I/Eye: On Photography

Thinking about Jane Bown

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on October 24, 2009
David Hockney, 1966, by Jane Bown

David Hockney (1966) by Jane Bown

Today I’m thinking of the great British portrait photographer Jane Bown, who has photographed for The Observer (UK) for 60 years. A retrospective of her work—100 portraits—is now on view at the Kings Place Gallery in London.

Bown is an old-school shooter: she built a career on her powers of observation, timing, and sheer doggedness, working with a a 35mm Olympus OM1 camera and an 85mm lens, usually without any additional equipment. The straightforwardness of her technique and the acuteness of her appraising eye have meant that her portraits of celebrities, intellectuals and politicians deftly sidestep the conventions of type: they are individuals. We usually meet her subjects at eye level, and the lack of orchestration behind the shot indicates frankly and without weighty claims of authenticity that we’re all here taking our chances—photographer, viewer, and subject. Whereas in the US, we prefer our VIPs to be burnished (by a retoucher) and loaded with the trappings of power (I think of Annie Leibovitz’s peculiar late style: people look both bloodless and bathed in an eerie immortal glow—as if annointed by a supernatural light), Bown illumines her subjects with ordinariness. Her light is the same that strikes all of us.

Bown’s position as a revered, steadily employed media photographer working on 35mm film well into the digital age is surely unique. I know of no one who stakes so much on such economy of means. Here’s to the great audacity of her talent.

Samuel Beckett (1976) by Jane Bown

Samuel Beckett (1976) by Jane Bown

Dame Margaret Drabble (Lady Holroyd, 1980) by Jane Bown

Dame Margaret Drabble (Lady Holroyd, 1980) by Jane Bown

Cecil Beaton (1974) by Jane Bown

Cecil Beaton (1974) by Jane Bown

For more on Bown’s work, see the Guardian’s interactive feature The complete Jane Bown: a lifetime in photographs.

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