(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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
This is an exhibition at the National Media Museum. If you are visiting for a film – and the attractions this coming week include Timbuktu, excellent: The Connection, entertaining: and The New Girlfriend, great fun – make time for this set of photographs mounted on the wall at the far end of the ground-floor foyer.
The images come from 35 mm, digital, photoshop and dark room techniques. There are about 25 and I liked all of them. Some have interesting subjects, some look at subjects in an interesting way. Some are like documentary, some are experimental. There are a couple of overlapping images that are very poetic and one or two of the experiments are dazzling. Depending on your choice of film this might make a nice aperitif or otherwise a post-prandial snack.
Watching this film was an unusual experience. At times it felt like a character-driven drama and at other times a high quality genre film. It wasn’t until later that I realised that I’d seen the previous film by director Eric Lartigau, an interesting twist on the romcom Prête-moi ta main (France 2006) titled I Do in English. I enjoyed that film and I think I enjoyed The Big Picture – certainly I was engrossed by it and was surprised when the ending came.
It is difficult to outline the plot without spoilers, but I’ll try. The English title isn’t immediately helpful. The French title translates as something like the ‘The Man Who Wanted to Live His Own Life’ and this is more useful. Paul Exbon (Romain Duris) is a highly successful lawyer running a top practice in Paris with his older partner Anne (Catherine Deneuve). He has wealth, an attractive wife and two small children who he adores – but all is not well at home or in his head. Then a series of events overturns his comfortable world. The only way out seems to be to flee France for the Adriatic and to adopt a new identity. The ‘instigator’ of all this trouble is a man Paul detests, an unsuccessful professional photographer who taunts Paul because the lawyer only takes photographs as a hobby – he doesn’t have the guts to go out and try it as a living even though he has the talent to do so. So when Paul flees he attempts to become a ‘real’ photographer. But his talent shines through and when journals and galleries start to take an interest he knows his identity will be uncovered – thus the English title, I guess. (The photographs used in the film were taken by various Magnum photographers I think.)
The main factor that attracted me to the film was the presence of Romain Duris in the lead and as usual he gives a great performance, more than justifying his billing. I don’t really understand how he does it. This time he is in curly hair, stubble and generally dishevelled chic mode – but still with the Cuban heels. Why is that chipmunk-like face with its cheesy grin so manipulative? I don’t know, but Duris is a natural talent and you can’t really keep your eyes off him.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Douglas Kennedy. He appears to be an American writer domiciled mainly in Europe where his reputation is high in France. His 2007 The Woman in the Fifth has also been adapted as a thriller, this time by Pawel Pawlikowski with Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ethan Hawke and scheduled for its première at Venice in September. I think that we are going to hear a lot more about him. (His earlier novel The Dead Heart was adapted as Welcome to Whoop Whoop, a British-Australian comedy which suffered from the injury to its director Stephan Elliott in 1997.) Kennedy has also written travel literature, something of an advantage for writers of ‘international thrillers’. The Big Picture (which was the original title of the novel) introduces the coastline of Montenegro and in particular the heritage city of Kotor and the ship repair yards at Bijela. I found these fascinating and they give this film a different feel.
I think what marks this film out as something more than another generic ‘international thriller’ is a tight script, effective cinematography and editing and the performance of Romain Duris. It’s a thriller in the sense that an unsettling tone runs throughout and I was genuinely concerned about what the central character was going to do. I didn’t read too much about it beforehand and the two moments of violence are both handled well – I found them unsettling and shocking. Critics are referring to it as an ‘existential thriller’ and this is where the confusion arises. In this interesting review, the British trailer for the film is accused of making it look like an art film. Overall The Big Picture is definitely worth exploring for an evening’s entertainment and the kind of well-made film that boosts the reputation of the French industry. In France it opened at No 2 in the chart grossing over $3 million but failing to dislodge the blockbuster Little White Lies – that’s a shame because it’s a far better film than Guillaume Canet’s ‘comedy’. If I have one complaint about The Big Picture it’s that Catherine Deneuve is on screen for only a few short scenes and Neils Arestrup similarly has only a brief time to impress. The other factor that’s getting some interest is the score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine. I wasn’t sure that his worked in the early part of the film, but by the end I was on side. A final piece of trivia – the director looks a little like Duris as he’s presented in the film and he’s married to Marina Foïs who plays Sarah Exben, Paul’s wife.
