When the Guardian bought the Observer in 1993, the Sunday paper left its striped pomo hatbox on Queenstown Road, Battersea, for one floor in the daily’s pebble-dashed eggbox on in Clerkenwell. I met Jane Bown lingering in the Observer’s empty new office on the Farringdon Road. We exchanged a few words of commiseration. Embarrassing as such second-rate buildings were to the architecture correspondent (me), they were evident misery for the photographer, now relieved of her darkroom and an entire back catalogue of negatives.
My byline photo in the paper showed a grim turkey with currant eyes: I’d been photographed, unwillingly, after a sleepless overnight train journey. Without another word, Jane steered me a few feet to the window, raised her camera and shot a reel of film. A few days later, contact sheet and negatives arrived. Soon after that, a new arts editor turned up and I was replaced. I never used the photographs; they were the best ever.
In Looking for Light: Jane Bown, Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte’s spare, beautifully paced and tender new film, Bown, who appears pure Home Counties stock in accent and demeanour, is revealed as anything but. The circumstances of her illegitimacy and broken childhood (‘I was like a brown paper parcel, with the string unravelling’) and her career at the paper (‘The Observer is my home,’ she says, again and again) beginning in 1949, point to an immense rigour (‘Tenacity Jane’) and deep loyalty.
Andrew Billen, one of the journalists she worked with, describes how she would begin by circumnavigating the subject of the interview, discreetly and silently. Then, with ten minutes and some natural light, she was done. In November and December she reluctantly fished an Anglepoise lamp out of her wicker basket.
Behind the camera, she had the energy and originality of the autodidact. Her early images fastened on the minutiae of texture – stone, fur, feather – or the patterning of form, backs of heads or a crouched child’s vertebra. But it was a single cow’s eye that got her to Fleet Street, or rather St Andrew’s Hill.
The picture editor who hired her, Mechthild Nawiasky, could see that she was a born portraitist. Bown’s first assignment was Bertrand Russell, her first foreign job Jean Cocteau, who wrote to thank her. Ringo Starr begged her to extend her Beatles shoot, finding her such a comfortable person to be around, and to relieve their boredom.
She never took to colour (let alone digital cameras). But as Sean O’Hagan says in the film, Bown can extract innumerable greys, whites and blacks from her ‘monochrome’. She also composes, effortlessly, and it is with choreography of limbs that she defines her subjects, often with their hands. From Desmond Tutu (his fingers folded, the skin striated like rock) to Ninette de Valois (caught at a distance, her finger pointing), from the grubby mitts of a ‘gypsy child’ to Björk, almond eyes shielded by splayed fingers, it’s the hands that strike you first. I had another look at the photographs she took of me twenty years ago, to see what my hands were like: not there, it turns out. But I found the note she’d sent with the pictures: ‘I hope you can find one. I don’t think I have done you justice at all! Warmest wishes Jane.’ It says it all really. I had never met her before.