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Jan 18 / Simon

Zoë Dominic

The Times, 18/1/2011

Gifted performing arts photographer who was the first choice of Olivier, Callas and Frederick Ashton

Zoë Dominic revolutionised photography of the performing arts over four decades. The photographer of choice for such beacons as Laurence Olivier, Frederick Ashton and Maria Callas, Dominic crashed into a male-dominated domain and changed it for ever, giving women photographers a lead they still follow and effectively inventing the job title “arts photographer” for herself. While more fashionable photographer such as Lord Snowdon and David Bailey became as famous as some of their subjects, Dominic preferred anonymity but close working relationships with performers.

“She always had a sense of the pressure some big stars were always under, and somehow they felt at ease with her and always allowed her to be around” said Dame Monica Mason, now director of the Royal Ballet but a company dancer in the 60s and 70s. “She had a perfect sense of the atmosphere they lived in.”

Zoë Dominic was born into a middle class London family two years after the First World War, and was educated at Francis Holland, the private Knightsbridge girls’ school. In the late 40s she was an assistant in the studio of the society portrait photographer Vivienne, but by the early 50s had established her own business in Nertherton Grove, off the Fulham end of the King’s Road, which was to be her base for most of her long career.

She liked to tell a story of those early days in which she was asked to go to the Knightsbridge residence of a foreign ambassador to photograph him and his family. She found them all to be strikingly short, but the room in which the picture was to be shot constricted by a very low ceiling so that she had to take the picture at an acutely low angle. “They were exceedingly please with it,” she related, “because somehow I had made them look so tall”.

The start of her career coincided with the invention of fast 35mm photographic film which allowed her to step away from the familiar static posed shots of actors, dancers and opera singers. Instead she could produce action photographs which grasped dancers in flight, as it were, and actors in the full flood of passionate speech, and this became her hallmark.

She quickly became sought after. In the late 50s she was summoned to the Savoy Hotel in London to photograph the soprano Maria Callas, at a time when such an operation required a festooning of artificial lighting. When she plugged in her array, she fused the entire floor and the result was a particularly haunting portrait of diva taken in natural light by a window.

Callas, like other stars, became a Dominic devotee. In the 80s when the magazine Opera Now wanted an image of Callas he contacted Dominic who offered a colour image of her in rehearsal at the Royal Opera House in 1957. “She sent across a powerful image of her in rehearsal – Callas never allowed to be photographed in rehearsal – which we were able to use hardly believing out luck,” recalls the then editor, Ian Stones. “I’ve never seen that image again anywhere since”.

Much used by the Sunday Times and Financial Times through the 60s, 70s and 80s, Dominic became the official photographer for the Royal Ballet in 1963 and developed a special relationship with the dancer and choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, and with John Gilbert was the author of the 1971 biography Sir Frederick Ashton: A choreographer and his ballets.

Dancers were a particular passion and she took some of the earliest pictures of the dance partnership ofRudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. She was also a favourite of the Lithuanian-born prima ballerina Svetlana Beriosova.

The film star Julie Andrews, another photographic subject, recalls in her own 90s memoirs: “”My great friend, Zoe Dominic, is a photographer in London. Another good friend is Svetlana Beriosova, a ballerina with the Royal Ballet. I’m closer to Zoe and Svetlana than with anyone.
“We three could chat for centuries, about children and love, audiences and work. When I was a teenager, the theater was just a job. But now, after talking with Svetlana and Zoe. I have another awareness. To make people laugh is terribly exciting. To make people forget their problems. even for a second, is a rich feeling; one becomes, somehow, a warm and mellowing part of their lives.”

Dominic was also the choice of Laurence Olivier from the earliest days of the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, and later under Peter Hall at the South Bank.

She recorded some of the seminal performances including those of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in Zeffirelli’s production of Much Ado About Nothing with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens; The Dance of Death with Laurence Olivier; Olivier’s own productions of Three Sisters and Love’s Labour’s Lost; Ingmar Bergman’s production of Hedda Gabbler, again with Maggie Smith; Michael Blakemore’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Olivier, Constance Cummings, Denis Quilley and Ronald Pickup; and John Dexter’s original 1973 production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which made the name of Peter Firth, now famous for his role in BBC TV’s Spooks.

John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield, Michael Hordern and Michael Gambon were all frequent subjects at a time when Dominic seemed ubiquitous. “You couldn’t go into a theatre in the 70s anywhere in London where all the programme photographs weren’t taken by Zoe, it seemed,” said Monica Mason. It is her photograph of Peggy Ashcroft in Happy Days, directed by Peter Hall, that still adorns the Ashcroft Room at the National Theatre.

She continued to take photographs up to the mid-1990s when digital photography began to predominate, and her assistant and then business partner Catherine Ashmore took over the studio. “She was a guide and mentor to generations of young photographers, particularly female ones”, Ashmore said, “and campaigned quietly for photographers’ copyright. But she was intensely private, her work was her life, and her best friends were her subjects, whom she adored”.

She leaves behind an enormous unnumbered archive of images and negatives – none of them digitised – representing a 60 year career that changed the photographing of performing artists. She was awarded the OBE in 2006.

Dominic never married.

Zoe Dominic, photographer. was born on July 4, 1920. She died 11th January 11, 2011, aged 90.