Jane Bown: A Lifetime of Looking
By Luke Dodd
(£30, Guardian Faber) Review by Belinda Morris
Jane Bown was a photographer for The Observer from 1949 to 2009, working almost exclusively in black and white and with natural light. Her subjects were anyone and everyone; anything and everything. She got to grips with the very prickly, camera-phobic Samuel Beckett and was unphased by the steely Margaret Thatcher. One day she might be at Greenham Common or the Iranian embassysiege, the next at a cat show. It was said that in 60 years of working she never came back with out the shot – not for nothing was she nicknamed ‘Tenacity Jane’!
The book charts Bown’s work from the 1950s when she was a shy photography student. It was a trait that saw her shooting lots of backs and bottoms, or people so engrossed in something that they don’t notice her. Shyness never really left her in fact and her quiet, unassuming nature was arguably an advantage when it came to going unnoticed in crowds or disarming tricky subjects.
Taking a decade at a time, the 200 odd images tell the story of her working methods and equipment – moving from a formal Rolliflex to a more immediate Pentax in the 1960s for instance. It is a reflection of the times, and The Observer’s particular preferences, as well as Bown’s own progression as a photographer. But whether she was taking pictures of royalty, writers, artists, striking miners, sex workers, gypsies or random members of the public doing nothing more than snoozing in a park, each subject is treated with the same sensitivity, perception, feel for detail and empathy. There are iconic images here (a laughing Mick Jagger for instance) and well as previously unseen street photography – all startlingly beautiful.