Reviewed by Harriet
Even if you’ve never heard of Jane Bown, who died last December at the age of 89, you will certainly have seen some of her photos. Modest and self-deprecating – she liked to refer to herself as a ‘hack’ – she worked for the Observer newspaper for more than six decades, during which she took as series of justly famous portraits of some of the best known figures in the world. But, though perhaps best remembered for her portraits, she actually preferred what she called ‘mooching about’ – her editor discovered among her effects a series of thirty-six photos of manhole covers in London streets, and even in old age she loved to mingle quietly with crowds in train stations, catching unsuspected moments with her trusty Olympus OM1. The Observer sent her to fashion shows, to dog shows, to archaeological digs, and for her own pleasure she photograhed people working, or playing, or just sitting quietly. Her photos, always in black and white, are invariably striking, but as her editor says, her artistic sensibility is hard to define:
Ironically, she is much easier to describe in terms of the negative – she had no time for artificial lights or darkroom manipulation or props; she didn’t use a light meter, preferring to gauge the camera settings by studying how light fell on the back of her hand; she didn’t expose more than a roll and a half of a film on a shoot if at all possible; she avoided colour; she preferred to know little or nothing about a subject prior to the shoot; she never pushed the film to achieve artistic effects. For Jane, the act of taking photographs, not producing books or mounting exhibitions, was the primary motivation.
Born in 1925, Bown had joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the ‘Wrens’) in WW2. Demobbed in 1945 aged 20, she enrolled in a full-time photography course at Guildford School of Art – in fact at the time the only such course available in the UK. There she built up a portfolio, mostly of still lives and character studies, which she proceeded to hawk round various agencies and studios. She was fortunate to catch the eye of the Observer’s first picture editor, and in early 1949 she got her first commission – a portrait of Bertrand Russell. This was to be the first of many iconic portraits – everyone from the Queen to Mick Jagger, taking in Charlie Chaplain, Margot Fonteyn, John Lennon, Samuel Beckett (above) and others too numerous to mention became the subjects of her memorable black and white photos.
But it was not just the famous that she liked to photograph. There are gypsy children, striking miners, fishermen, harvesters, hop pickers, circus performers, fashion models, picnicking postmen (above) – I could go on, but you get the idea. And not always people. A 1955 photo shows a series of old brass London nameplates, and one from her college portfolio, a closeup of a cow’s eye, apparently led to her first commission. There are cats, dogs, dead chickens, toy soldiers, kites flying on London’s Parliament Hill, and so much more, all photographed in her signature style of severe black and white.
‘Some people take pictures. I find them’, Bown said. She was a modest, shy, unassuming woman, who lived quietly in the country with her husband and children, and there is not much of her biography to be discovered from this book. Of course it is a picture book, and a glorious one at that, but you can follow the development of Bown’s career as it is arranged in chronological sections, each with an interesting and informative introduction by Luke Dodd, Bown’s friend and her collaborator on previous books. There is a little discussion of her cameras and her techniques, but really these hardly changed or developed over the more than six decades of her working life – her earliest photos are as impressive as her very late ones.
I was absolutely delighted to get a review copy of this beautiful book, and it will be something I will treasure. If you love photography, or just love the world and all its contents as seen through the eye of one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, this is the book for you. I can’t praise it highly enough.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Luke Dodd, ed., Jane Bown: A Lifeime of Looking (Guardian Faber, 2015). 978-1783350858, 288pp., hardback.
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