Jane Bown, an Appreciation of a Life far from Monochrome by John Cogan

Jane Bown CBE 1925 – 2014

The late Robin Williams, actor and comedian, was entertaining the press in his London hotel suit. Amongst the gathered journalists was a diminutive woman with a couple of small SLRs draped around her neck. The mostly male audience was delighted. The woman, however, was not! Eventually, she had had enough.

“You may have time for this Mr. Williams, but I don’t!” That was enough! “Mr. Williams” sat down and allowed her to take his picture. The petite lady with the two SLRs and the cut-glass accent was the photographer for the Observer newspaper: Jane Bown.

Often described as Britain’s answer to Henri Cartier-Bresson, those who knew and worked alongside her hold a very different view. Bryn Campbell, her picture editor at the Observer, makes it very clear that he regarded her as unique and certainly not a British Cartier-Bresson. “I will go on record as saying that!” were his final words on the subject. “People forget the range of work she produced, especially her early work, and instead they concentrate solely upon her celebrity portraits.”

Talking over those days he spent with Jane, Bryn Campbell, has respect and even affection for her. Talking about the technicalities, he tells of Jane’s initial reliance upon her beloved Rollei. Her size and small hands along with the trend towards 35mm led her to use the Pentax for a while, until she fell in love with the size and practicalities of the Olympus OM-1. From then on she used nothing else, eventually owning 12 of them, all bought second hand. It is arguable that she ever had a brand new camera. With her shopping bag and Laura Ashley look you were excused if you ignored the perceptive photographer she was. The famous photo shoot of the Beatles relaxing was achieved through her husband’s involvement in the London store that was the favorite shopping venue of the “Fab Four”. If stories are to be believed, it was so successful that when she was being asked to leave Ringo requested she be allowed to stay.

However, the camouflage of basket and the diminutive appearance belied a very professional and determined approach to her work. The feeling that Bryn Campbell has is that Jane would complete an assignment as quickly as possible to allow the editors time to work their magic. She had a reputation of being in and out as quickly as possible in many of her shoots. In fact, there is a photograph of her at the front of a shuttering of press photographers (if that is the collective noun for them) at a publicity event for the mature Bette Davis. There she stands with her two Pentax cameras slung over her shoulder, to one side granted, but at the head of the others. A story told by Sally Soames (her rival at the Sunday Times) reveals just how determined she could be. Sally Soames’ style was to spend time with her subject, talking and working towards an individual look, but she would take time and this was not what Jane Bown had. Their styles were opposite though their commissions were identical.

Bryn Campbell is adamant that she had little time for the technicalities of the camera, and here she is similar to Cartier-Bresson in that she used a minimum of settings. To ascertain the quality and value of the light she would merely make a fist of her hand and assess the fall of light upon its surface. Setting her aperture and speed based upon that alone she would take her shots and leave. When I asked him about the power of her images and how they were so perceptive Bryn puts that down to her intelligence and the fact that she took everyone by surprise. Being the antithesis of the average newspaper photographer, she could “disarm” her subjects.

Whatever her way of working, whatever her approach, there is no doubt that the photographs she made are masterpieces of the portrait genre. Comparing the work of Cartier-Bresson and Jane it is only necessary to study their photographs of Samuel Becket, the Irish playwright. Cartier-Bresson had access to Becket for an interior shot, and Becket is thoughtful, looking away from the camera and into the distance. This is a creative persons equivalent of “The Thousand Yard Stare.” The lines are all there on the author’s face, his hair is reasonable controlled and his background is a wall of books. With Jane Bown’s portrait it was made in a few seconds as Becket tried to avoid her by leaving the theatre by a side door. There, on his face, is a fleeting moment of anger and surprise. It is the quintessential image of the man as a personification of his writing. Which reflects the true Becket? It would be hard to say but, maybe, by combining the two we have something approaching a truth.

John Cogan ARPS

February 2015

 

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