgarity”, and relied as much as she could on natural light.

The results were celebrated portraits of prominent people of the second half of the 20th century – Margaret Thatcher, Sean Connery, Rudolf Nureyev, Margaret Atwood, Rupert Murdoch, Alec Guinness and Andy Warhol among them.

The National Portrait Gallery in London holds 17 of her portraits. The Victoria and Albert Museum has two (Nureyev and Lord Denning, the longtime English judge).

Soames, who was known to be a warm and exuberant woman, thoroughly researched the people she was taking pictures of and never called them “subjects”, considering that a dehumanising term. She would read up on them in advance, sometimes correspond with them by mail, then engage them in conversation during a portrait session long before she raised her camera.

Her goal was to relax them so they would forget they were being photographed and let their faces reveal something. It was wonderful when it happened, she once said, “then it’s over”.

She was able to spend half a day with Orson Welles, the American director, but was offered only three-and-a-half minutes with Connery, the original James Bond. Nonetheless, she used two of those minutes to talk with him, not shoot.

She used the same technique in developing a close rapport with Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister.

Soames visited her frequently at 10 Downing Street and was there on the last night in 1990 before Thatcher, who had been forced to resign, was to leave office. It was Soames, not the Iron Lady, who burst into tears.

As a Soviet-built aircraft rained bombs down on them, a calm and fearless Soames stood bolt upright, 'snapping pictures as if she were covering a golf tournament'.

Sally Winkleman was born on January 21st, 1937, in London. Her father, Leonard, was a businessman and art connoisseur as well as a member of the Communist Party.

Sally was educated at St Martin’s College of Art in London and married Leonard Soames, a businessman who ran a clothing line called Snob. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966.

One day she happened to pick up her husband’s camera and found she enjoyed photography. She joined a camera club but had no formal training. Then, on new year’s eve 1961, she took a picture of a young man celebrating in Trafalgar Square and entered it in a competition run by the Evening Standard. She won, and thus began her career.

The Observer hired her in 1963 and in 1968 she joined the staff of the Sunday Times, where she stayed for 32 years.

Soames had no qualms about taking on dangerous assignments. While being shelled during the Arab-Israeli war in 1973 in an Arab counter-attack on the Syrian front, she continued to take pictures.

Nicholas Tomalin, a reporter for the Sunday Times, wrote in a dispatch that as a Soviet-built aircraft rained bombs down on them, a calm and fearless Soames stood bolt upright, “snapping pictures as if she were covering a golf tournament”. His article ran with her picture from the front lines, where explosions sent debris flying around them and created huge clouds of dust.

Shortly after, a Syrian anti-tank missile struck the car in front of Soames, killing Tomalin. The episode left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I don’t think she really ever got over it,” her son, Trevor, said by email.

She survived other close shaves, too, he said, including the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, by the Irish Republican Army in an attempted assassination of Thatcher. Five people were killed; Soames, staying in an adjacent hotel, was unharmed.

She retired in 2000. After years of carrying heavy bags and contorting herself into position to get the best photos, she became increasingly immobile.

“She was small and petite, but carried large amounts of heavy camera equipment (bodies and lenses) prior to her early retirement,” her son, Trevor, said. He said this caused problems with her knees and back, which worsened.

In addition to her son, Soames is survived by two brothers, Barry and Alan Winkleman, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.