Following two earlier photography documentaries, BIFF offered a chance to explore photographic practice directly through a Q&A with the Swedish photographer JH Engström. For several weeks the National Media Museum had been showing an exhibition of photographs by Engström and his ‘mentor’ and later colleague and close friend Anders Petersen. The exhibition closed a few days after this Q&A, but there is a book of photographs available for ‘From Back Home’ – a substantial project concerned with presenting images of the people and places of Värmland in West Central Sweden. In conjunction with the exhibition, I’ve been offering an evening class on aspects of Swedish Cinema entitled ‘Home and Memory’ so I was very interested to hear from Engström in person.
The event as advertised included both photographers and a screening of a short film about the pair’s work. However, Anders Petersen was ill and unable to travel and so Engström showed his own film about Anders, A Film With and About Anders Petersen (Sweden 2006). He also showed a ‘rough cut’ of a slide presentation of photographs from his new project focusing on his own recent family life – an intimate portrait culminating in the birth of his child. I found the slide sequence to be filmic and very striking. The documentary on Petersen was also very engaging and took us into Petersen’s world of close contact with his subjects which enables his distinctive high contrast black and white portraits. I understand that Engström has trained as a documentary filmmaker and there was clear evidence of this in the way he presented his friend (who reminded me in some ways of the Swedish writer Henning Mankell).
JH Engström proved to be an entertaining speaker with lots to say, often very forcefully. Since I don’t know that much about international photography culture I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but Engström is clearly a major figure and the small cinema was packed. We learned that Engström’s whole outlook has been influenced by his background. He lived in Paris as a boy and returned there as a young adult to be an assistant to photographer Mario Testino. Then he returned to Sweden to gain a photography qualification. This is when he first worked with Petersen. But eventually he found Stockholm to be too ‘organised’ and restrictive and for a time he lived and worked in New York where he produced work for a project called ‘Trying to Dance’ (2004). When he did return to Sweden it was to Värmland where he had been born and where he embarked on ‘From Back Home’ with Anders Petersen. Now based in Värmland he seems to travel widely to give workshops etc. (See his website for his background.)
The key word for Engström’s approach appears to be ‘intimacy’. There was discussion of what this might mean, but for me Engström demonstrates it very successfully in his work. He seems to have a loose and free approach – but of course he works very hard and very professionally to achieve his aims. He said that when he first worked for Marion Testino, he wasn’t interested in fashion but he was impressed by the professional approach that he saw. He works in both black and white and colour on different formats, but always analogue not digital. I gather from this that there is no rigid ‘technique’ to be applied. Rather, he goes with whatever feels right in capturing the feeling of intimacy. As he said – “photography is about everything except reality”. His first project was in fact concerned with ‘social documentary’ – creating images with members of a women’s shelter in Stockholm but his later work consciously moves towards less organised communities.
In relation to the discussion about ‘close’ and ‘intimate’ qualities in the work a perceptive comment from the audience suggested the idea of the photographer who oscillates between the ‘personal’ – being immersed in the environment and emotionally close to the human subject – and the observer who is ‘close’ but detached. I think I’ve got this right but certainly Engström himself thought that this was an interesting line of enquiry.
I was impressed by many of the ideas in this session. For instance, I was taken by aspects of Engström’s methodology. He said that in his projects, selecting and editing photographs for the book comes first and that this then informs what goes into the exhibition (and presumably how they are presented). The photographs themselves I found quite striking and in his new work I was interested in how willing he was to display both himself and his partner for the camera. He seems like a very confident and assured young man. When I first saw the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition, I was struck by how the characters in what were recognisably Swedish locales looked rather different from the stereotypes – or rather that they looked both distinctively Swedish and ‘not at all Swedish’ at the same time. This probably says more about my own lack of knowledge about Swedish culture. However, several of the students on our evening class on Swedish Cinema linked to the exhibition remarked on how at first the characters seemed unusual but that after we had watched films set in Värmland or adjacent counties they seemed very familiar.
