« | Home | »

Ten Minutes with Jane Bown



Ninette de Valois by Jane Bown, 1956.

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.

10.32 Cocteau

Jean Cocteau by Jane Bown, 1950.

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.


Gillian Darley by Jane Bown, 1993.

Comments on “Ten Minutes with Jane Bown”

  1. flannob says:

    Photo-portraiture and picture editing are darkish arts, once you have something graphic that pops out of a page. There’s not a lot of useful language for the nuances of expression that might be found in a single contact sheet, or to divine which moment might be more “decisive”, which rictus more “revealing”.

    The licorice allsort pomo building is being teased to shreds only a bridge or two away from the fine Ruin Lust exhibition, sadly in its last days.

    Mechtild Nawiasky taught at the Royal College of Art in the mid-Seventies, neither photo-wrangling nor painting but “Psycho-Biology”.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement