Frank Spooner

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Frank Spooner, picture editor: born London 25 June 1913; married Ruth Johnson (died 1963; one daughter), second 1965 Maria Soulsby (died 2001; three stepsons); died Croydon, Surrey 5 October 2001.

Frank Spooner was the man behind some of the biggest photographic scoops over nearly half a century. He beat Nasa with the first pictures of the surface of the Moon through allowing one of his Daily Express wireroom "boffins" £250 to buy what he called "aerials and bits and pieces", producing a panoramic picture which made the whole of the front page in 1969. One of his men, Harry Benson, got the horrific assassination pictures of Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968. And he was even responsible for securing the only photograph of the sinking in 1982 of the Argentine ship the General Belgrano which went right round the world.

He was never a photographer, unlike his elder brother Len, who became picture editor of Picture Post Illustrated and Topic, but Frank Spooner was to become one of the most respected figures in picture-making, not just in Fleet Street but in Europe and the United States. His secret was to encourage his staff to put forward and test their ideas. If a photographer thought he might be able to persuade Lord Hailsham to pose on Brighton beach wearing a skimpy swimsuit and waving a bell, Spooner let him try. The idea was a superb success.

At the height of his career at the Express, Spooner was the close colleague and deputy of the picture editor Gerry Cook, with a huge staff of over 80 (and sometimes as many as 100) photographers spread over Fleet Street, the North of England, Scotland, Ireland and with bases in New York and Paris. His job, closely monitored by Lord Beaverbrook, was to produce the pictures no one else seemed to get. And through the 1950s and 1960s into the 1970s the Daily Express full-page "Photonews" was the envy of the profession. He achieved this partly through always having a choice of at least three subjects ready when ideas for the page were debated at the editor's morning conference. And many of these "just ideas", when developed, proved to be winners.

His technique to inspire his men – and women – photographers was to be like a father to them. A small rotund man who seemed always to be enjoying life, he would slip an arm around the shoulder of one of his team whom he thought right for a special assignment and say: "We want you to pop over to New York." One photographer recalls being sent to Paris to cover a sports function and returning eight and a half years later.

Born in Hackney, east London, in 1913, Frank Spooner started in newspapers on the Daily Herald in Manchester after serving in the RAF during the Second World War. He stayed with his boss, the managing editor, and subsequently married his daughter Ruth (née Johnson) before moving to London and the Daily Express.

There he helped make the careers of several up-and-coming photographers like Norman Parkinson and among them were Antony Armstrong-Jones and David Bailey, whose work he was quick to realise was original and brilliant. Armstrong-Jones invited Spooner and his wife to his wedding to Princess Margaret in 1960.

Spooner was famous for never raising his voice, never swearing, always behaving like a gentleman, even when provoked almost beyond endurance. One of his young photographers tested his patience just a little too far, however. John Lyth asked if he could marry Spooner's daughter, Carole, to which Spooner agreed. He then asked if he could have a salary rise. "Certainly not," said Spooner, and offered the advice that, if he wanted to get on, Lyth had better join some other paper. Lyth eventually became picture editor of the Daily Mail.

After outlasting a long line of Daily Express editors, his own turn came whereupon he set up his own picture agency, Frank Spooner Pictures, in 1974 in the golf club below St Bride's Church in Fleet Street. The agency moved eventually to Africa House, Kingsway, from where Spooner continued to select and advise clients from all over the world.

Frank Spooner's first wife died in 1963 and he married Maria Soulsby in 1965. She died only a month before Frank, who had selflessly cared for her at their home in Croydon, Surrey, for the past 10 years rather than have her go into a home for Alzheimer's disease. During his last days he was delighted to be visited by a pilgrimage of members from his old team who never forgot the honesty and decency of the man in the double-breasted suit with the "fast waddle walk", who couldn't take a picture, but always knew someone who could.

Michael Brown

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