Jane Bown worked for “The Observer” newspaper in England for 60 years, and currently an Exhibition of her life’s work is being shown in London. 100 of her pictures of the Great and the Good, and perhaps some of the Not so Good since 1949 are on display.
She is a very self effacing photographer and it is quite likely you will never have heard of her. That’s one reason why she takes such excellent pictures. With people like Annie Liebovich, it's hard to avoid the thought that the image is more about the person behind the camera, than the one in front of the lens. This lady is very different.
Portrait photography is not easy at all. First, even if you know the person well, you have to get that person to sit for you - we do know who we're talking to here, don’t we, by the way? Actually, before that, you have to have an idea of what that person is like, so you know what it is about the person in the portrait, you’re trying to bring out.
Getting people to relax, and “be themselves” sounds all to simple. It isn’t. A few people can do it, most can’t. Even when you know the person well, picking up and pointing a camera at someone brings up the shutters (no pun intended), and the “interview” face comes on, with the person you really want to photograph disappearing.
Photographing celebrities is different. They are used to being photographed, many even welcome it, so that bit is not the problem. The problem is photographing the real person, not the image that the person wants to be seen by the camera. The reality is that we have no idea what someone like Richard Nixon or Marilyn Monroe was actually like. We rely on their own writings, the writings of others, pictures, conversations and snippets from their friends and enemies and those who just “knew them” to flesh out the view of that person in our minds. Always, the distortions which these Third Parties, intentionally or unintentionally, overlay on the reality give us a picture which can only be an interpretation. It takes a special person to begin to slide behind the mask.
This applies to all portrait photography. Everyone, especially the person with their hand on the shutter button, has an angle, a view and an opinion - it's inescapable. The degree to which you’re looking at the real person, or the photographer’s spin on the individual in front of the lens is impossible to deduce. In the end, I believe in the end it’s a simple matter of belief, if you don't actually know the person in the image - if you think it’s the person, then it is.
Jane Bown’s style was to work very quickly, capture the immediate essence of the person in front of the lens, and disappear. There’s a very revealing short video of a Channel 4 interview - http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1184614595?bctid=45769473001 - with her a few days ago, explaining how she took her pictures. Certainly, early in her life, she often had little idea who the people the “Observer” sent her to photograph actually were. Even later on, in the Nineties it was “Who’s Jarvis Cocker?”, which may not have pleased him too much, but at least it meant the guy got treated as much like a normal person as possible. Perhaps that’s why there’s an overwhelming sense of naturalness about her pictures which is so refreshing.
A few words from the interview tell us a lot, when the interviewer asks her about her approach to the subject -
Bown - "Light .... Get you in a good light, so that I can see your eyes ... Pause ... Look into them ... long pause .... And that's it really."
Here’s another link - The Complete Jane Bown, A Lifetime in Photographs – just click on the Gallery tab - which takes you to a slideshow of the 100 images in her Exhibition. I think it’s a remarkable achievement, and shows her to be at the very top of the pile of Portrait photographers in the last 50 years.
A few of these are shown below.
MY NAME'S HARRY PALMER - MICHAEL CAINE
She is in a wheelchair and has stopped taking pictures now, but when I look at her body of work, she made a unique record of her times, of the Good and the Bad, the Beautiful and the Not so Beautiful – in immediate and fresh Black and White images which will stay in the mind for a very long time.
What a legacy.