People Photography

Jane Bown

Jane Bown’s obituary appeared in the Guardian before Christmas. I admit I hadn’t heard of her before, I sadly seem to discover some interesting people only when they’re dead. Like all the great photographers, she had her own style and technique of working,

In stark contrast to her mostly male peers, Jane was supremely uninterested in camera equipment. With some reluctance, she abandoned her beloved Rolliflex in the early 60s, first migrating to a 35mm Pentax before settling on the OIympus OM1 – she owned about a dozen Olympus cameras, all bought secondhand. Throughout her career she referred to herself as a “hack”, and even when her reputation was at it height, she always deferred to the picture editor. She worked almost exclusively with natural light and ignored the camera’s in-built light meter, preferring instead to hold a clenched fist away from her body to see how the light fell on the back of her hand. In fact, Jane once admitted to me that her preferred setting was f2.8 at 1/60 second and that she would, if at all possible, conspire to make the environment work at this setting – indirect sunlight from a north-facing widow would usually achieve it.

Jane tried colour in the mid-60s – largely in response to the launch of the Observer colour supplement – but abandoned it after three years, finding the medium too inflexible. But I think her true motivation had more to do with aesthetics – using available light to dramatise the subject with the infinite gradations of grey between pure black and white provided the subtlety that was her stock in trade. “Colour is too noisy,” she once said. “The eye doesn’t know where to rest.”

There are some really beautiful portraits alongside the article, she had captured some very well known faces over the years, including one Tony Blair:

Looking at the contact sheets it is clear that she struggled. When I asked her about it she replied: “It was impossible … he was nice and he allowed me to follow him upstairs so that he could try on a different shirt.” When I pressed further, she scrunched up her face trying to remember the day and eventually said: “It was impossible, because there was nothing real there.”

She also encountered the late Robin Williams at his manic best, and had to make a rare admonishment:

A Robin Williams shoot in a hotel room in central London was going disastrously: the interview had run over, there was little or no time for the portrait, and Williams was bouncing around the place amusing the numerous publicity people and assistants. An immediate silence descended when Jane said: “I’m very sorry, Mr Williams, but I don’t have time for this.” Suitably chastened, Williams posed, meekly as a cat, and Jane was very amused to hear that he did an impeccable impersonation of her once she had left.

Jane Hope Bown, photographer, born 13 March 1925; died 21 December 2014