Jane Bown

During my lighting seminars, I often ask people to name photographers whose work they admire or have inspired them in some way. At some seminars I just get blank faces, at others I’m overwhelmed with names from the past and present. Names like Karsh and Hurrell are often mentioned, Cartier-Bresson or Testino come up from time to time, but very few English photographers. If I do mention names like Bert Hardy or Angus McBean, very few, if anyone has ever heard of them. I guess I can understand that as they both worked many years ago and there work largely forgotten mores the pity.

But it is a little sad that when I mention the photographer Jane Bown at my seminars and again nobody has ever heard of her and to think that she has worked for one major newspaper, the Observer, since 1949. To me her work is the very best of portraiture photo journalism, capturing the essence of the subject, beautifully in one image. She works without any form of studio lighting, only using whatever natural light there is available at the time, shooting with very simple equipment and always in black and white. I remember reading somewhere that she uses old Olympus cameras and always shoots at a 60th at f2.8, if that’s true it makes me wonder if you really need the complicated technology of a digital camera!

You may think it strange that a studio lighting man like me admires someone like Jane Bown who only uses available light, but in a way that’s my style too. Those people who have been to my lighting seminars will know that I try to use the very bare minimum of lights in the studio to imitate natural light, shooting low key with just one light being a particular favourite of mine. So the work of Jane Bown has always been a joy to me, the way that she uses natural light and marvellous cropping to create such impact in her work.

Jane Bown was born in 1925 and grew up in Dorset and after wartime service with the Wrens, joined Guildford School of art. In 1949 she was commissioned by the observer to photograph Bertrand Russell and has been with them since then. Since 1949 she has photographed everyone from pop stars and the queen, actors and politicians and has published several books including The Gentle Eye 1980, Women of Consequence in 1986 and Faces in 2000, she was awarded the MBE in 1985 and CBE in 1995. All her images show a great understanding of her subjects and she has that unique ability to capture them in a very natural way. So why have so few people ever heard of this marvellous photographer?

Luckily some of her work is now on show at an exhibition, Unknown Bown, at the Newsroom of the Observer offices, (details below), I’ve visited the exhibition to see these new photographs.  The exhibition itself is not large, but beautifully arranged, there are around 50 images on display, together with some of Bown’s diaries, an early portfolio board and one of her Rollieflex cameras.

The images span 1947 to 1967 and there is a wide range of subject matter on show. The pictures depict ordinary people at work and leisure, pictures taken in England, Venice and the Carmargue. Each image has its own unique quality and I really liked the photo taken in 1967 of the Torrey Canyon disaster, a lovely landscape shot worthy of Charlie Waite. Other photos I particularly liked were shots of the Tiller Girls, just legs, a great image, Men at the London Docks, standing in silhouette, framed by a warehouse building. These were just some of my favourites, but here are some images from the exhibition itself.  

This picture of Jane Bown was taken in 1947 and shows her reviewing her work.

Jane Bown 1947

This picture of the lady with the dog is so typical of Bown’s work. She often hones in on legs or some fine detail, without showing the whole person. She has captured this moment so well both in terms of the subject matter and especially the very strong impact of the composition, the strong angles in bodies and ropes.

Jane Bown - County Dog Show

The next image, again just a detail, is so beautiful yet so strong at the same time. It seems to capture a brief moment of childhood, a little girl standing on a fence. Rather than shoot the whole child, Bown has chosen the photograph the shoes, placed in between the very strong verticals of the fence. I love this shot, taken in 1957 it takes me right back to my childhood, a very evocative image.

Jane Bown - Feet through Fence

The photograph of the woman on a bus is another classic, worthy of any of the French ‘greats’ in my opinion. It shows a young woman sitting in a little world of her own, calm and serene, while the bus journeys through London. Like most of Bowns work, I imagine that this was another ‘snatched’ photo, taken instinctively without to much thought about the technical side of photography!

Jane Bown - Woman on Bus

Landscapes don’t feature much in Jane Bown’s work, however this picture captures the desolation of a London bombsite beautifully.

Bombsite - J Bown

Another ‘snatched’ photo is the shot of a sheepdog, taken in Hyde Park. Again we only see the men’s legs and the dog itself, composed brilliantly by the man’s stick. I used the word snatched to describe this image, I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that she just saw this shot, whipped out the camera and took it.

Sheepdog - J Bown

This image taken on the London Underground, shows a Lady in uniform, a guard possibly standing motionless while a train moves behind her, we just catch a glimpse of a man framed in the carriage window as it moves away. This is another super shot, perhaps ‘snatched again in true Bown style!

Earls Court Underground - J Brown

Finally a self portrait, although it doesn’t give much away of Jane herself shot in 2006, I suspect that like many photographers, she enjoys snapping others, but hates being snapped herself.  

Jane Bown 2006

I hope that you have enjoyed looking at these photos, I think its such a positive thing to do, looking at other peoples work can often inspire you and give new meaning to your own work. Let me leave you with a quote form Jane Bown herself, “The best pictures are uninvited, they’re suddenly there in front of you….easy to see but difficult to catch. Some people take pictures, I find them. These pictures are the real me” Jane Bown.

I appreciate that this exhibition is in London and that not everyone will be able to visit it. However, to accompany the exhibition there is a 128 page book, Unknown Bown which includes an introduction by Germaine Greer, available for £15.00 from guardianbooks.co.uk or call 0870 836 0749.

The Exhibition, ‘Unknown Bown’ is on at The Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road London EC1R 3GA from 28th September 2007 until 25th January 2008. For more information call 020 7886 9898 or visit the web site at guardian.co.uk/newsroom

Admission is free from 10am – 5pm Monday to Friday & 12pm – 4pm on Saturdays.

My sincere thanks to Diane Heath at the Guardian for her help and also allowing me to reproduce the images that accompany this piece. The copyright of these images belong to Jane Bown.

Steve Aves

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