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
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.
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