Obituaries: Frances Lang

Emily Green
Monday 07 October 1996 23:02

The picture desk of the Independent has always taken on young photographers, often from the Newport School of Art and Design. However, when Frances Lang came up from Wales in 1993, she was not, by instinct, a newspaper photographer. She could not, as her fellow students did, hightail around town "doing" a politician at 11am, a fire at 3pm, an actor in a hotel room at 5pm.

In fact, it took a friend to goad her through the door of the old City Road offices, and the same friend to ring me to say she was in reception. There I found a tall, slender woman wearing ragged men's clothes. She looked so young, so tomboyish, I was taken aback to learn she was 31. That first meeting, she clutched a box of colour Xerox copies of portraits she had taken of women chefs. The rich half-tones of these were almost painterly, but what set them apart was the intimacy of the work, the ease of her subjects. Lang had worked with many of these chefs while waitressing to pay for her photography course. Only an insider could have come away with such images. She caught one bent over an order form, smoking as she worked. The cigarette had a perilously long ash.

Frances Lang's voice cracked with nervousness as she suggested we might run the portraits accompanied by recipes from each of the chefs. This is exactly what the Review section of the Independent on Sunday did. The series was given a five-page spread, an unprecedented first showing for a student. The reaction was overwhelming. It was serialised in Germany; Vogue Entertaining in Australia took a follow-on series; Sheila Lukins, author of The New Basics Cookbook, the best-selling cookery book in America, took armloads of copies back to New York. Most touchingly, one of the chefs, Margot Clayton, was sent a love letter care of the newspaper. It was scrawled by a dreamy college boy, who declared her picture would be "on my wall forever".

The problem with having made a spectacular debut was what to do for an encore. Dispatched by the Review to take a portrait of Sue MacGregor for "How We Met", Lang forgot a key to her lights and blew the job. This, I later learnt, was part of a pattern of triumphs and setbacks, a rhythm of her searching approach to life.

She was born in New Zealand, the youngest of five children of Octavia and Henry Lang. From 1968 to 1976, when Frances was six to 14, her father was Secretary of the Treasury, a man of great dignity whom she idolised, and whom she desperately hoped to impress. Yet it is a tall order for an aspiring artist to impress the Langs. Her grandfather was the Austrian architect Ernst Plishke, and Lucie Rie was a family friend.

Frances became rebellious. She cut up at school, then, during her twenties, became a heroin addict. The same restless energy made her the first of her group to break free of drugs. Once living in Britain, she was clean, but subject to depression and plagued by a persistent unease, a sense of something she had to do. This something became photography and her concentration on her course in Wales and in her work seemed less a case of ambition than a personal journey.

Following the photo-essay about women chefs in the Sunday Review, Frances and I worked regularly together for the Independent. We even did a job for Country Life, though we weren't asked back. But requesting Frannie Lang for a job used to make even Independent picture editors edgy. For starters, they couldn't find her: during the three years we worked together, she lived hand to mouth, moving from rented digs in Gwent, Bayswater, Notting Hill, Tottenham, South Kensington and Primrose Hill.

Yet, when she surfaced, it was almost invariably with new, highly personal work that was quirky, elegant and original. There were series on stately Victorian water-fountains at all too modern intersections; a weird treasure trove of 100-year-old exotic fish preserved in formaldehyde in the Natural History Museum; London tube maps, the place names worn out by the fingertips of tourists.

The last year brought an extraordinary flowering. She became engaged to a lifelong friend, Mark Brand, with whom she shared an innate elegance and a slim elfin beauty. For the first time anyone could remember, she began dressing up. She and Mark took great care refurbishing the flat where they would begin their life together. Finally, Lang had a study, with a darkroom attached. On 7 September, they married in Westminster Abbey surrounded by friends and family. Frances Lang was, perhaps for the first time, radiantly happy.

While on their honeymoon, on 1 October, they took AeroPeru Flight 603. Shortly after take-off, it plunged into the Pacific, killing all 70 passengers. Since her death I have heard friends describe her as stubborn. I suppose she was: in her refusal to change the way she worked for newspapers, she had newspapers change for her. It is this sort of singular will that gave the two Independent titles their reputations for photography.

Frances Sonia Lang, photographer: born Wellington, New Zealand 7 May 1962; married 1996 Mark Brand (died 1996); died near Lima, Peru 1 October 1996.

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