Sally Soames, who has died aged 82, was one of a handful of female photographers who came to prominence in the heyday of Fleet Street. She shot only in black and white, believing that it possessed “a greater visual impact than colour”, and preferred working with natural light. Like her direct contemporary Don McCullin, who shared those inclinations, she got her first assignment at the Observer and then made her name at the Sunday Times.
Newsrooms and picture desks in the 1960s and 70s were bastions of male privilege but Soames’s tenacity and talent forced editors to take her seriously, in particular the Sunday Times editor Harry Evans. It was his idea to send her to photograph (and disarm) Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in 1966, the first time the boxer had been photographed by a woman.
Those who worked with her remember her fearlessness as well as her striking appearance. She covered the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and, in his last despatch before being killed by a Syrian missile, the foreign correspondent Nicholas Tomalin wrote: “There can be no doubt that Sally Soames is the first English woman photographer to stand bolt upright throughout a Sukhoi attack snapping pictures as if she were covering a golf tournament.”
Her tender portrait of a soldier who has lost an eye being visited by one of his comrades at Tel HaShomer hospital is an extraordinary study of empathy. But it was a personal assignment inside Auschwitz in 1979 that seemed to really deepen her understanding of the emotional potential of photography. She described her work as “emotional documentary” and explained the method as follows: “There is a certain point when the person forgets they are being photographed. You are giving them something and they are giving you something. It is a wonderful feeling – a tremendous closeness of two people.”
It was a portrait – a melancholic image of a reveller at Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve, 1960 – that first launched her career, winning a competition in the Evening Standard, and as her reputation grew, she began to specialise in the genre. She was drawn to those in the public eye, politicians, artists and writers.
Like most portrait photographers she believed that the best ones were a collaboration with the sitter. For her portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev she spent four of the allocated six minutes establishing a rapport (via an interpreter) before taking the shot. She disarmed the notoriously prickly ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev by sitting at his feet in his dressing room and explaining how she had broken her toe earlier in the day.
There was also humour in her work. For her portrait of Sir Fred Pontin, Soames had him stand with his back to the sea. What might have ended up as a good but not particularly memorable photograph was transformed when a surprise wave washed across Pontin’s feet. The torqued body and flailing arms – a single exposure – gives the image an uncanny vibrancy.
She photographed Andy Warhol through a gauze curtain, a subtle rejoinder to his studied aloofness. And her triple portrait of Evans, Rupert Murdoch and William Rees-Mogg at the press conference to announce Murdoch’s takeover of the Times and Sunday Times in 1981 could not be more prescient. Evans looks to the heavens, Murdoch glowers and Rees-Mogg appears to have completely dissociated from the scene.
Born in north London, Sally was the daughter of Fay and Leonard Winkleman Her father was a businessman. She went to the King Alfred school in Golders Green, then St Martin’s College of Art, Soho. It was while studying at St Martin’s that she met Leonard Soames, owner of the high street clothing chain Snob, who was working around the corner. They married in 1956, and their son, Trevor, was born three years later. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966.
Following her Standard competition win in 1960, Sally’s first photography job was for the Observer in 1963. She then freelanced for the Guardian, the New York Times, Newsweek, the Observer and various television and film companies in the UK and US until she joined the Sunday Times on staff in 1968. She stayed there until retirement in 2000.
For Soames the taking of the photograph was only half the work. Throughout her life, she developed close working relationships with several darkroom technicians/printers (Michael Spry, Sharon Easterling and Gerry Grove) to wrest maximum emotional impact from the negatives. It was common for her to work for hours on a negative to get the results she was after. She loved deep and extensive areas of black and in some cases the background would be minimised or eliminated entirely to give greater emphasis to the sitter’s face.
When she donated her archive to the Scott Trust Foundation (proprietor of the Guardian and Observer) in 2008, she planned to destroy the negatives until it was pointed out that her darkroom working methods were, potentially, of great interest to photographic historians.
Examples of her work are held in public and private collections around the world: the National Portrait Gallery, London, holds 17 of her portraits. She had exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, New York (1981); the Photographers’ Gallery, London (1987); National Portrait Gallery, London (1995); Parco Culturale Le Serre, Turin (2006); and Guardian News and Media, London (2009). She published two collections of her portraits, Manpower (1987) and Writers (1995).
Sally is survived by Trevor, three grandchildren and a great-grandchild, and by her two brothers, Barry and Allen.
• Sally Soames, photographer, born 21 January 1937; died 5 October 2019