Saturday 29 April 2006
Lesley Howling, photographer: born London 29 July 1951; died Canterbury 14 April 2006.
Lesley Howling was a photographer of wide-ranging skills. Examples of her work can be found on a Bono/ U-2 record, in publicity photos for Kerry Shale and on the covers of several Dick Francis books, as well as in children's books and in various newspapers including The Independent. A portrait of C.L.R. James was shown in a temporary exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, although Howling is not yet in their permanent collection. Photo libraries and agencies made use of her work. She was in demand too for book launches and similar events.
She would do the bidding of those who commissioned her services while never compromising her own high standards. When not working to commission, she would experiment inside her studio, and outside too. Her experimental work was shown in group exhibitions at the Camera Club in south London and Camera Work in east London. It is to be hoped there will be a posthumous solo exhibition of this aspect of her art and craft, with its radical exploration of light and shade, using people almost as props.
Once, when she asked me if I could recommend somebody who would work as a model for the fun of it, with photographic prints as payment, I volunteered. Shortly afterwards, she invited me to participate in an experimental shoot on Blackfriars Bridge: "Wear your best suit and tie and your broad-brimmed hat." Just as we were about to begin, a man jumped up on theparapet and threw himself in the river.
Fortunately, he was rescued, but the event so disconcerted the humane and concerned photographer that we retired to a café and mused on art and life until it was time to go our separate ways.
Born in Camberwell, south London, in 1951, Lesley Howling lived in the Old Kent Road as a youngster, before her parents moved to Sussex and Berkshire, finally settling in Kent. She studied art at Leeds Poly and Maidstone College. After graduating, she took off to Paris for a weekend, which turned into world tour that lasted several years. She lived variously in France, the United States, Japan, Jordan, Indonesia and Bali, working her passage as awaitress, au pair and so on.
On return, she discovered her vocation, attended a photography course, acquired a studio and began to make a reasonable living as a professional, taking on humdrum assignments to subsidise the experimental and artistic work which was her passion, and which she explored as much as possible.
Short of money and work in the early 1990s, the photographer became one of the many artists, writers, models, actors and suchlike who did clerical work in the old Bush House newsroom (of blessed memory) before moving on when things improved. It was there that she met her future partner, the radio playwright John Casson.
The giant, moody, sardonic Casson and the diminutive, warm-hearted, ebullient H (as he sometimes called her), both classic south Londoners, set up home together, first in the New Kent Road and then in Stamford Street, hard by the South Bank. At last, Howling was able to leave the BBC and Casson would reach the age for retirement.
All was set for a productive and creative partnership, personally and professionally. Then double tragedy struck. John Casson was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1999, aged 61. As if that was not enough for her to bear, within two years Howling herself was diagnosed with a Grade 4 brain tumour and given six months to live.
In the event (odd phrase that, it was a long-drawn-out process), she survived for five years, living alone (with breaks at her parents' house near Canterbury) and continuing to work in her studio until it became impossible. The decline was inexorable, distressing and painful, both physically and emotionally. She would meet friends, like her Bush House colleague Jess Macfarlane and me, for a drink at pubs near her flat; we would help her find the words when they went Awol, often at the very moment when she was making an important point. The frustration for this hugely determined and brave woman was palpable. After taking her home, Jess and I wouldwalk to Waterloo Station, speechless, helpless and deeply saddened.
When informed that she had died, I wanted to tell some people. Absurdly, I could not remember whether she was spelt Lesley or Leslie. I typed her name into Google. To my astonishment, I arrived at a website which contained a heart-rending piece by her that included an audio-visual letter to John Casson, against the background of a powerful portrait photograph of him. You would not know from the self-laceratingtone of Howling's letter that, a week before her partner died, he said to Jess Macfarlane: "H has been a rock".
Here, in part, is her text, which dates back to 2003:
"I don't know why I am still here and am surprised I am still here. What should I do with my time? "Extra time", which is like waiting, but not waiting . . . I want to do something with time but I don't know what. Time is so fundamental to my life. I'm always running against time. I suppose it's like a race - which time wins, every time. It has a lot to do with being given a life sentence. I would like to do something with my time, but I can't think right know, because time is running out. I feel that my relationship to time is central to my life right now . . .
"Dear John, I am angry with myself for denying what was happening to you; I wouldn't accept you were dying. What were your desires for your funeral? What were your last wishes, John? . . . I've learned so much since we last spoke. So much has happened. I'm dying. And the way to die in the manner I want is fundamental. I'm 52 and I'm having a good life. If I were to die tomorrow I'd agree to go. Because my life has been is more than good enough."
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