RIP Jane Bown

By Geoff Harris

Jane Bown, Revered Observer Photographer, Dies Age 89


Jane Bown at Guildford School of Art, c 1947

I was very sad to hear that Jane Bown, the Observer's legendary photographer, died shortly before Christmas.

Jane's association with the Observer newspaper began in 1949, with a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and she went on to deliver a series of superb, epoch-defining portraits and documentary work in a career that spanned 60 years.

Eamonn McCabe, another fine photographer and photo editor closely associated with the Observer, described Jane as a “reluctant star... hating the attention of being famous herself.”

Jane's images speak for themselves and many readers will have seen them already, even if they weren't familiar with Jane's name. Indeed, I didn't realise she took an iconic image of PJ Harvey that hung on my office wall for several years.

Fast worker

The Beatles relax backstage in East Ham, London, 1963
While few of us will get the privileged access that a top newspaper photographer enjoys, there is still a lot than we can learn from Jane's work. First, she wasn't obsessed with gear.

She only shot on 35mm film and preferred black and white, using small and discrete Olympus cameras and keeping extra lighting to the minimum.

Digital passed her by completely. Jane worked quickly and never missed an opportunity as she was fiddling with camera settings. Take her famous portrait of the playwright Samuel Beckett.

At first glance it may appear to be a carefully lit studio shot, but she actually took it as the notoriously shy writer was leaving a London theatre by the back door. It was the third of five frames, grabbed hurriedly before Beckett disappeared.

As Jane was totally on top of her technique and framing, she nailed the shot under great pressure.

Modest genius

Samuel Beckett, 1976
Jane never got in the way or become a celebrity in her own right, either. She believed a photographer should never be seen or heard, unlike some of her more flamboyant and self-publicising peers form the 1960s.

Her camera was kept in a wicker basket and she made herself as discrete and unobtrusive as possible – this can be seen in her wonderfully candid images of nervous looking Beatles fans, or Bob Hope waiting between takes.

As well as flawless camera technique, honed over many years of practice, and an ability to stay almost invisible, Jane was also brave.

She recalled how she was absolutely terrified during her first assignment with Bertrand Russell, and was probably pretty nervous when she photographed the Queen for her 80th birthday in 2006 (Jane was also 80 at the time).

So Jane's work is a good example of why it's important to 'feel the fear and do it anyway' when it comes to photography. It's OK to feel shy or nervous, but this shouldn't be used as an excuse not to try and get the shot.

Not about money

A back street in the town of Batley, Yorkshire, 1974
Finally, it was never about the money for Jane. Her portraits of 60s celebrities would now sell for a lot of money, but she handed her archive over to the Scott Trust, publishers of her beloved Observer and The Guardian.

Jane Bown was motivated purely by her love of photography, her curiosity and unwavering professionalism. Her work should be shown to all ignorant media owners who no longer think they need dedicated, in-house photographers.

American tourists in London, 1968

Bertrand Russell, 1949

Beatles fans in East Ham, London, 1963

Beryl Bainbridge, 1981

Björk, 1995

Bob Hope and Anita Ekberg at Pinewood studios, 1962

Church cleaner, Ashbrittle, Somerset, 1950s

Dame Edith Sitwell, 1959

Dame Vivienne Westwood, 1999

David Hockney, 1966

Earls Court London underground station, c 1960

Jean Cocteau (with Madeleine), Paris, 1950

Mia Farrow, 1977

Mick Jagger, 1977

Orson Welles 1951

PJ Harvey, 1995

Postman and postwoman having a picnic, 1966

Pupils from the Latymer School, London, 1963

Queen Elizabeth II, photographed in 2006 for her 80th birthday. It was Jane’s 80th birthday that same year

Richard O’Brien, 1984

Rita Tushingham, 1965

The Tiller Girls, Borehamwood, 1962

Sir John Betjeman, 1972

Jane Bown a self portrait c1986

Jane Bown 1925-2014

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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