Last Updated July 13, 2018

Jane Bown

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Jane Hope Bown was an English photographer best known for her black and white portraits taken using the available light. She spent 65 years on the Observer Newspaper, for whom she took several thousand pictures of politicians, bishops, actors, pop stars and other celebrities, as well as ordinary people – miners, hop-pickers and women at a holiday camp – whose faces captured her interest.

Jane Hope Bown was born on March 13 1925 in Dorset. She had a difficult childhood – her mother was a private nurse, working at Eastnor in Herefordshire, who fell inconveniently pregnant from a patient in her care. Jane never knew the name of her father. During her childhood she was farmed out to her mother’s five sisters in Devon and Dorset. During the Second World War she served as a chart corrector with the WRNS.

After the war, with an education grant, Jane was accepted on to the UK’s only full-time photography course at the time, run by Ifor Thomas at the Guildford School of Art in Surrey. She began her professional career as a wedding photographer, but after showing her portfolio to the Observer’s editor, David Astor, she was commissioned by the newspaper to shoot the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Bown would go on to work for the paper for the next 6 decades.

During her time at the Observer she shot numerous celebrities and personalities including Orson Welles, Samuel Beckett, Sir John Betjeman, Woody Allen, Cilla Black, Quentin Crisp, P. J. Harvey, John Lennon, Truman Capote, John Peel, the gangster Charlie Richardson, Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, Jarvis Cocker, Björk, Jayne Mansfield, Diana Dors, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Evelyn Waugh, Brassai, Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II.

She was know for her rapid and fuss-free approach to work, and was often know to complete a shoot in minutes. Many of her pictures were snatched on location during the 10 or 15 minutes she was allowed while a reporter was interviewing someone for the newspaper. Her much-admired picture of Samuel Beckett, showing his face as a cracked desert of lines protruding from a white polo-neck, was captured at the stage door at the Royal Court after he had declined to see her. A very determined character beneath a gentle, nervous manner, she obtained a memorable portrait of Richard Nixon by crawling through the legs of the crowd outside his hotel and shouting to him to look at her.

Jane was very reluctant to explain how she worked – her favourite mantra was “photographers should neither be seen nor heard”. Andrew Billen, who worked with her for many years in the 1990s, said that she did no preparation whatsoever for a shoot and more often than not would have no knowledge of her subject.

She preferred relatively simple equipment. At first she used a Rolleiflex, moving on to a Pentax and finally to her beloved Olympus camera (an Olympus OM-1 35mm film camera) with an 85mm lens, always at a camera speed of 1/60th of a second and with the aperture at f2.8. The combination of wide aperture on a close-up lens produced a very thin depth of field. She focused on the subject’s head, especially the eyes, and caught their faces in a way that isolated them sharply against a hazy background. Wherever possible she would shoot handheld using natural light.

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 her true motivation probably 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.”

Lord Snowdon compared her work to that of Cartier-Bresson stating she produced "photography at its best. She doesn't rely on tricks or gimmicks, just simple, honest recording, but with a shrewd and intellectual eye.”

Although she was clearly one of the great photographers of the age, she only became widely known to the general public after the Guardian group bought the Observer in 1993 and put her archive of pictures online and produced a documentary film about her. She had two exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery and received an honorary doctorate from Southampton University.

In 2007 her work from Greenham Common was selected as part of How We Are: Photographing Britain, the first major survey of photography to be held at Tate Britain. In 1985 she was awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), followed in 1995 by Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In 2000 Bown received an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society.

She published 11 collections of her pictures: The Gentle Eye (1980), Women of Consequence (1986), Men of Consequence (1987), The Singular Cat (1988), Pillars of the Church (1991), Observer (1996), Faces: The Creative Process Behind Great Portraits (2000), Rock 1963-2003 (2003), Unknown Bown 1947-1967 (2007) and Exposures (2009). A book of Jane’s early, pre-portrait work, The Unknown Bown (2007): reveals a technical virtuosity and an innate understanding of the principles of good composition. Many of her best pictures involved a single exposure and she once remarked: “I was always a one-shot photographer … where I’m good is that I am very quick.”

Jane Bown died in 2014 aged 89.

Many of her images can be found online in Guardian Newspaper group archive and in the National Portrait Gallery database.