Helen Muspratt

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The Independent Online

Helen Muspratt, photographer: born 13 May 1907; married 1937 Jack Dunman (died 1973; one son, two daughters); died Brighton, East Sussex 29 July 2001.

As a teenager posing for the studio portraitist Constance Ellis, Helen Muspratt first glimpsed the exciting possibilities of a career in photography.

Like many young women of her time, she enrolled on the photography course at the renowned Regent Street Polytechnic and in 1929 opened her own studio in the serene Dorset town of Swanage. During the next decade, Helen Muspratt became one of photography's most admired experimentalists, standing alongside major figures like John Havinden, Peter Rose Pulham and Cecil Beaton as an innovatory force within the medium in Britain.

It is Helen Muspratt's work as a studio photographer which has led to her being regarded as a central figure within British photography. In Swanage, she befriended members of the avant-garde Corfe Castle arts colony. Thus, the dancers Hilda and Mary Spencer Watson, and the singer David Brynley, became the subjects of some of her most modernistic portraits. To the young Helen Muspratt they also gave stimulation and support rarely available outside the metropolis.

In 1932 she produced a startling group of portraits of the Spencer Watsons, in which the two women posed as metalled statues in highly stylised Egyptianate dance costumes. From Man Ray's experiments in solarisation, Muspratt had drawn ideas and inspiration, incorporating them into her own innovative methods of posing. Her dynamic portrait of the artist Eileen Agar, of a mass of sculptured, silvered hair cascading from a head thrown back, has emerged as a central and fundamental image of Thirties photography.

In 1932, Helen Muspratt met the recently widowed Lettice Ramsey, and the Cambridge studio of Ramsey and Muspratt was established. From this important connection came much of the work with which Helen is now most readily identified; her elegiac picturing of John Cornfield, about to set off for death in the Spanish Civil War, her portraits of future secret agents Burgess and McLean. The studio, and the parties which the two women hosted, became fashionable venues for the rising generation of Cambridge intellectuals.

Cambridge also taught Helen much about politics and, in 1936, she set off to the Soviet Union determined to make a documentary record of a revolutionary society. She returned to Britain much impressed, and her photographs of the Russians – often peasants and farmers – show a people engaged in monumental struggle. A Left Book Club trip to South Wales in 1937 produced images which combined skill with conviction. Even today, her sensitive portraits of Rhondda miners still move and inspire.

At times, her radical views bewildered her photographic contemporaries; invited to address the Professional Photographers Association in Harrogate in 1937, she chose to show her audience the full-length version of Battleship Potemkin – to an eventual silence which was both stunned and amazed.

Helen Muspratt's marriage to the labour activist Jack Dunman in 1937 not only confirmed her own political stance, but also committed her to becoming the major income earner for her family. One sensed in conversation, in later years, that her position had frequently been a difficult one with the demands of family and work often conflicting. An early casualty of an increased workload was her experimental portraiture. The huge demand for photographs by servicemen during the Second World War and the substantial earnings this work could produce was impossible to resist.

The partnership of Ramsey and Muspratt continued for many years, although eventually in separate studios in Oxford and Cambridge. Helen Muspratt retired from photography at the end of the 1970s. In her retirement she remained energetically committed to the Left and was active in many environmental causes.

To the women historians, film-makers and researchers who sought her out in her retirement and asked her so many questions about the past, her honesty, her recall and her patience were a source of constant amazement.

Val Williams