Thursday, October 22, 2009

In praise of Jane Bown

I've been looking at the Guardian's splendid gallery of the work of photographer Jane Bown from the 1940s to the present day. It features a cavalcade of statesman, artists, pop stars, actors, poets and sportsmen that's unlikely to be matched by any collection in the future. It recalls a time when you could photograph celebrities in the wild, as they were being interviewed, rehearsing or killing time, when their hirelings didn't demand photo approval or that the pictures be taken by a close personal friends or someone unfeasibly expensive. Ironically, most of the pictures that project their charisma come from this period rather than from the era of total control.

Her astounding picture of Samuel Beckett (above) was one of five snapped in the alley outside the Royal Court, the Beatles appear unaware of her as they pass the afternoon in a dressing room in East Ham while Richard Harris sits in his hotel suite with his robe perilously loosely-arranged. It's interesting to see these arranged chronologically. In the mid-90s you can see the arrival of a generation who are more bothered about how they look than how they come over. From Morrissey onwards all her subjects seem to see her coming and compose their features in readiness. She reflects in the commentary about how easy she found Bjork. "Possibly too easy," she says.


  1. What a joy that portfolio is. Jane Bown is the ultimate quiet genius. Sometimes people don't know they have what they have.

    Once I had scrambled eggs that were so good that I demanded that the waiter take me to the kitchen so I could ask the chef how he did it. Generously, a little confused, and slightly proud, he showed me: I take this pan, melt some butter, beat the eggs like this, and cook them till they're ready, he said. Another time I interviewed Jane Bown, and asked her how she does what she does, creating portraits that in my humble are amongst the greatest ever taken. I use this old camera with a 50mm lens, and usually no artificial light, and I take the picture of the person, she said. Why, what did you think I did?

  2. Thanks for the link - I would have easily missed out.

    I have often wondered whether there are certain faces that exude a quality called "character" and whether, when the subjects are already in the public eye, the pictures simply capture something we are expecting to see.

    Not familiar with Jane Bown's work, I browsed the images wondering if her pictures of unknowns would be so compelling.

    I suspect that they would, in part from recollecting a painting featured in a recent BBC4 documentary on Scottish artists. "Old Willie - the Village Worthy" by Sir James Guthrie, one of the "Glasgow Boys", is a remarkable painting. Almost monochrome, almost photorealistic with "character" in abundance. Like Jane Bown's portrait of Beckett, I found it a stunning revelation.


  3. Anonymous10:51 am

    Jane Bown is great but the Observer doesn't half milk her. She seems to have retrospectives in the paper/magazine every couple of months. I guess they own the copyright so it is a cheap way of filling space and also they think that printing them on glossy paper they are offering something the net can't offer. But every time I see one I feared she has died.

  4. What a wonderful gallery of portraits. You can definitely see the change around the 1980s to the self conscious posers. What was it about the pre-1980 that made the subjects seemingly oblivious to the camera?

  5. Andy - good point about the Guthrie painting. I'm familiar with it but hadn't made the connection with the Beckett photo. Very perceptive.

    Gives me a strong yearning to view it in person at the rather wonderful Kelvingrove...