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Douglas H Jeffery – Theatre photographer…

Theatre photographer whose work appeared in the Guardian for more than 30 years

The theatre photographer Douglas H Jeffery, who has died of pneumonia aged 91, supplied this newspaper with pictures for more than 30 years and over 50 years he created one of the most comprehensive libraries of theatre photography in Britain. He would never let the library go to one of the newer picture agencies because he did not trust them.

His parents were from Somerset, but Douglas was born in Gillingham, Kent, when his father, Harold, was posted to Chatham Docks as a sergeant in the military police. The H that he always insisted had to be used in his byline was from Hannaford, his mother’s maiden name. He was a conscientious objector, which resulted in a spell in prison, and which must have led to some lively discussions with his father.

He first worked for Kodak where he learned the chemistry of photography, something that was to obsess him for the rest of his life. He often made his own chemicals and bought his film in bulk.

Jeffery started taking photographs in the 1940s with a second-hand plate camera. He had gone to school in Kingston upon Thames and started photographing productions at the Richmond Park open-air theatre for a local paper. He also photographed weddings to make a living, and once did five weddings in one day. He used an old, black Rolls-Royce ambulance to process film and produce sets of contacts for the wedding guests. The Rolls-Royce was regularly mistaken for a hearse.

Racing was another good earner, and he often did the reporting too. The highlight was photographing Sir Gordon Richards winning the Coronation year Derby in 1953; it was one of the first races Jeffery photographed in colour, and he processed it himself, which was very rare then.

Today, when photocalls are arranged for everything, it is hard to remember that, back in the 1950s, theatres were not very helpful to photographers. Jeffery, a hard man to refuse, demanded to be allowed to take pictures and started the idea of photocalls, now the standard means of supplying newspapers with photographs to accompany reviews.

He was often seen in a beret and always wore a brown Cornish fisherman’s smock, with big pockets handy for film and lenses. He had long hair which he always cut himself as he refused to pay for a barber. Well-known for his truculence, he would insist that the actors on stage involved in a romantic clinch had to be photographed kissing with their eyes open. He never liked the idea of guns on stage and would do everything he could not to show them in the photographs he released to newspapers.

In the 1960s, he began supplying theatre photographs to newspapers on a daily basis. He lived in Shoe Lane, near the then Daily Express building on Fleet Street. He would often meet his friend John Haynes, another great of theatre photography, in the nearby Soup Kitchen cafe. Jeffery was renowned for causing trouble wherever he went, but he was generous to budding photographers. He made all his own tools for fixing his cameras; he never had a TV and never went on holiday. By the late 1980s, picture editors began to feel that his technically clean, sharp pictures did not show enough interpretation of the theatrical work. They would later become irritated by his refusal to go digital. As a result, he gradually disappeared from these pages.

He was familiar to many theatre directors, including Richard Eyre: “I knew him only through the ritualised production photocalls in the theatre and dress rehearsals in the opera. Over the years I’d come to welcome his appearance on every one of these awkward occasions, where perhaps 20 or so photographers are vying for the best picture. He was always certain of what he wanted and always managed to come out with a photograph that did justice to the show and at the same time caught the eye in a newspaper. He was a wry, amiable man and a good photographer.”

Cars were an obsession. Jeffery was often spotted going round Hammersmith Broadway in his dilapidated Alvis: the windscreen wipers never worked, and so his arm would perpetually be out of the window, cleaning the screen with a rag.

It is hoped his archive will go to the Victoria and Albert Museum, now home to the Theatre Museum. It would be a shame if it were allowed to disappear.

He never went near a doctor, believing that a common cold could be cured with a spoon of potassium permanganate in some hot water.

Jeffery never married. He is survived by Roger and Ray Jeffery, his second cousins.

• Douglas Hannaford Jeffery, photographer, born 6 March 1917; died 20 January 2009

February 14, 2009 at 4:03 am Leave a comment


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