Penny Tweedie (1940-2011)

News of the death of Penny Tweedie came as a shock to me, when I read her Guardian obituary which reports that she died on January 14 at the age of 70. I didn’t know her well, but he seemed in rude good health when I last talked to her when she gave a presentation at the  NUJ Photographers Conference in May 2009, and was still very much taking an interest in photography and still taking pictures.  She didn’t at all seem an old woman, but a very lively person of my own generation, still young in spirit. We looked together at a few of the pictures in the NUJ exhibition, and she complimented me on my work in it.

Tweedie came into the profession from Guildford School of Art at a time when women were widely patronised and discriminated against. She had to fight against prejudice – even from the NUJ, and succeeded because  of her determination and talent – she showed she could cover all aspects of the job at least as well as the men.

You can see much of her work on her web site, including some of her better known portraits and some fairly recent pictures, such as those she supplied for the ‘Hospice in the Weald: Celebrating 30 Years Cookbook’ published last November. But her best work was made in the era when magazines published real photography and she worked for some of the best – National Geographic, Sunday Times, Observer, Independent and Telegraph magazines, using the money she made from them to finance less lucrative work, particularly for aid agencies including Oxfam. As  for the Hospice book, she often gave her work for good causes unpaid.

In 1975 the BBC sent her to Australia where she photographed a series they were making about Explorers, but it was the Australian Aborigines she met there that became her great preoccupation, and produced some of her best work and her books This, My Country  and Spirit of Arnhem Land as well as earning her a Walkley Award, Australia’s leading photographic award.

The Guardian article gives more details of her life and career, and includes near the end the chilling statement:  “it seems despair at the world’s lack of use for her craft finally induced her to take her own life.”

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