Jane Bown work as a photographer for the Observer Newspaper for more than sixty years in that time she took thousands of portraits of politicians, religious leaders, actors, musicians and other celebrities for the paper.
One of her most famous pictures is the one of the playwright Samuel Beckett below not only is this a great, some say the best, portrait of Beckett. It was taken outside the stage door of the Royal Court Theater. This was the third of five pictures that Beckett allowed to be taken and it is a testament to her skill that in difficult light she was able to get such a good picture is such a short time.
Jane Bown was quoted as say “Some people take pictures, I find them. These pictures are the real me.” Her style was to wait and look maneuvering herself around the subject, framing different images and then suddenly she would see the picture she wanted. The picture of Mick Jagger below is a result of Bown waiting for the right moment because it was taken towards the end of what for Bown was a very long shoot.
Bown was renowned for always shooting in black and white and using whatever light was available. She never used flash or complex studio light there are stories that should would carry a 150 watt bulb in her bag that she could put in a subjects desk lamp if necessary. It it was very dark she sometime took an angle poise lamp with her for a shoot. From the 1960s onwards she would use a 35mm SLR, often with an 85mm lens using a shutter speed of 1/60 and a wide apature. She didn’t use a light meter and usually judged the exposure based on the light on the back of her hand.
Jane Bown portraits have some similar characteristics based on her technique they usually very shallow depth of field even to the extent of only one of the subjects eyes being in focus as in the picture of Maya Angelou. Also because she generally used available light and avoided strong sunlight the lighting tends to be soft with no pronounced shadows although as she is generally using one light source like a window there is usually one side of the face that is much darker than the other.
One of Bown strengths was that she could take a good portrait wherever the subject was in the street, in their home effectively against any background the picture below show Beryl Bainbridge the author with her cat.
It is said that Bown never research her subjects before photographing them she would just arrive with a reporter and usually spend at most 10-15 minutes talking picture. For most subjects she would use about half a roll of film. If she took more pictures it usually indicated that she was struggling to get what she regarded as a good image. The last picture here is Bown’s well know picture of Bjork this was taken at the end of a shoot indeed there is a story that once she had taken this picture eh shoot was over because Bown realalised this was the image she had been looking for.
Looking at Jane Bown’s work there is a quoute by Lord Snowden who describes her as “a kind of English Cartier-Bresson” who produced “photography at its best. She doesn’t rely on tricks or gimmicks, just simple, honest recording, but with a shrewd and intelligent eye”