Looking for Light: Jane Bown (UK 2014)

A self-portait of Jane Bown from the 1970s (when she started using the Olympus-M1 camera)

(All the images in this post are by Jane Bown and ©Jane Bown Estate or the Guardian/Observer)

Currently streaming on MUBI, this is a documentary about the legendary photographer who spent most of her working life at the Observer Sunday newspaper. MUBI has ‘programmed’ it in a strand entitled ‘Portrait of an Artist’. This places Jane Bown in the company of some much more flamboyant artists such as David Lynch, whereas she was seemingly a shy and mysterious figure, though also dogged in her quest for the best portrait she could produce of celebrities profiled in the Observer. The documentary-makers Michael Whyte and Luke Dodd present Looking for Light in a simple format of interviews conducted at points towards the end of Bown’s life (she died aged 89 in December 2014) and witness statements by ex-colleagues and public figures who have been photographed by Bown. Interspersed and against a black background, Bown’s photographs are presented ‘full screen’ (mostly portrait-shaped in a standard 1.85:1 frame). Bown nearly always worked in black and white, using only available light to produce very strong images. The images are presented without sound and must have looked even more impressive on a cinema screen.

One of Jane Bown’s best-known images. This portrait of Samuel Beckett was one of just three shots Bown was able to capture as he exited the stage door of the Royal Court in 1976.

Jane Bown had a ‘difficult’ childhood. She never knew her father who died when she was five. Her mother was a private nurse and Jane was brought up by various aunts – or ‘aunts’, one of whom was her mother. This family background is explored by Jane and her son Hugo in the documentary. However, her family life during her career at the Observer is kept mostly under wraps. She had a long marriage to the influential retail fashion executive Martin Moss and at home she was known as ‘Mrs Moss’. At the Observer she was always ‘Jane Bown’. Her childhood is discussed partly because it might explain aspects of her unique work practices. For instance, as a teenager she would often attach herself to other families or groups, enjoying being in the background. When she attended the only Photography course available after she was demobbed from the WRNS in 1946 her shyness might have resulted in failure to succeed but she did produce a few outstanding photographs which eventually led to her first work for the Observer in 1949 – the daunting task of producing a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, then one of the best known figures in the UK.

The interviews tend to focus on Bown’s shyness and her very distinctive approach to her work. She became part of the ‘family’ culture under the editor David Astor (whose family formerly owned the paper but placed it in the hands of Trustees). This connection does perhaps suggest a kind of ‘cosy’ upper middle-class conservatism and Jane Bown  was at least economically and socially ‘comfortable’. But she also developed her photographic practice and honed it to perfection. It involved little preparation about the subject, but attention to detail with her search for available light and the opportunity to ‘catch’ her subject in a natural pose. She generally took a roll or two of 35mm film images in less than half an hour and often just 10 to 20 minutes. I don’t want to discuss the practice in detail here but there are various web sources that do this and these are recommended: Luke Dodd wrote an obituary, you can see many of the photos on the Guardian gallery and this entry on PhotogpediA is very useful, with further links. (See also this entry on Anatomy Films.)

A member of station staff at Earl’s Court station on the District Line, c.1960

Doing further research on webpages like the above, I discovered that Bown’s early photography that did not become well-known until an exhibition and an accompanying book entitled Unknown Bown 1947-67 appeared in 2007. Some of the images from the exhibition appear in the 2014 film. When she started on her photographic career, Bown was not interested in famous people as subjects, instead she was pre-occupied by ‘space and texture’. This resulted in images that sometimes show unnamed people in slightly odd situations, some at work. The best seem to me to be almost Bert Hardy-like and to be valuable documentary images of British society. I would like to have known a little more about this time of Bown’s life as some of these images are terrific.

Mill hands in Rochdale going to a byelection hustings in 1958

I read the Observer during the 1970s and 1980s so many of the portraits seem familiar and certainly the style. I knew the name Jane Bown and I think I appreciated the work at the time. Now many of the photographs seem very rich in meaning. Germaine Greer, who introduced the Unknown Bown in 2007, linked Bown to the approach of Cartier-Bresson in finding the ‘decisive moment’ when she went off on her travels to find interesting subjects – often children. Bown at that time worked with a Rolleiflex, the camera of choice for art photographs.

Björk in 1995

Watching the 2014 film now with its stretch back over 70 years of creating images, I wonder if the world of photography and image-making has changed fundamentally again in the last eight years? What would a young woman interested in becoming a photographer in 2022 make of Jane Bown’s career and her portfolio? Apart from the technological changes in photography, it must be difficult to appreciate the changes in the concept of ‘celebrity’ and the circulation of images produced by citizen journalism. The other issue is the extent to which Jane Bown was ‘unrecognised’ during her career, because she was a woman? I’m not sure about this. I suppose the highest profile figure as a female photographer for me in the 1970s/80s was Annie Leibovitz as chief photographer on Rolling Stone magazine. Later on in the 1990s I remember working on aspects of an exhibition by Nancy Honey in Bradford. I think that there were successful women in photography but they were ‘exceptional’ and not necessarily particularly ‘sisterly’ towards other women. There is a sequence in the film where Bown refers to Diane Arbus as a photographer she didn’t like and Martha Gelhorn, the famous war correspondent as a woman who didn’t like the portrait that Bown produced. But she photographed many famous women and produced stunning images. One of the best ‘statements’ in the film comes from Edna O’Brien who was certainly very responsive as a sitter and understood was Bown was doing.

I liked this film very much and went back to re-watch several sequences. I appreciate the measured pace and the moments of silence. I’m not sure what younger audiences make of the film. The celebrities are all named briefly by a subtitle, but even I struggled on a couple of them I didn’t recognise. My only criticism really is that I wasn’t always sure who was interviewing Jane Bown, but that’s a minor point. If you are interested in photography or artistic practice or if you enjoy finding out about women’s lives over a long career you might enjoy this film very much.

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