Photography: close-up and personal

Jeanette Jones was a wife and mother, leading a happy if unexceptional life in Essex. Then she found photography. Or did photography find her? Her work is inspired, spontaneous, her style uniquely her own. Her pictures of drag queens appear around the world. Now she has put her own spin on ballroom dancing. By Rose Shepherd
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You couldn't take her anywhere. "Stop looking at people," Jeanette Jones's husband would plead, whenever they were out together. "For heaven's sake, stop staring." But she couldn't. The human form compels her, she loves people, and everywhere sees striking images which compose themselves into pictures, sexy, vivid, revealing.

It is her singular vision - plus an intimate engagement with her subjects, a feeling for their physicality and ineffable humanity - which defines her work. In middle age, Jones, from Chigwell, Essex, has found photography - or, as she sometimes feels, it has found her. Her work sells around the world. Her phone rings incessantly; she's in demand for "wacky" fashion and for advertising shoots. Almost by accident, without ever meaning to, she has arrived.

"I started as a dressmaker," she says. "At school I used always to run off with the needlework prize. I was no good at spelling, hopeless at English, but give me anything creative and I was OK."

It was 10 years ago, with her two daughters and son off at school, when Jones began to look around for something to get her through the gloomy winter months. She settled for photography night classes, much as you might settle for cookery or flower-arranging. "It was a hobby," she says, "a sheer, sheer hobby." And it might have been a short-lived one, because she couldn't get her head round shutter speeds and F-stops. "All the technical stuff. I hadn't got a clue. After the first term, I thought, I can't handle this, I can't go back."

Then, in June, she took her children off to Spain. "And on the beach, I saw all these fabulous guys, and thought, I must take their photos. There was one guy from Sweden, it took me three days to pluck up courage to speak to him. I followed him to the beach bar and said, `Oh, you're in good shape. Do you go to the gym? Could I photograph you?' And he said yes. So I photographed him and a few more people, brought the film back, had it processed, took it into class, and all the girls went bananas. So I decided to carry on, and in the second year more things fell into place."

So what happened next? Well, you know how it is. You're at a Sunday brunch party when this guy comes up and asks if he can wear your clothes. You say, "What's this about?" He says, "Well, I dress as a woman, and I get up on stage and perform." So, naturally, you lend him some clothes. And one thing leads to another, and you find yourself on a night out at Soho's Madam Jo Jo's, where what you see comes as a revelation. "They had the most beautiful people in there. I was blown away. I just walked over to one of them and said, `I've got to photograph you.' So I did."

Jones is sweet of manner, slight and pretty, yet one senses under all a steely resolve. This is a powerful combination. When she says, "Can I photograph you?" people tend to acquiesce. Thus came about a stunning series of pictures of drag queens, which she put under the bed to gather dust. There they might have stayed, had it not been for the encouragement of photographer Herman Leonard. Jones had met him at a party years ago, and now she rang him to ask if he would look at her work. (That determination, again, that resolve.) "He was quite impressed. He said, `One day these will be in a book'. And lo and behold..." Lo and behold, A Walk on the Wild Side (Souvenir Press, pounds 20).

Now Jones has turned her lens upon quite different subject-matter. "After the first book, people said to me, `What's the second going to be?' I said, `There is no second book." At the ballroom-dancing championships in Blackpool, however, and in the Royal Albert Hall, she found a wealth of material, the makings of a dazzling follow-up book (prospective publishers, please note).

This work represents a departure for Jones. Instead of coaxing and cajoling her models to pose, she snapped them as she found them, followed them to costume fittings and into changing-rooms, trespassed on to the dance floor as they went whirling by. She rarely crops her pictures: what she sees is what you get. And what you get here is something poignant and peculiarly lovely - not just cliche images of confected glamour, but sweat and toil and emotion. The diminutive woman with the camera, with her deceptively unassuming manner, has got in amongst it as many bigger, brasher, starrier photographers could not hope to do.

Respect for her subjects is, as ever, palpable. "They start at 11 in the morning," she says. "They get up, they have their breakfast, then from 11 o'clock they dance in their tracksuits. And, from maybe 12 o'clock, they put on their make-up, and have to go through all the heats. People from all over the world, dancing the tango, the waltz, the quickstep. They dance the quarter-finals, and the semi-finals, and the finals don't start until midnight at the earliest. They have to dance their absolute best to get through, they have to look wonderful, and to dance their hearts out. They need so much stamina. The public don't realise. Now IMG are promoting it, hoping to take it into the Olympics."

As we crawl about her darkroom floor, sorting through hundreds of prints, she tells a story. "Last year, when I was researching all this, they had a local tea dance. I took my father, who was 76 then. I said, `Look, I don't know what it'll be like, it's just in a hall down the road, let's go and see.' It was January, a freezing cold day, and what would you be doing on a horrible January afternoon? Well, we opened the door of the local hall, and again it brought tears to my eyes. There were all these older-age people, the women had their hair done nicely, and the men were well groomed, and it was so social, dancing is so social." She sits back on her heels and reflects. "It makes you feel good inside. I'm really privileged that I've been let into this world.

"Another thing ... I seem to photograph something, then it becomes fashionable. You'll find dance becoming very, very fashionable. You wait and see what's going to happen with dance." Wait, too, to see what happens next for the extraordinary Jeanette Jones