Jane Bown The Ob­server

Over 60 years, Bown pro­duced a heady blend of por­trai­ture and re­portage. Proud Cen­tral in London dis­plays a fit­ting trib­ute, says Oliver Atwell

Amateur Photographer - - 7days - ‘Jane Bown: The Ob­server’ runs at Proud Cen­tral un­til 12 Au­gust 2018. En­try is free. For more de­tails, visit www. proudon­line. co.uk/ ex­hi­bi­tions

Since the term was first coined back in the 1950s by Henri Cartier-Bres­son, the ‘de­ci­sive mo­ment’ has been ex­haus­tively stud­ied and ex­plored by nu­mer­ous pho­tog­ra­phers and writ­ers. But there are few pho­tog­ra­phers who can be said to have an al­most in­her­ent un­der­stand­ing of its ap­pli­ca­tion to the point that it ap­pears to be an al­most un­con­scious and nat­u­ral in­stinct. Some pho­tog­ra­phers are sim­ply tran­scen­dently adept at the art.

Jane Bown (1925-2014) was an in­tu­itive and nat­u­rally gifted photographer. Her un­der­stated ap­proach to im­age­mak­ing was de­cid­edly un­tech­ni­cal, gaug­ing a scene’s il­lu­mi­na­tion as she did by sim­ply ob­serv­ing how the day’s light fell upon her out­stretched fist. She also un­der­stood how she could use her own shy and unas­sum­ing pres­ence to act as a dis­arm­ing dif­fuser to what could oth­er­wise be tense sit­u­a­tions, both in her doc­u­men­tary work and peer­less por­trai­ture. It’s prob­a­bly a mas­sive gen­er­al­i­sa­tion to say that her images and method were in­her­ently fem­i­nine in qual­ity, but it’s un­de­ni­able that her ap­proach was far more con­cerned with a mind­ful­ness that could so eas­ily be ob­scured and lost be­neath fusty con­cerns of cam­era equip­ment and ag­gres­sive direc­tion. She knew what she wanted and es­sen­tially knew how to get out of her own way to get it. Of­ten, Bown al­lowed the scene and sub­ject to direct it­self, lead­ing to images that feel or­ganic, in­ti­mate and au­then­tic.

Take her 1976 en­counter with the cam­era-shy play­wright Sa­muel Beck­ett. Bown ap­proached Beck­ett in an al­ley­way at the back en­trance of London’s Royal Court The­atre. He had done his best to evade the hun­gry lens of Bown’s cam­era but, not to be de­terred, Bown ap­pre­hended him. Beck­ett said he would al­low her three frames only and then he would leave. Bown chanced five be­fore Beck­ett dis­missed him­self and went on his way. As a re­sult of Bown’s sub­tle de­ter­mi­na­tion and sim­plic­ity of method, one of those por­traits of Beck­ett (see right) is of­ten con­sid­ered the most fa­mous im­age of the reclu­sive writer.

Bown’s por­trai­ture work was oc­cur­ring at around the same time as the rise of celebrity cul­ture – a shift in the land­scape that would see the world sat­u­rated by im­age af­ter im­age of ac­tors, mu­si­cians and artists. But un­like the pa­parazzi jack­als who would stalk and ha­rass their prey, Bown’s ef­fi­ciency at por­trai­ture meant she would of­ten re­quire one cam­era, one lens, one roll of film and a pal­try 15 min­utes with her sub­ject.

Post-war Bri­tain

It’s easy to be a lit­tle daz­zled by Bown’s por­trai­ture work and ne­glect the other as­pect of her out­put – in other words, her strik­ing re­portage work. Grat­i­fy­ingly, how­ever, it’s am­ply rep­re­sented in a new show at Proud Cen­tral in London. Her doc­u­ments of post-war Bri­tain cap­tured on as­sign­ment for The Ob­server over six fruit­ful decades are eas­ily as cap­ti­vat­ing as her images of celebrities and cul­tural fig­ures. Bown’s port­fo­lio is as­ton­ish­ingly ex­ten­sive and con­tains im­agery con­cern­ing women’s de­mon­stra­tion’s, po­lit­i­cal strikes and mas­ter­fully cap­tured street pho­tog­ra­phy.

‘She would of­ten re­quire one cam­era, one lens, one roll of film and a pal­try 15 min­utes with her sub­ject’

One of the most strik­ing ex­am­ples on show fo­cuses on the Tor­rey Canyon dis­as­ter of 1967 (see far left). The event re­mains to this day the largest oil spill in the UK. Up to 117,000 tonnes of crude oil was leaked be­tween Land’s End in Corn­wall and the Isle of Scilly when the BP- char­tered ves­sel ran aground on a rock. Bown was sent by The Ob­server to doc­u­ment the clean-up process. While the im­age fits neatly into the genre of re­portage, you can see also that an artistry is present within the care­fully con­sid­ered fram­ing and for­mal­ist ap­proach to com­po­si­tion. It’s a beau­ti­ful and vis­ually ar­rest­ing im­age that uses its at­trac­tive qual­i­ties to com­mu­ni­cate its strong and con­fronta­tional mes­sage.

The ti­tle of this ex­hi­bi­tion, ‘ The Ob­server’, is a per­fect play on words. It speaks of her em­ployer for 60 years and, most im­por­tantly, ref­er­ences her lasting credo: ‘Pho­tog­ra­phers should nei­ther be seen nor heard’. Thank­fully, what we can see is a legacy of im­por­tance and in­flu­ence, one that should be a stir­ring les­son to any­one think­ing of en­ter­ing the field of re­portage and por­trai­ture.

The Tor­rey Canyon oil dis­as­ter of 1967 was one of many re­portage sto­ries Bown cov­ered in her life

Pen­sion­ers protest­ing out­side Mar­garet Thatcher’s home in 1980

Of­ten con­sid­ered to be the de­fin­i­tive por­trait of Sa­muel Beck­ett, this is one of just five frames

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