Here’s a short YouTube clip taken during the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition’s stay in Angers (dialogue in French):
This was my third ‘photography documentary’ in a mini-fest I seem to have created through my film choices. I’m struggling to classify the film but perhaps it is an art photography doc also referencing avant-garde cinema. The Portuguese filmmakers Marco Martins and André Príncipe travelled to Japan to present the work of six Japanese photographers. They decided to present these photographers and their work in the form of a kind of travel diary shot using wind-up Russian 16mm cameras and very grainy Black and White stock. All shot hand-held and presumably using only available light, the resulting footage was, I assume, processed to emphasise effects created by harsh contrasts and smearing lights in nighttime scenes. Overall the effect reminded me of American avant-garde films of the 1950s/6os. Sometimes this worked very well, but at other times I found the bobbing heads irritating as the camera attempted to follow a particular photographer through their chosen milieu.
I missed part of the opening credits (and the introduction) so perhaps I didn’t pick up all the information I needed to make sense of the film. The photographers featured are, I think, mostly well-known in the photography world. Here’s the list: Moriyama Daido, Hiromix, Nobuyashi Araki, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Soyien Kajii, Nakahiri Takuma. But apart from a single discrete title naming each photographer when they first appear, the only chance to learn about their methods is through what they tell us – which some do in detail, but others don’t.
Many of the photographers have developed a career through photobooks or ‘diaries’ so this perhaps explains the film’s title. Out of the six, two seems to focus on the streetlife of Shinjuku in Tokyo. A third delves into Tokyo parks after dark to expose couples and their accompanying voyeurs via infra-red photography. ‘Hiromix’ stands out as the only woman and her self-portraiture acts as a contrast to the exploitation (and celebration?) of aspects of the sex industry in some of the other work. Also distinctive is the work of Soyien Kajii whose images of temples in his trips to Sado Island represent a different Japan to that of the ‘extremes’ of Tokyo.
I think that I would have appreciated the film more if I’d researched the photographers beforehand and I would watch it again given a chance.
This documentary showed as the second half of a double bill with Disfarmer: A Portrait of America. You can see the logic of putting the two films together (both dealing with American photography from the 1950s) but I felt sorry for the French director Philippe Séclier who was present at the screening and briefly answered questions afterwards. It wasn’t that his film was ‘bad’, only that it rather suffered in comparison.
‘An American Journey’ refers to the period which the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank spent on a Guggenheim foundation sponsored tour of the US in 1955. At the end of the tour Frank was obliged to publish something and he put together a collection of 83 images in the form of a book titled The Americans – first published in France in 1958 and then in the US in 1959 – by which time Frank had met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The latter wrote some text for the book and helped popularise work which initially was not well received. French journalist Séclier (who in his introduction denied being a filmmaker as such) decided to visit some of the locations of the original photographs which he did over several years, interviewing some of the subjects and other photographers influenced by Frank as well as visiting archives and printers. During this period the original book was being re-printed in Germany and a major Frank exhibition was mounted in China.
Presumably Séclier didn’t have the budget to make the kind of documentary produced by Martin Lavut on Mike Disfarmer. It looks as if the footage of travels through America were sometimes shot on his phone, so indistinct are the low-res images. The interviews are more carefully shot, but the photographs themselves don’t get the same ‘big screen’ treatment as those in Disfarmer. According to the official website, the film was shot on ‘DVCAM’ and Séclier suggests that he tried to emulate Frank in using “only available light and no tripod”.
Overall, I did find the material in the documentary interesting, especially having seen Howl recently (in which Ginsberg’s photographs of the period appear). But while I enjoyed the content, I found the style of presentation was not as engaging as it might have been.