Even the most well respected and famous photographers struggle to simultaneously capture the spirit of their subject in the best light, right framing, angle and moment in motion. It is even more of a task to do so in a short space of time, with most modern photographers taking hundreds of photographs on multiple devices over several hours. Jane Bown was not one such photographer. Famed for snapping the ever-reluctant Samuel Beckett in a dark alley way in a few seconds and a mere five exposures, she had an eye for the perfect shot that eludes most mere mortals.
Luke Dodd, her friend and assistant, had the enviable task of working through a vast lifetime of negatives, most never processed. One roll of film would reveal several one-off shots, all perfectly framed, and often not shots she knew would be used for her work at the Observer, but just shots for herself. Jane, he claimed, despite being best known for her portraits of famous figures, including the Queen, and every British Prime Minister since the 1950s, was particularly drawn to photographing those on the fringes of society. This is evident in her earlier work featuring gypsies and hop pickers, and even in some of her later shots for the Observer, for instance honing in on two lovers at a protest – completely useless to the newspaper, but fascinating to Jane.
Despite her relentless eye for the perfect shot – even her holiday snaps were flawlessly framed – she never once in her forty plus years at the Observer, came away without ‘the shot.’ Where current journalists merely carry an iPhone for the accompanying images, the Sunday Observer featured just six photos over eight pages. Jane loved the steady, precise nature of the Observer, and the pure craftsmanship of her photographs is evident – here, the regal head of Bertrand Russell, instantly recognisable even through the crude newspaper printing, was reused for every story concerning Russell afterwards.
An eccentric and quietly infamous character, Jane seems riddled with contradictions. Utterly precise and particular about developing her photographers herself, she used an old Rolleifex, followed by a series of identical, second-hand Olympus OM-1’s, which she carried around in a shopping basket. Although seemingly, as Dodd claims, “lackadaisical” – she only once went to check the lighting and settings of a room before a shoot, for the Queen – she dispensed with all superfluity and all but the most basic lighting equipment. She famously checked the lighting by making a fist, and examining the back of her hand. Despite the rigour and technicality of her 1940s training in shade, texture, and form, the quirks of her process were fascinating, Dodd muses. “She said she preferred the (developing) chemicals at the end of the day, when they were tired” – and of course, she vehemently eschewed colour.
Throughout her lengthy career, she frequently succeeded in capturing the raw, unaffected spirit of a subject where many others failed, or where the subject, like Margaret Thatcher, was so used to being photographed that she looked permanently poised and reserved. Her photo of Mick Jagger, all shaggy hair and toothy grin, became well-known, but Dodd prefers the photo towards the end of the film; splayed legs and a subtle, but perfect reflection of what Dodd deems his “raw sexuality.”
Quiet and small in stature, Jane was used to playing second-fiddle to journalists and loud personalities, but had no qualms about getting down onto her hands and knees and elbowing her way to the front of a crowd in order to get her shot; often much to the surprise of the person being photographed. Surprised, and naked of their usual and much-considered pose is how Jane captured her subjects, but never compromised. She had a great sense of humour, Dodd says, which was often evident in her photographs, but the joke was never at the expense of the people in them. Kind and sensitive, often provoking and never predictable – Jane’s photos are a perfect reflection of her personality.
This article was inspired by a lecture given by Luke Dodd, photographer and archivist, at the 2016 Festival of Ideas. The lecture was titled “Jane Bown: A Lifetime of Looking” in reference to Dodd’s book of the same title. The archives of Jane’s photographers are available to see upon request at the Guardian and Observer Building, King’s Cross.