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Sally Soames, fearless photographer with personal touch, dies at 82
In an undated photo via the Soames family, Sally Soames. 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 Oct. 5 at her home in London. She was 82. Via Soames family via The New York Times.

by Katharine Q. Seelye


NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- 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 Oct. 5 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-fueled world of Fleet Street newspapering, was a purist. She shot exclusively in black and white, considering color 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, researched the people she was taking pictures of thoroughly and never called them “subjects,” considering that a dehumanizing 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 3 1/2 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 Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister.

Soames visited her frequently at 10 Downing St. 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.

“I’ve known you for 11 years and I’m very upset,” she told the prime minister, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. “We had a real affinity, especially at the end. There was I behaving like a baby, and she was cheering me up.”

She noted, however, that Thatcher had never called her by her name, only “dear.”

Even the notoriously egotistic Norman Mailer, who loathed being photographed, was cooperative with Soames and ended up writing the preface to one of her two books, “Writers” (1995), a collection of her portraits of authors. (Her first collection was “Manpower,” published in 1987.)

“The relation between the eye that commands the lens and the subject is essentially an oppressive and one-sided relation,” Mailer wrote. But he added, “It is Sally Soames’ gift to take that arid and mutually exploitative encounter, and turn it into the rarest of media transactions — an agreeable 10 minutes between two strangers who thereby are left with a simple reminder that fellowship is also a communion natural to us.”

Sally Winkleman was born on Jan. 21, 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 newspaper The Evening Standard. She won, and thus began her career.

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

Those decades were not easy for female photographers. When she was assigned to shoot a portrait of Muhammad Ali, Ali remarked that he had never encountered a female photographer and was not comfortable with her. He barred her from a photo shoot of him receiving a rubdown while several male photographers were allowed in.

Still, she was adventurous. During the miners’ strikes of the early 1980s, she descended into the mines. On one assignment she fell and hurt herself. Arthur Scargill, president of the mineworkers union, carried her to the surface in his arms and put her on a stretcher. As he hovered over her, she took his picture. She kept that picture at her desk for many years.

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

Nicholas Tomalin, a reporter for The Sunday Times, wrote in a dispatch that as a Su-20 fighter-bomber, 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.

Soames, who was Jewish, developed an attachment to Israel. Despite her PTSD, she returned many times to the Middle East.

She also visited Auschwitz, where she was put up for the night in the former offices of the SS. Poking around the room, she was horrified to open a cupboard and find a pile of yellow cloth Stars of David, the badges that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied Europe.

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 grew only worse.

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

After retiring, Soames told The Newcastle Journal in 2010 that she regretted how public relations managers had come to limit the time she could spend with people she was photographing, to help them relax. And, she said, she felt she had lost some of her zip — that she had become “a bit institutionalized.”

Her best photograph had been her first, she said, the one taken on New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square. “What I was doing,” she said, “was fearless.”


© 2019 The New York Times Company






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